Philadelphia Union II

A look at the Steel roster: depth or disappointment?

Photo: Earl Gardner

Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke is no stranger to a rotating lineup.

Philadelphia Union players moving up and down the ranks and playing for both clubs have been a constant of Burke’s tenure. In fact, Saturday’s match with the Charleston Battery was the sixty-sixth straight time that the Steel starting lineup was different. It’s a ridiculous stat, but it’s also the reality of being a direct MLS affiliate.

This season, though, more Union players seem to be at the forefront for Bethlehem. Cory Burke, who just scored his MLS debut in Montreal over the weekend, has started for the Steel three times. Derrick Jones, who made his MLS debut last season, has played in seven of eight matches on the year. Marcus Epps has played for both clubs already this season and Fabian Herbers was in the Union starting XI multiple times in 2018. Adam Najem has made six caps for Bethlehem and has been included in the long-winded Union No. 10 conversation, while Erik Ayuk has manned the wing on both levels.

The list goes on.

How should we evaluate these players?

What does players bouncing back and forth from Philadelphia to Bethlehem mean?

There are a couple ways to look at it. One is that the Union are loaded with talent and know how to produce it. Most USL clubs don’t have that many players with MLS experience, and it’s a total luxury for the Steel to have so much depth. That’s the optimistic route — the one most Union fans will want to hear.

The other is that all these players simply aren’t good enough. If all these players have made it to Chester, why haven’t they stayed? Maybe some aren’t ready or need to mature. MLS, after all, is a fully different animal than the USL. They’ll use that experience to grow and develop and eventually they’ll be a regular starter under Jim Curtin. Well, maybe. But maybe not.

The future of all this young talent can either look very bright or very bleak depending on how you look it at and a lot of that outlook has to do with how the Union are doing on the pitch.

Saturday’s win over Montreal was a nice one, but the reality is it was the club’s first road win in 364 days. The reality is the Union are really struggling again this season and have been for some time. Experienced European players have come and gone and homegrown talent has gone up and down and, ultimately, not much has changed.

It wouldn’t be at all fair to point the finger at the players and no one else, but a poor start to the season like this doesn’t make you wonder about a guy like Alejandro Bedoya — he is what he is and he’s not going to get better. Haris Medunjanin’s prime is past him.

It makes you wonder, instead, about the young prospects in Bethlehem.

Timetables and league tables

You hate to name names, but what if Najem doesn’t pan out? Will he ever get back to the Union in more than an experimental role? With David Accam, albeit a struggling David Accam, in the picture, where does Ayuk fit in? Cory Burke has proven he can play at a high level, but will that earn him a spot on the field next week? The organization wants him playing as many matches as possible, but at the end of the day if he’s good enough to play regularly in MLS he should play in MLS regularly. A lot of that is up to Curtin, which is a different question entirely.

Now, imagine for a second that the Union are having a great season — multiple wins in a row and at the top of the Eastern Conference. How do those players who can’t stick with the first team look now? Suddenly we aren’t questioning what their ceiling is, but praising the talent development. Oh, well Najem isn’t in Chester because there’s just no room for him! He’s a phenomenal talent and his time will come! Suddenly a guy like Cory Burke is a massive advantage most clubs don’t have.

If the Union are doing well, the youth talent must be progressing nicely. If the Union aren’t, maybe there’s something to worry about with the youth. It’s all about perspective.

And the MLS table isn’t the only place you can look — the Steel are struggling, too. At 13th in the USL table with a negative goal differential, you might wonder why MLS talent isn’t producing results. Charleston Battery doesn’t have an MLS squad above it, and Charlotte Independence may not ever have a player that sees an MLS pitch. It’s early in the season and it’s hard to build chemistry with so many moving parts, but at the end of day, I’ll take a squad with MLS-caliber players over a squad without them.

But that’s just the thing — appearing in an MLS game doesn’t mean you’re capable of it full-time. Just because the Union have debuted a bunch of Steel guys at the next level doesn’t mean the club is sitting on a pile of riches. Are those players really MLS-caliber?

It just means the coaching staff doesn’t know what it has right now. With a 17-year-old like Brenden Aaronson, that’s ok. He very well could end up being a star. With guys like Najem and Herbers, on the other hand, you just have to wonder about a timetable. Will they ever be good enough — and when will we find out for sure?

If the Union continue to lose, it may be sooner rather than later. Winning seems to erase certain questions and put many issues on hold. Maybe that includes youth development. Maybe if the Steel come into form and make the playoffs again, things change.

Right now? You have to wonder if the talent is good enough.


  1. “You hate to name names, but what if Najem doesn’t pan out?”

