Philadelphia Union II

Five Steel offseason developments

Feature Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

PSP has had four conversations with Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke since mid-November.

These are the five biggest stories of Steel’s off-season:

  • Moving the home field to Chester,
  • Ernst Tanner’s new system,
  • A roster more youthful than ever,
  • Eight days of preseason training in Florida, and
  • Meaningful team-building challenges.
Talen Energy Stadium

Burke looks forward to home games at Talen because the playing surface will be better. First, the sod is new, and unlike Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium, no American football is played on the surface. Additionally, since it is designed specifically for soccer, Talen’s field is also safer for players around its edges than Lehigh.

Using the first team’s pitch necessitates changes for the Steel. There are six weekends when both the Steel and Union are home and – currently – scheduled to play at the same time. Burke has stated that first team needs will remain top priority.

  • The Steel playing after the Union best preserves the best playing conditions for the Union, so Union players who see no minutes will be available. It would be last minute, but it always has been. Burke and assistant coach Steven Hoganhave consistently coped smoothly.
  • The number of eyes directly observing the Steel will increase, and the more eyes the better as far as Burke is concerned. The Sporting Director and other first team and Academy technical staffers are continuously assessing everybody. More eyes, more accuracy.
  • And Bethlehem will need an emergency venue in the greater Philadelphia area should Talen be unplayable in the aftermath of a first-team match.

Of greater impact on Bethlehem’s 2019 season are Tanner’s directives to become tactically less predictable and also younger.

“Tactical flexibility”

The Sporting Director used his phrase before Thanksgiving. After New Years he openly said “changed system.”

From briefly analyzing Tanner’s past, MLS Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle has speculated that it will be a high-pressure 4-4-2. Recently signed veteran center back Aurelien Collin’s resumé — when Collin was signed, Tanner said Collin already knew the system — and both teams’ rostered total of center backs – only six –  lend credibility to Doyle’s prediction.

The 4-4-2’s possibility is reinforced by the Union having four strikers, along with the Steel already having two (without any reference to what may be available in the Academy or from trialist Yomi Scitu). Neither team carried so many when each played exclusively with a lone striker.

And while coach Burke made it clear in early January that he did not yet know exactly what Tanner’s tactical directive meant, he did mention higher pressure as a possibility. A recently observed practice under the bubble at Penn that emphasized defenders bravely stepping forward reinforced that.

Getting younger

Tanner has averred that he likes what he sees in the Academy, for example Ben Ofeimu. Tanner says ages 17 to 21 are the years that produce the most growth towards professional success, and Ofeimu’s 17th year (2018) most certainly did that. By late October, February’s gawky, awkwardly controlled legs had shut out Louisville’s Slugger Field 2018’s USL golden boot winner Cameron Lancaster.

Bethlehem’s head coach expects a roster size closer to 12 than last year’s 14-15 which he called a special set of circumstances. Eight are signed and two more are reportedly in process. The final two are identified but are further behind in the discover-and-persuade recruitment process.

Burke has said he expects the average age of the squad to drop compared to last year, not in increments of months but rather years.

31-years-young James Chambers has re-signed for 2019 with an option for 2020. Recently signed former Reading and Villanova midfielder Zach Zandi will probably be the second-oldest on the squad at 22. The other new folks will be Union academy players or international youngsters, such as the two recently signed  youth internationals, Panamanian striker Saed Diaz, old at 20, and Cameroonian  central defender Steve Kingue who turned 19 two days before signing.

The challenge of Steel FC’s age will be to compete effectively enough to have success in division two.


Taking Bethlehem Steel FC and 15 Academy players with the Union to Florida for eight days makes sense. (See appendix below.)

  • It has the entire professional organization and its top amateur candidates in one place as one entity, reinforcing the player development project’s culture of interchangeability much more strongly than can words.
  • Coaches and players will hear the same instructions, the same questions, and the same answers about the new system, all coming from the same single source.
  • The Bethlehem technical staff will waste no effort teaching trialists who are merely place-holding practice bodies waiting to be replaced by trickle-downs from the Union.
  • And it seriously upgrades organizational emphasis youth, comparable to the Phillies having the minor league Carpenter Complex.

Last summer, Jay Sugarman and Richie Graham used the word “innovation” more than once as they introduced their new Sporting Director. Tanner is certainly providing it. The most extreme example follows.

