Commentary / Philadelphia Union II

Bethlehem 2019: a different system, new players, and five extra international slots

Photo courtesy Bethlehem Steel 

To understand watching Bethlehem Steel FC in 2019, fans must realize it is a player development side.

 RULE NUMBER ONE: Bethlehem Steel FC exists to serve the needs of the Philadelphia Union.

Short-term services
  • Bethlehem conditions and hones Philadelphia Union reserve players with game minutes, especially from early March into May.
  • If Union players are getting their game minutes primarily with Bethlehem, they will get up to two seasons of opportunity, as a general rule.
  • Steel FC rehabilitates Union injuries.
  • A Union player playing with Bethlehem always starts.

Starting the same entire Bethlehem lineup from game to game has happened twice in the club’s 99-game existence (2%).

“Job One”: player development
  • The mean age of the USLC roster has dropped more than a year and a half since the end of 2018. Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke has said the 2019 purely-Bethlehem best XI is the youngest of the club’s four years “by a country mile.”
  • Union players coming down will raise the game roster mean age, a different metric. Burke uses the game roster mean, calculated to the day and weighted by actual minutes played, when comparing his club to its competitors.
  • The organization works hard to create a single organization with smooth interchangeability among teams.

Sending Bethlehem and some Academy boys to Florida reinforced the unity. First team coaches and players emphasize the importance of game minutes at all levels. To get an incomplete sense how they do it, substitute the word “opportunity” for the phrase “sent down.”

  • Do not mistake the emphasis on player development for a lack of desire to win. The desire to win is there, but winning comes from successfully developing the right players who play the right way.
  • The organization spends money for the best possible player development experience rather than to generate short-term profit. Principal owner Jay Sugarman discussed spending on player development, (minute 2:10) among other things, at the jersey unveiling February 8th. To illustrate:
    • Top USL side Louisville City FC has always traveled to Bethlehem in its customized bus and will presumably do the same to Chester. But Bethlehem travels to Louisville by flying to Cincinnati and then bussing onward to the falls of the Ohio. The extra money converts a long 13- or 14-hour day into a seven-hour one.
    • For both playoff games last year Bethlehem arrived Wednesday for a Saturday match, with a squad large enough for proper practice, three overnights-with-meals not just one with fewer mouths.
    • This year “Bethlehem-writ-large” spent eight days in Florida, and six in northern Virginia and western Pennsylvania. That is 17 of 35 total preseason days spent away, for five of nine matches. And the practices were twice-a-day on full-sized pitches, not once in the truncated indoors of YSC.
Shape and style on the pitch
  • Each separate Bethlehem game-day roster is drawn from four sources:
    • short-term first-teamers as described above, e.g., goalkeeper Carlos Miguel Coronel,
    • first-teamers playing primarily with Bethlehem, e.g., hypothetically Brenden Aaronson,
    • Bethlehem’s own players, and
    • Academy players on “amateur, zero-dollar” contracts, e.g., reserve keeper Tomas Romero.
  • As will the Union, Bethlehem will play a “power pressure” 4-4-2.
  • But the shape of Bethlehem’s four midfielders may well not be a diamond. So far it has been an upside down isosceles trapezoid with two DCMs and two wider CMs. The traditional ACM space so far has remained empty.
  • Midfielders and strikers will flash into the empty ACM space with their backs to goal to receive vertical passes from the DCMs or backs, to then seek layoffs, spin outs, and combinations.
  • In addition, the defensive back six will look to deliver long diagonal strikes, either to a striker flashing wide and deep or to the opposite channel wingback charging forward. Or they will find midfielders who then do the same.
  • Right now, creative play will come especially from the number 45 shirt, James Chambers. Developing alternatives of all kinds is an immediate tactical priority.
  • The aggressiveness of the wingbacks and the general high pressure means the keeper, the center backs, and the defensive center mids must be near-perfect when winning and possessing the ball. Burke describes this sytem’s defensive margin against turnovers and transition as razor thin.
  • The goal keeper ideally must be a “sweeper keeper” with the technical skills of a field player.
  • Burke has said the recognition skills required by this  system are harder to learn than the old ones. Patience will be required as a young team learns.
Meet six of the new Bethlehem players

Walter Cortes, a left back from San Jose, Costa Rica who recently turned 19 years old, has consistently featured for the Costa Rican international youth teams for the last two years.

  • He is on loan from Tico powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa.
  • Cortes started every preseason match, except the Richmond back-to-back on the VA-PA road trip, until the Red Bulls II finale when he backed up Matt Real. He came off the bench against New York and got an assist to Saed Diaz (below) on an outstanding cross.
  • Both Tanner and Burke suggest he may push Real and Kai Wagner from below as the tenacious defender learns the nuances of attacking as a wingback.

Jamoi Topey, a 19-year-old from Portmore, Jamaica on loan from Jamaican Premier League side Cavaliers FC, is a left center back who arrived early during Bethlehem’s stay in Florida.