    Nothing. We have Fontana and Arononson (?) to take over.

    “where does Ayuk fit in?”

    Probably nowhere. And it doesn’t matter. We are fairly deep at winger now.



    Right now I look at it like there are two types of “Union players” on the Steel.

    Half the group are MLS players that probably will never be good enough to come back to the first team at a consistent level (Ayuk, Herbers, Najem).

    The other half are the true academy kids who are fast tracked blue chip prospects who are already playing well in the first team (Trusty, Jones, Mckenzie, with Fontana and Real in the wings).

    Looking at our academy players … and i say this nicely, who the hell cares about Herbers or Najem? We have promising Academy players coming out the nose.

    And apparantly our current U15 crop is even better.

  2. Steel are playing too many middle players with low ceilings. If Herbers isn’t ready to be on the Union’s bench yet then he should never be playing for Steel. It’s just a waste. I know that the Steel roster is always going to have lots of turnover, but they should really try and limit it because it’s not helpful in development to be bouncing players all over the place all the time. It’s just too extreme now. Pick the guys you believe in and roll with them. Forget the guys in the middle or loan them out.

    • “If Herbers isn’t ready to be on the Union’s bench yet then he should never be playing for Steel. It’s just a waste.”

      Well who is he blocking right now?

      Steel still need bodies. Your entire roster isn’t going to be blue chip prospects. We still have plenty of Academy kids getting minutes and I don’t know of any Academy wingers Herbers is blocking.

      • I’d have Epps, Moar, Ayuk, and Nanco above him. I guess he’s not really older than most of those guys so my statement was kinda harsh. That said, Steel should be a blend of academy players, players with potential that are under 22, and a couple of vets mixed in to keep it all together. I know it’s really still getting started so I hope it trends that way in a year or 2. I just feel that it’s not a great bet to be developing so many 23-25 year olds.

      • From my perspective Epps and Moar ARE above him. Epps is getting minutes for the first team and Moar is probably the best Steel player not on the first team, so he will probably become the next Burke soon.

        I was also under the impression Nanco was getting plenty of playing time and is highly regarded too.

        And at that point it’s between Ayuk and Herbers, which is honestly just picking between two low ceiling players.

    • I assume the Union want Burke to play Herbers–I think Burke is smart enough to know Herbers is no good and wouldn’t play him on his own volition. To an extent, I understand the sentiment–Herbers is more physically imposing and MLS ready than other Steel right-wingers. As much as I love Chris Nanco and Eric Ayuk, they’re too small and not quick enough to compensate. Unless Epps is down with the Steel or there’s an academy prodigy good enough, I understand (frustrated as I am) why he plays.

      On the other hand, perhaps you throw Ngalina on the right to see how it works. He’s impressed on the left; why not form the 18-year old into a dual threat winger?

  3. I’d like to see how other clubs with USL teams handle it. Is there as much up and down of their players? Are any of those teams in a similar boat as the Union?
    As far as BSFC goes, I couldn’t be less worried. Brendan Burke seems to do more with less. He’s about the only person in the Union organization I have confidence in.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    I deeply appreciate this article as it speaks to some of the underlying issues with American soccer.
    where to?
    There is nowhere. You either play in MLS or toil in total obscurity in “the greatest second division” in the world. Cosmos win NASL and instead of promoting…..the entire league folds.
    the idea Don Garber said this, or thinks this is beyond the pail.
    there is no failure in pursuing a footy dream to find it caps out in the second division of France, playing in front of 12,000 people on a team of veterans with mixed in youth—- a new coach with fresh ideas and the chance, just the chance to put it altogether for the right to promote. This alone makes the ordeal worth it.
    there is no failure in the 3rd division of english footy earning a pretty good living enough to raise a family let alone live with 3 teammates.
    these are a dream worth chasing.
    with respect to Steel, being stuck in the Lehigh Valley playing in front of 700 people in the swelter of summer, earning peanuts as a professional forever stuck in USL- is no future for the sport in this country or an individual with professional aspirations, in my humble opinion. Wether that changes over the years or not remains to be seen… I am totally circumspect. It is easy to observe YSC lately- quite literally as professional soccer players in their prime, fold up shop- quit playing in order to coach in the academy …because what’s the use. The kids are better for it I guess.
    betcha never guessed this is the direction the comment would go.

    • This is what I don’t get about pro-rel people.

      The auidence is simply NOT THERE.




      The reason why there is no pro-reg (and by relation there are “no dreams worth chasing”) isn’t because of the big bad MLS and Don “Hitler” Garber.


