Commentary / Philadelphia Union II

Ernst Tanner’s news conference and Bethlehem Steel

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

In his first official news conference as Sporting Director on October 10, Ernst Tanner responded to a question about Bethlehem by citing ages 16 to 21 — with one or two older players — as the side’s appropriate composition (You can find it in the linked video at 15:21).

The chart below evaluates the recent Bethlehem roster against Tanner’s standard to see what his thinking would mean concretely. Remember, an MLS player almost always starts when present.

Analyze the Steel's roster against Ernst Tanner's age parameters

Starters listed first with in the box vertically; then substitutes; then practice. Gaps separate. Ages in parentheses.
 MLS Contracts (7)USL Contracts (15)Academy "zero-dollar" Contracts (3)
21 years
John McCarthy (26)
Fabian Herbers (25)
Jake McGuire (24)
James Chambers (31)
Santi Moar (25)
Matt Mahoney (23)

Brandon Aubrey (23)
Drew Skundrich (23)
Chris Nanco (23)
Aidan Apodaca (22)
Omar Holness (24)

Mike Catalano (23)
A. J. Paterson (22)

Does not Apply
16 Years Old
21 Years Old
Olivier Mbaizo (21)
Matt Real (19)
Anthony Fontana (19)
Brenden Aaronson (18)
Michee Ngalina (18)
Faris (18)

Prosper Chiluya (20)

Antonio Lokwa (18)
Selmir Miscic (15)
Ben Ofeimu (18)

Tomas Romero (17)

Kris Shakes (17)

The speculative observations below derive from the chart and Tanner’s comments.

College will be less relevant

The relationship between the Steel’s roster and NCAA soccer will change.

  • The seven over-21 non-starters on USL contracts are NCAA products, as are the over-21 USL-contracted starters not named Chambers.
  • Tanner’s idea might reflect unfamiliarity with college athletics in the States, but more likely it represents his experience in Germany and is a considered judgment.
  • Tanner’s principle de-emphasizes the MLS Superdraft, much as Earnie Stewart did.

Both Tanner’s late-teenager age focus and his comment (at 16:18) that there is talent in the academy deserving chances to play with Bethlehem are in tension against the 2018 USL rule change that allows only five academy players to be active on a USL roster for a specific game at any one time. Mitigating the rule’s impact, not every Bethlehem teenager is an academy amateur.

Reality will control

Tanner’s age goal may be modified by reality for the 2019 season.

  • Individuals vary. Recall the development time Brenden Aaronson lost this season via an early broken collarbone. Selmir Miscic was judged not yet physically ready for USL Championship (Div 2) games against men earlier this summer. He practices quite successfully with them, his body will mature, and he did dress for the Louisville playoff game.
  • The organization’s scouting department has grown only glacially. The NCAA may have to serve as a temporary stopgap if the organization cannot find enough of the right players to fill Bethlehem’s squad.
  • We do not know whether Tanner will populate Bethlehem’s roster as leanly as did Earnie Stewart. It ended this year at a record-high 15 bodies. 2018’s successes might expand the budget a bit.
A discussion 

In his news conference’s phrase, Tanner and Steel head coach Brendan Burke may need to “sit down together” if they have not already done so. Tanner states the Steel should get younger, and Burke has said Bethlehem has nearly found the proper knife-edge balance between development itself and the level of competitiveness necessary for that development to produce the goal of successful first-teamers.

In such a discussion, Tanner might mention the success of the seven teenage starters — Tomas Romero in goal made it seven — in taking a point from Indy Eleven at Indianapolis on Oct. 6, and the six in the playoff win at Pittsburgh. Burke might point out the Sept. 7 match away to Pittsburgh when a slightly older lineup was beaten badly, that the playoff win in Pittsburgh turned on older players entering, and the playoff-ender in Louisville.

They will need to discover together the exact importance of winning in developing a young player’s competence and confidence, a subject in which both are experienced practitioners. A shellacking does nobody any good. To the right mentality, a competitive loss fuels motivation.