“Experienced Veterans”

According to Burke, never before in the U. S. has a fully professional soccer team formed itself around a veteran core three-quarters of which is 18 years-old with 24, 15 and 12 professional appearances respectively. None of the three have professional preseason experience. Burke states firmly that he trusts his youngsters. He also says he is not entirely sure how the team-building process is going to work. Michee Ngalina, Faris, and Ben Ofeimu have a team to help build, as well as one in which to earn their own roles.

Compounding veteran inexperience, the surviving modern Steel original, the captain and defensive center midfielder, is still in Dublin awaiting his P1 visa. No one questions James Chambers’ veteran credentials, but he is not here to use them. Aside from rookie Zandi, in Florida Burke and Hogan might as well be coaching a traditional New England prep school with its customary post-graduates. Their prep school does have a crazily enriched national and international talent pool.

5 of 7 allowed
AgeSteel minutesIn US Friday 1/25
James ChambersDCMInt317,050No
Zach ZandiMF220
Saed DiazFInt200No
Steve KingueCBInt190No
Michee NgalinaMFInt181,494
Ben OfeimuCB18931
Selmir MiscicACM160
PlayerPositionBirth YearAge
if known
Steel minutesU18/19s
unless indicated
Tomas RomeroGK200018720
Mike PellegrinoMF200118180
Tonny TempleF200018159
Kris ShakesGK2001170
Shanyder Borgelin*F2001180
Nathan Harriel*RB200118
Axel Picazon*F200117
Cole Turner*MF2001
Nick Blacklock*MF2001
JD Wagner*D2001
Sekou Soumah*D2001
Tyger Evans*D2001
Lukas Burns*GK2002U16/17
Danny Luis Flores*MF2002U16/17
Patrick Bohui*F200315U16/17
*has never dressed or played for Bethlehem Steel FC


  1. Stellar once again Tim.
    I think this year specifically can be one of the most exciting yet, simply because the Steel will be playing at Talen. With the Union finally fully committing to the youth movement, being able to see the next players in line, on the same pitch, possibly even on the same day is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. I’m almost giddy with excitement with what this could bring.

    • Bring Steel Back to Bethlehem says:

      No, it really isn’t going to be. Last season was exciting. This year will be Union backups and academy kids. The Union admitted it themselves. If Steel returned last year’s team, we’d be top 4. Instead, I worry we could be looking at a TFCII-type season.

  2. John O'Donnell says:

    With the current system in place and less emphasis on competing in USL and more on developing talent for the first team, when does the team rebrand from Bethlehem Steel? Clearly there is no reason to move back now as they have lost that fan base. I still wonder if they make a move to Wilmington, which is much closer and they have a loose partnership with the Sixers? Also, will they be pushed down to USL league one in the future as they clearly have changed their philosophy of competing in the league to development for the first team? I can’t see independent USL championship team owners being happy in the future sharing gates with teams that aren’t brining in crowds of more than a few thousand playing in empty MLS stadiums.

    • Is the name of the Union’s USl team important? I assume this is different for everyone, but I couldn’t care less what they are called. Where the team eventually ends up deciding to play is also a non issue for me. With a focused promotion of the team being the “players of the future” I believe they could draw crowds wherever they end up, especially as more USL players make it to the first team.
      As for USL 1 vs. 2, I believe Burke stated somewhere earlier they had conversations with the league and were told as long as the team kept within the guidelines and were still able to be competitive, there wouldn’t be any issues.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      It happens occasionally—-rarely, but occasionally and today is a day. I am in full agreement with you John.
      I love the idea of a top USL team competing in Bethlehem.
      My hopes are this remains as is and in time spurs an investment group with legitimate clout to bring a fully owned independent team to Lehigh Valley. This is what people in the area should be fighting for.
      In my opinion, that rich area and rich tradition deserves something better than what has been given to it.
      People here think I am anti Steel. That couldn’t be further from the case. I’m pro development through what Steel should be—Union II… and pro Bethlehem Steel —- as its own club.
      Who knows, maybe someday, Union come to Steel and say, man that RB you have is worth something, how about we buy him from you…

      • John O'Donnell says:

        That’s not going to happen until they settle how an academy player isn’t lost for free to anyone. Although some USL teams have an academy being able to sell them up isn’t worth the investment yet for many independent USL teams. I wonder what the many African players signed by the Steel cost and how it benefited the programs they came from? Ideally this is one of the hurdles that MLS and MLSPA will negotiate in the current CBA so they can create this possibility of more USL academies. I know the Yedlin lawsuit is what everyone is waiting on right now but it seems like the courts are dragging their feet.

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