      Sorry for yelling, but it just boggles my mind. I love how pro-reg people just act like there are millions of Soccer fans in American just WAITING for their chance to watch a 3rd divison game between Reading and Ocean City.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        ….for the 100th time, to not consider the strong possibility the audience is ‘not there’ as you state exists in or because of a vacuum is potentially faulty logic.
        We simply have no idea whether the audience ‘is or is not there’… we only have Mexican friendlies, SA friendlies and continental european friendlies with 80,000 – 100,000 people, and multi billionaire american ownership groups owing the greatest clubs in the world (abroad) as evidence that both the population and financials are indeed in place… which then leads a critical thinker to seriously wonder if >>>>>>>> just MAYBE our policy is what is actually holding the game back in this country —– and has been for 150 years.
        Feel free to engage, just stop yelling at me.

      • Right now I can think of about a dozen friends of mine who watch soccer. These guys don’t just watch the PL. They are fans of teams like Roma and Atletico Madrid. Only one of them, a Newcastle fan, watches MLS. A big part of that obviously has to do with the quality, but part of it is that MLS is not genuine. It doesn’t hold their interest. And these aren’t pro/rel truthers. They’re just soccer fans who live in the US.

        Would pro/rel be a magic solution? No. But imagine if promotion were a possibility for second division clubs in the US? You don’t think that would generate some interest (and investment?) Relegation is also an intriguing sell. It’s drama that we don’t have right now. (In all honesty, I’d be more interested in the Union right now if there was a genuine threat they’d be relegated.)

        As Pachy points out, so many are quick to say the fan base just isn’t there, but then 100,000 people fill up a football stadium to watch a summer friendly between a couple PL teams. Just because they are not people who watch MLS doesn’t mean they won’t watch the sport in the US.

      • Yes, 80K-100K fans turn up to watch the very best players in the world play friendlies between the biggest and best pro clubs in the world. Shocker. Do/Will those same fans turn up on a rainy Saturday night to watch a USL game?
        As with everything in sports and life, it all comes down to money. For those wealthy enough to own teams in the top leagues, it’s certainly worth it. For those who own teams in the minor/lower leagues promotion would be a great incentive for more investment. Where does that investment come from after a team is relegated, or their promotion bid fails? Where are the parachute payments going to come from? Who’s going to fund them and for how long?
        Where is the base of teams that are currently capable of making the leap from Division 2 to MLS? Where are the teams to populate and build out a currently non-existent Division 3? Where is the money going to come from to help turn the abundance of amateur clubs to semi-pro/fully professional?
        When there are answers to these questions, then the USSF can have a serious discussion about installing promotion/relegation in this country.
        Also, we only need to look South of our Border to see all we need to about Pro/Rel. Liga MX will likely play next season with 17 teams, as the promoted team does not meet the requirements to play in Liga MX. A fairy tale ending indeed.
        Imagine if the Union were relegated? How much would anyone care about them? How much less would their owners invest in them? Somehow I doubt that a flood of investors wouyld be at the door in a promotion/relegation setting seeing as there weren’t all that many interested back in 2008 to begin with.

    • Minor league baseball doesn’t have problems drawing people, including in the Lehigh Valley. There is also no shame for players to top out at AAA there living the dream trying to get to the top. The difference isn’t that the minor league has no way of reaching the majors, it’s that people don’t watch soccer in this country. Yeah they go to games when the big names come in because it’s a novelty. Check the TV ratings for MLS compared to basically any other sport and it’s bad. That’s where the money and real interest is shown. We don’t care about MLS yet because we don’t care about soccer yet.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        apples and oranges…. discussing minor league baseball population against a population the entire world doats over…
        again, people discuss symptoms as matters of fact and make accusations that people do not watch soccer in this country—— yet they do- en mass, yet the majority of those people are watching leagues from other parts of the world- yet Liga MX has an enormous american based soccer viewership… these same sample sizes cannot then actually consider, contemplate and reflect that…….. just maybe its the policy of US soccer holding it back….
        that its purposely as exclusionary an activity as golf once was for the minority.
        feel free to just keep arguing no body cares and the evidence we see otherwise is anecdotal as opposed to empirical. Keep arguing that an open pyramid would never work in america because we have so much proof that it wouldn’t…
        One can only point to the moon…my finger is not the moon.

      • MLS ratings are actually on par with MLB ratings now for national broadcasts.

