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Raves: Matt Mahoney, the underdog come good

Feature photo courtesy of Bethlehem Steel

Editor’s note: This is part of a PSP series titled, “Raves,” in which PSP writers take a break from critical analysis and straight reporting to rave about a particular person from the Philadelphia soccer scene. For more about the series, read the introduction here. To read all posts in the Raves series, click here.

When you read “Matt Mahoney,” if you think defender, self-effacing, competent, and intelligent, you merely skim the surface.

There is no professional player like him in the Philadelphia region.

In 2017, I covered the charity doubleheader organized by Blaise Santangelo of West Chester United to support the ongoing efforts of Connecticut’s Newtown Pride FC to raise money for relief of the Sandy Hook school-shooting tragedy.

I interviewed four Steel players. Mahoney was fourth. The first three each came up with different, thoughtful takes on the game and had covered all the bases.

Matt chuckled, smiled, and said there was nothing to add to what had already been said. Since it was so clearly true, we all five laughed together. The young man dodged publicity while deftly paying his three teammates compliments.

Mahoney lets his work speak rather than his words. He perceptively and intelligently understands and accepts his role and his place. He does not jump up and down yelling, “Look at me!”

He’s from the old school.

It began with a long shot trial

A Bethlehem Steel FC preseason is a challenge to follow. Club practice gear is anonymous and temporary. Extramural scrimmages are played in pinnies over the anonymity.

The first tasks are to learn faces at distance and to recognize individuals from behind.

Mahoney started with the Steel in February 2017 as an unknown, undrafted trialist brought in for two weeks just like the others.

Keep in mind: Steel trialists exist primarily to provide practice bodies while parent club Philadelphia Union takes on more players than they will keep and the front office tries to sign players it values more highly.

Every two weeks, the process starts all over again with new faces.

But not Mahoney.

When I first asked Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke about him after the first 2017 home scrimmage, Burke said he was a right fullback, a well-conditioned athlete who could run all day, and that he might in a pinch be able to sub defensively at wide midfield.

Burke usually does not expect much from a trialist. His voice is quiet. His recaps are respectful, accurate, but terse. His nonverbal signals gently suggest addressing other topics.

More importantly, he convinced the talent evaluators … .

Mahoney changed Burke’s mind.

More importantly, he convinced the talent evaluators higher up the process to keep looking at him.

The young man from Buffalo survived all his trial periods and earned a contract.

I thought to myself that every team needs solid, flexible, reliable practice players. I expected nothing more — erroneously.

He debuted May 13, 2017 against Toronto FC II, a late-game, fresh-legged injury sub for Matt Real. The circumstance demanded only athleticism and defense.

Then he opened everyone’s eyes

But on July 1, Hugh Roberts was red-carded against Richmond.

Roberts was the all-league-caliber right center back signed to be the veteran next to Auston Trusty, to mentor, exemplify, and lead. When Roberts was sent off, the bench was thin.

In came Mahoney, a right back by trade, to play in the center. I thought, “Good luck, son,” and resigned myself to a replay of Nick Bibbs trying to learn center back on the fly the previous year, again, in error.

Mahoney started the next game for Roberts and did well, sufficiently so that ,when I asked Burke about him as a possible center back, Burke laughed with pleasure. He started his appreciative compliment to the former Temple Owl by reminding me that Matt was a natural right back.

In October, when roster pruning occurred, only four “veterans” returned for the 2018 Steel. Mahoney was one of them. Burke commented that, to come back, there had to have been growth sufficient to lend credence that at some future point the player might make the Union’s roster.

October was a strong hint that then-Union sporting director Earnie Stewart liked what he saw from Mahoney. He sent away right back Aaron Jones, who had started 29 times ahead of Mahoney.

And he proved he belonged

In 2018’s Steel preseason, I attended at least two practices a week to learn faces.

Matt Mahoney was a changed player. The quiet, character “benchie” had become a confident, vocal veteran, helping, instructing, and exemplifying for those newly experiencing the status that had been his.

When James Chambers’ minutes were done and Santi Moar and Chris Nanco were hurt, Matt acted like a captain and handled himself well.

He was interchangeable in practice between right center back and right back. He knew the system, could explain it to others, and was technically effective as an offensive player.

Mahoney being taken seriously at right center back against Louisville this year at Goodman Stadium.

When Stewart’s departure became public, Burke was called away to a related meeting during practice, so assistant coach Steve Hogan filled in with writers afterward. I asked about the previous game’s lineup, clarifying who had chosen the starters. Then I asked why Mahoney was still starting at center back now that other options were available.

Hogan said the “higher ups” wanted to see more of Mahoney and Brandon Aubrey.

Hogan’s comment implied Mahoney was now more than a stopgap center back. He was being taken seriously.

Old school

In the recent home win against Ottawa, Josh Yaro was sent down to get a game at right center back. Mahoney moved to left center back because this season’s normal incumbent, Brandon Aubrey, was not 100 percent.

Three days later in Nashville, where visitors had won only once, Mahoney again was left center back, but this time next to 17-year-old Ben Ofeimu. The Steel became the second visitor to win.

” … it speaks volumes about the team.” — Matt Mahoney.

Following Nashville, the league published its Team of the Week. Mahoney was on it.

“It’s a great honor, really,” Mahoney said. “I think individual accolades are an honor to have, but it speaks volumes about the team. It wasn’t just me getting the clean sheets, our guys scored goals and it was a team effort. I owe this to my team, but at the same time it’s nice be acknowledged by the league.”

What the future holds for Mahoney

The Philadelphia Union organization’s tenure principle has appeared to be that players get one, maybe two years, with Bethlehem and then “up or out.”

This year has probably been the option year on Mahoney’s 2017 contract. He has had his two years. But he has done well enough that the organization was still evaluating as Earnie Stewart went out the door.

USL division two has seven new teams for 2019, and a new 10-team league at division three. If the Union do not pick up Mahoney, one of these 17 will give him a chance. A biased hope still lurks that his chance might come from the Union.

No other Bethlehem trialist has ever earned a second year with the club. Were the Union to sign him, he would be the first Bethlehem trialist ever to make the big club.

That’s something.

That’s worth cheering.

2 Comments

  1. Peanut Gallery says:

    I love this story. Tim, I tip my hat to you. You told it well, sir. Thank you.

  2. Kieran McIlvenny says:

    I have known Matt Mahoney for pretty much his whole like, as a family friend and have coached him at the ODP level and through Coerver New York which I co direct. Matt has since become one of our Coerver coaches and helps when he is available. You have hit it on the head about who he is and what he is about. He is one of the most humble people I know, and has always taken a backseat with regards spotlighting himself off the field. We has always given 100 percent and is one if the most coachable players I have the pleasure to coach. I truly believe Matt would enhance any MLS team what would take a chance on him. I sincerely hope he gets the opportunity to show that he can play at the highest level.

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