  • He first appeared as a substitute against Chargers SC in the 62nd minute.
  • He has started everything since, save the Richmond back-to-back.
  • He stands 6’5” and seems a beanpole, but has smooth accurate feet capable of precise, long-distance deliveries.
  • He is right-footed but seems comfortable on the left side.

Chavany Willis is a 21-year-old midfielder from Kingston, Jamaica with 23 starts earlier this season for Portmore United of the Jamaican Premier League.

  • Reports from the island and Burke both indicate midfield versatility, although Burke says Willis sees himself as a box-to-box number 8. We think he was a DCM in the Red Bulls finale as he had been against D.C. United in the opener.
  • He is on loan to Bethlehem from Portmore.
  • He is currently the third-oldest member of Bethlehem’s roster.
  • He is in the best XI in the midfield. Pragmatically, he is the best distributor from DCM after Chambers.

Saed Diaz, a 19-year-old Panamanian youth international striker, has been acquired on loan from Tauro FC near Panama City, Panama, his home town.

  • He arrived early while the team was training in Clearwater, first appearing as a halftime substitute against D. C. United February 2.
  • The combination of Faris and Diaz showed real potential for the 60 minutes they were together against Motown.
  • The pattern of appearance suggests Diaz will be Faris’s strike partner in practice, giving way to Michee Ngalina and/or others for games.
  • Finishing quality chances had been a tremendous future opportunity until the Red Bulls 2 finale, when Diaz and Faris both scored in the 3-1 victory.

Steve Kingue is a left-side defender and defensive center midfielder from Yaounde, Cameroon, who arrives on loan from Nfuko Academy Sports there.

  • While he signed January 25, he only arrived in time for practice February 23 in Pittsburgh.
  • He started the next day at left defensive center mid against a Riverhounds side that Burke called “combative.”
  • Burke said Kingue’s athleticism and intensity fit right in on the Monongahela.
  • He did not appear in the finale against Red Bulls.
  • He played last season on loan to Tallina Kalev in the Estonian premier league so this March’s cold snap shouldn’t bother him.

Issa Rayyan is an 18-year-old Union Academy alumnus who matriculated at Duke University this past fall.

  • Ernst Tanner indicated that Rayyan’s ability to continue his scholarly development through an online university was key to signing him, vindicating the Academy Schoolhouse’s post-secondary vision and efforts.
  • Burke describes Rayyan as having a unique skill set and the versatility to play multiple positions.
  • He can unbalance his defender, beat him for pace, take him 1 v 1 on the ball, find the right pass, and score.
  • He played right wingback against Loudon, left central mid at Pittsburgh, old-fashioned winger last year, might someday try attacking center mid, and returned to right wingback in the finale’s win against Red Bulls.

Concerning options on all the new “on-loan” Bethlehem internationals, Tanner answered, “… all of them are on loan and we have everything in our hands.”

The five additional international slots

Bethlehem had to acquire one more international spot to be in full roster compliance by the end of business on 2019 USLC roster compliance day.

Coach Burke said Tuesday the other four slots are to facilitate player movement and possible additional signings. Three possible needs are already identifiable with varying levels of certainty.

  • Bethlehem has always tuned-up the Union’s backup goal keeper when he is slated to start a future Union match. Carlos Miguel Coronel will need an international slot to appear for Bethlehem prior to starting in place of Andre Blake when Jamaica calls.
  • Kacper Przybylko is listed as “unavailable” on MLS’s March 1 version of the Philadelphia Union’s roster, even though he is number 16 on the senior roster. While unavailable, he can get game minutes only with Bethlehem and he needs an international roster spot to do so, unless some other arrangement for play elsewhere is under negotiation.
  • There is a tall, husky, international trialist of non-Caucasian descent currently practicing as a striker with Bethlehem. Were he to sign or otherwise be acquired he would need a slot.
  • That assets were expended to acquire the final international slot suggests a fourth need is expected. Last season Faris was known to his head coach at the beginning of February long before the public first heard of him July 16.


  1. As always Tim, great work. I love the work Ernst is doing. Even though not all of these guys may make it to the first team, he is searching the world over to find talent. I can’t express how excited this makes me for the team’s future.

  2. Well done, as always. Thank you, Tim.

  3. Great info! So looks like the initial games are the day after the Union plays at Talen. As a Union season ticket holder we can go and see these games for free, correct?

    • Tim Jones says:

      That is my understanding, Guido, yes. But confirm with you ticket rp to be absolutely 100% certain.
      Glad you guys found it helpful. It’s fun to try to figure it out.

  4. Maureen Romero says:

    Is Ben Ofeuimu considered a new signing?

    • Not by me, Maureen. My “new” criterion was: announced after February 20th 2019!
      Yes, in a legal sense. No in that with 1/3rd of a season of games against professionals he is one of the squad’s core veterans.
      After all, we’ve known about Ben as an effective USL player for nearly a year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *