Philadelphia Union II

2018’s “character players” on the Bethlehem Steel

Photos: Steel Communications

In each year of Bethlehem Steel F.C.’s existence there have been young men on the roster whose job has been threefold: to practice hard every day, to give way cheerfully and professionally to first teamers replacing them on some game days, and to aggressively seize their own game opportunities when such interventions do not occur. Head coach Brendan Burke calls them his “character players.”

This season

2018 has been a season of greater planned roster fluidity than the previous two for Bethlehem’s actual USL players.

  • For the second time in the club’s existence, a player has been transferred away in-season, Brandon Allen this past May 22nd. (Mickey Daly in mid-July of 2016 is the other.)
  • For the first time in three years, Brendan Burke hinted in preseason he would have changes coming to his roster later in the year.
    –     outside back Olivier Mbaizo (Cameroon) was signed in preseason only to be signed away by the Union.
    –     winger Michee Ngalina (Congo-Kinshasa) signed to the Steel on April 6, his 18th birthday.
    –     One more is coming sometime this summer; informed sources say he’s both an international and a striker.

Amid the fluidity, Burke’s character players can be identified and it is time to appreciate them.


Prosper Chiluya (712 game minutes) and A.J. Paterson (90 minutes) are the Steel bench players most prominently associated with defending. Each was thrown into game action much earlier than planned. Chiluya arrived already trained in his position, left back. Paterson is retooling to left center back.


Paterson, who played center mid at Wright State in southwest Ohio, was roughly treated by the club when he was started at left center back against Tampa Bay in the Rowdies’ home opener, the second game of the season. It was too soon.

But reports from the practice pitch indicate he is progressing well. Assistant coach Steve Hogan smiled cheerfully a couple of weeks ago at the idea of A. J. getting another chance in the back line, mentioning that he is a natural left-footer and that his long-range distribution accuracy had improved greatly since Tampa. He is blocked by Brandon Aubrey playing well ahead of him, and the lineup pickers from on high continuing to want to see Brandon Aubrey and Matt Mahoney, and now  Academy rising senior Ben Ofeimu.

Paterson remains a project, but one worth pursuing since Auston Trusty is the only other left-footed center back in the Keystone Sports organization’s entire professional stable. As a learner of a new position, Paterson is only asked to play somewhere else when small-sided practice exercises need his left foot.


Prosper Chiluya is rarely seen without a grin on his face.

He needs to improve the consistency, speed and accuracy of his defensive positioning decisions. His learning curve seems acceptable. His quickness and speed are superb. His attacking instincts from left back are excellent. Do not forget his game-winning goal from distance a few weeks ago in Indianapolis.

He is correctly behind Matt Real on the organization-wide depth chart, but he seems to have a bright future.


Drew Skundrich (375 minutes) is ahead of Mike Catalano (234 minutes), but by only a quarter of a step.

Skundrich v Charleston

Skundrich comes out of national champion Stanford, had previous exposure to Keystone’s teams in the Academy and at Reading, and was drafted by L.A.F.C. before coming to Bethlehem. Catalano is from Wisconsin out the Chicago Fire’s academy and was a Union draft pick.

Right now, Skundrich gets called first by Burke, but Catalano is next. Both are positionally versatile. Catalano has drilled at center back. Skundrich has been mentioned as an outside back possibility should need arise. But with the now-past injury to James Chambers and the on-going one to Omar Holness, both have been needed at their natural spots in the center of the midfield.


Coach consistently praises Skundrich’s soccer I.Q., his dirty running, and his positioning to cover more than one man at a time. He was on the pitch in North Carolina when the Steel pulled off that late comeback. His energy late in the game away to Cincinnati after going down a man was essential. But in both Steel coaches’ minds, Catalano seems right behind Skundrich and more than once has been the very next sub.


Returning attacker Chris Nanco (248 minutes) is the all-purpose offensive substitute, and rookie Aidan Apodaca (337 minutes) is the other “character player” in the attack.


Were coach Burke to recall Nanco when he first arrived at Steel training back in January of 2017, he would smile quietly. He who began without it has found understanding and well as the conditioning to use it. And, as all Steel fans saw on the pitch against Louisville, Chris Nanco is downright fast.

He forced Louisville City head coach James O’Connor to remove his starting left-side center back Paco Craig before the 60th minute in the recent match at Goodman stadium. Nanco had exposed Craig repeatedly for speed, and after he forced a yellow card foul, he was too great a threat to win the three points that O’Connor did not want to lose.

Apodaca v Nashville

Apodaca is learning the jump from NCAA’s division 2 to the fully professional USL. His athleticism is no longer ridiculously dominant, although his speed and strength remain elite. His tactical instincts are adjusting to a need for greater versatility. It is no longer sufficient always to break vertically for the space behind the defense.

The adjustments have been hampered by James Chambers’ earlier absence and will now improve, since Chambers has the vision and skill to spot potential “check backs” with long-range balls on the carpet. Strikers change patterns when they get service doing it. Apodaca is short, so aerial service to the number 9 will be ineffective.

The other point about Apodaca is that he has had two spells of hamstring trouble, something that has challenged other Steel rookies in other seasons. How he will compete with the rumored new arrival is for the future to know.

One Comment

  1. WeAreSteel2K18 says:

    If these guys started every week, Steel could be pushing for a home playoff game. At least the lineup has finally started to become more consistent over the last month and, as a result, Steel blew out RBII and drew with Louisville and Cincy.

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