Elsewhere, Toronto has had a USL affiliate a year longer than the Union but cannot offer development successes comparable to Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, let alone Derrick Jones, Anthony Fontana, Matt Real and now Brenden Aaronson. In the east only Red Bulls surpass the Union. Tanner’s principle would take Bethlehem very close to the ages on the roster of Toronto FC II. And that club has just left Division 2 to be a founding member of Division 3 in USL League One.

  • The junior Reds were the conference doormat for the last two years of their four-year existence in Division 2, and were never strong.
  • No  explanation, official or otherwise, has stated that losing consistently is why they left.
  • The Division 2 stadium-size requirement is an equally possible departure motive.

Both men strongly value the competitive stretch USL’s Division 2 currently provides for Union youth development. It is likely the two minds will discover a workable understanding together.


  1. Atomic Spartan says:

    Tim, this is a great analysis and food for thought, especially for Tanner. I’ve never been to a Steel game, but this lends perspective to the entire Union organization. Under Tanner’s strategy, the organization may consider adding a formal affiliate at the Div 3 level. Do we need an intermediate step between the Academy and Bethlehem?

    • Would love to add a division 3 team. Never hurts to have more options and more players under our umbrella.

    • Can this organization afford it? I’ve heard rumblings about BSFC being a heavy burden as it is.

    • Thanks, nice to hear, small Lacedaemonian. (Spartan infantrymen all had the Greek letter lambda on their Shields for Lacedaemon another name for the city-state.)
      In combination, Reading in the PDL and various NCAA schools are the current transition from the Academy to Bethlehem. Reading has a relationship to Bethlehem, in that Reading guys are often training with the Steel. Reading ownership is independent of Keystone sports. The details of who has what authority are unknown to the public.
      Of course the NCAA is free, from the perspective of talent development.
      I would have no idea how to do a cost benefit analysis for a professional division 3 side. Indeed I cannot do one for Bethlehem because I cannot put any numbers on their identifiable costs. And the product is only rarely sold in a marketplace but is used in-house will the only known market valuation being salary.
      I think it a safe assumption that they lose money on the USL team. I doubt they would add another money-loser.

  2. WeAreSteel2K18 says:

    Younger? That would be pretty difficult. That worries me. We seemed to find the winning formula this season. Don’t turn this into Toronto II. Keeping this team competitive and trying to actually market it in the Lehigh Valley would be good for both the younger guys and the Union’s popularity up here.

    Re-sign Chambers [at least for another year as he transitions to coaching], Santi, Nanco, Aubrey, and Mahoney. I don’t know if they are all out of contract, but give them another one if they need it.

    Start next season with essentially the same XI we ended this one with.


    Mbazio – Aubrey – Mahoney – Real

    Chambers – Skundrich/Fontana/Najem/Catalano/Other

    Ngalina – Aaronson – Moar


    Bench: Romero, Prosper, Ofeimu, [one of Skundrich, Fontana, Najem, Catalano], Miscic, Nanco, and someone else.

    That’s a SOLID team who already has chemistry. It’s got USL guys but also younger Union guys who made first team appearances this season and could take the “next step” next season. I’ll bet money right here, right now, if that team comes back, they finish in the top 4 and get a home playoff game next season.

  3. WeAreSteel2K18 says:

    My last comment didn’t seem to post. Hopefully this doesn’t turn into a double post.

    Basically I was saying bring back the XI we ended the season with. Don’t turn Steel into Toronto II. Keep the team competitive and actually market it in the Lehigh Valley. It will be good for the young guys and the Union’s popularity up here.


    Mbazio – Aubrey – Mahoney – Real

    Chambers – Skundrich/Catalano/Fontana/Najem/Other

    Ngalina – Aaronson – Moar


    Bench: Romero, Ofeimu, Prosper, Skundrich/Catalano/Fontana/Najem, Miscic, Nanco, someone else.

    Whoever needs a new contract to make that happen, get it printed and signed. That is a SOLID team with chemistry. It has USL guys and young Union guys who got first team experience this season and could take the “next step” next season.

    If you’re reading this Tanner, I’ll bet money right here, right now, if that team comes back, we will finish top 4 and get a home playoff game next season.

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