      • MLS is no where close on average to baseball ratings. The closest is NHL. Primer League games are about double MLS and still mostly below NHL. The NFL and MLB blow soccer out of the water. By revenue, NFL and MLB are significantly above the Premier League. The NBA (slightly above) and NHL (slightly below) are right there. MLS is down at #15.
        I’m not saying an open pyramid wouldn’t work. But we literally have no proof that it would. I’m just saying soccer is not nearly as popular as people keep saying. MLS and other professional soccer leagues are literally an afterthought to the vast majority in this country.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        careful the parameters you use determine those ratings that ‘blow’ soccer out of the water.
        once again, if you consider latino viewing trends, only NFL has more weekly viewers watching sport.
        As in ….eyes of Americans, which Latinos by and large are- they drive footy viewership, strangely though our metrics do not tend to include them.
        why is that… i wonder.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        BTW… St Etienne set to be bought by US investor group.

      • Just a one game example. Championship game. MLS 1.3 million. MLB 13 million. NFL 111 million. It’s not close. Yes everything is trending right for soccer but it’s worlds away right now.

  5. I’ve come more and more around to Pachy’s side on this. Over the years I think he’s worn me down. But I also believe he’s right. For example. Just imagine you have pro/rel. These small teams get local investment. They go out into their own communities searching for local soccer talent. Maybe some of them are smart and start to target Latin communities. You start by integrating the children. Parents get involved. You have just increased your fan base by three. Not including any siblings, Aunts/Uncles, cousins. Extrapolate this. Hundreds of thousands of times over. If you give people an avenue to fulfill their dreams, they will come. Pro/rel in and of it’s nature is inclusive. MLS by design is exclusive, and getting more and more so by the year.

    • Or you just have a completely free for all system that tons of teams go bankrupt and the ones with the richest owners control everything anyway? I honestly do want pro/rel because it is such a cool idea, I think it’s romanticized too much as a silver bullet though. At this point I’m still just happy to have a stable soccer league in America.

      • You have financial fair play rules to guard against teams spending beyond their means. Doesn’t mean teams can’t get themselves into trouble, but those rules make sure it’s not common place.

        I think Pro/Rel comes to a head in this country when (if?) MLS decides it’s time to stop expanding. There are a lot of USL teams right now that have future entry to MLS as part of their business plan. What will those owners and investors on the outside looking in do when the door closes?

      • Well yes you will have teams go bankrupt. Forgive me the, ah duh. There will be others that survive. We have a free economy, that’s the way it works. Teams/organizations that do it right, will succeed. Those that don’t, won’t. It’s not like it doesn’t happen across the world. How many South American teams are always fighting with their players because they don’t pay them? How is it any different than any other business endeavor? Restaurants fail everyday, but you don’t see people giving up on them. I used to live in Collegeville. It has two restaurants, one on each side of the Perkiomen river, and each one has flooded, multiple times. Every couple years, someone buys them, tries to make a go, they hang on for a few years, and both fail after awhile. Due to flood, or losing money. The One has been remodeled countless times, and is in the process of being done again. So who is stopping this folly? Shouldn’t it be stopped? Why should their dreams be crushed by common sense? It’s a free market.
        Is it cause or effect? Does having no ability to climb ranks cause low attendance for lower division clubs? Or are the low attendance numbers making pro/rel not possible? I’d say the odds are better that it’s the prior.

      • Yeah, but it’s still just going to be the richest teams controlling everything. I guess that fits America though, the illusion that the little guy has a chance.

      • Is that not the PL, La Liga, Bundesliga…should I go on? How much of an anomaly was Leicester? 5000 to 1 odds right? Impossible? Happened. It will all find it’s balance.
        There will be good. There will be bad. There will be mediocrity. As in all things. It’s just has to be accepted.

      • True. Leicester’s owner is worth almost 5 billion though.

      • Pete Mazzaccaro says:

        The richest teams already do control (almost) everything. In a league with a playoff system, spending the most money might not guarantee the title, but it certainly guarantees a better chance.

  6. A little late to the party here, but this article really gets to the crux of the Bethlehem Steel vis-a-vis Union affiliate situation. Right now I think the Steel are on the up and up and have brought some solidity to the starting XI. They have a constant back four, Derrick Jones (who I think is Union quality) alongside another competent, young CM, some combination of Ngalina, Moar, Najem, Herbers w/ Nanco off the bench forming the top of the midfield, and Burke/Apodaca/Allen (?) at striker (we’ll see how this pans out).

    The constant overhaul of the lineup certainly showed in the beginning of the season, but the team is starting to gel and you can see the chemistry forming before your eyes. The worry about the Steel in the standings should turn around.

    However, I particularly wonder about two things: 1) what do you do with guys like Herbers and Allen who are basically at their peak and seem out of the Union picture. 2) the USL-quality talent in Najem, Moar, Ayuk when they (presumably soon) reach theirs. It will be interesting to see how long the organization deems their shelf life..

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