Analysis / Philadelphia Union II

Bethlehem’s teenage internationals

Feature image courtesy ESPN

Bethlehem Steel FC’s teenager experiment has now taken the field twice, in the season opener away to expansion side Birmingham Legion FC and in the home opener against a side that in United States minor league soccer terms is “historic” even though it was established all of 13 years ago, the Carolina Railhawks now known as North Carolina FC.

In the season-opening press conference, Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner described the changes to Bethlehem as the most thorough-going of all the Keystone organization’s teams, professional or amateur.

1.The most fundamental of Tanner’s changes is the age of Bethlehem’s own roster.

James Chambers*, 32 & 1 moZach Zandi, 22 & 4 mosSaed Diaz*, 19 & 9 mos
Yomi Scuntu*, 21 & 10 mosJamoi Topey*, 19 & 2 mos
Chavany Willis*, 21 & 4 mosSteve Kingue*, 19 & 1 mo
Walter Cortes*, 19 & 1 mo
Michee Ngalina*, 18 & 11 mos
Faris*, 18 & 9 mos
Issa Rayyan, 18 & 8 mos
Ben Ofeimu, 18 & 7 mos
Selmir Miscic, 16 yrs & 2 mos

Only ONE player has completed four years of NCAA eligibility, Zach Zandi. For the “ * “ superscript see point 3 below.

2. The next change is obvious, but it comes from the league not the Sporting Director. Bethlehem is playing in Chester, not the Lehigh Valley because Goodman Stadium does not have lights. Whether the change is temporary or not remains uncertain.

3. Instead of seven international roster spots, Steel FC have 12. The twelfth’s use is not yet certain. Eleven and 10 are needed for international first-teamers getting their game minutes in USLC. Kacper Przybylko and Carlos Miguel Coronel playing for Steel FC at the same time would need them. The other nine cover the Bethlehem-rostered individuals marked with the superscript “*” in the chart above.

4. In addition, the club is playing a new shape and aspires to a new accompanying playing style. Union owner Jay Sugarman described the style as “power pressure,” and has said that Ernst Tanner has introduced new performance data metrics. Sugarman described them qualitatively: Run Faster, Run Farther, and Run Fast More Often.

The shape is a 4-4-2. It is more flexible tactically than the old one through the ways the four midfielders can be configured. Those three initial configurations themselves then have in-game reading keys that trigger specific adjustments in specific situations. Jim Curtin described one such in his discussion of Haris Medunjanin’s play at the 6 last week.

Both during preseason and now, Bethlehem’s configuration of its four midfielders has been different from that of the Union even though both are playing the same system. The difference may reflect the scarcity of number 10 playmakers. Whether 16-year-old Selmir Miscic will become one, and whether it might be with Bethlehem this season is not yet clear.

We think Bethlehem plays its midfield shape, two defensive central midfielders rather than one as notionally in the Union’s diamond, because it protects center backs even younger and less experienced than the first team’s. It also covers the freely improvisational offensive role that coach Burke continues to give James Chambers.

Highly premature assessments  
  1. High pressure all over the field in game conditions requires the intense conditioning only playing actual games can provide. Bethlehem cannot yet power press from tap-off deep into the second half. The mentality is there. All individuals here and there throughout the ninety show the necessary aggression. But to use an old Earnie Stewart phrase, “engines” still need “building.”
  2. In mid-March the club is further along towards Tanner’s running faster, running farther and running faster more often than it ever has been at St. Patrick’s Day. For over half of Bethlehem’s preseason, they were not practicing once a day in the truncated space of YSC’s indoor fields and undersized outdoor turf. They were on full-sized fields using their regular season routine of two practices a day when sports science so indicates. Coach Burke enthusiastically hopes to repeat the Florida and northern Virginia/western Pennsylvania experiences that took 17 of preseason’s 35 days.
  3. The quality of Bethlehem’s teenage internationals technically, psychologically, and intellectually is superior to most early-twenties NCAA products.  Obvious current exception Zach Zandi proves the rule.  The decisions of Mark McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson, and Selmir Miscic last year to forego traditional college and go pro — and Ben Ofeimu, Nate Harriel, and Issa Rayyan this — testify that college soccer is less relevant to the professional game than ever before.
  4. In the month since the West Chester United preseason scrimmage more diverse options for offensive creativity are showing. Saturday night James Chambers, Chavany Willis, Zandi, and — probably — Steve Kingue showed potential for potency against a  USLC defense that held defending champion Louisville scoreless for the first 95 of 96 minutes.  And Jamoi Topey combined well with Matt Real to attack down the left outside channel.
  5. The new system defends with eight rather than nine, and it builds out of the back with two, not three. It assumes superb technique, decision-making and distribution from its center back duo, and instantaneous, unfailingly accurate recovery runs by its midfielders. Those are ambitious asks for teenagers even though the three of the four oldest players on the team are in the midfield (32, 22, 21, & 19). The fourth is a striker and still awaits the completion of his registration paperwork.
Speculative forecast

It is much too soon to guess whether Bethlehem will maintain the competitive successes of its past two years using teenagers. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds match at the end of this month will tells some tales, although Carolina Saturday night was a fine side. Coach Burke is acutely aware that past player development sides of comparable age failed to be competitive.

But Bethlehem differentiates itself from those  failures with its number of quality international players.

Last Friday the senior Jamaican men’s national team called up 19-year-old Bethlehem left center back Jamoi Topey for its final Concacaf Nations League must-win qualification  match this Saturday in El Salvador. He is not a blinding flash of revelation for the Reggae Boyz. They already know him because of his youth national team appearances, and barring blow out or disaster he is not likely to play meaningful minutes at the 53,400 seat Cuscatlan in San Salvador. It is his first senior call-up and he needs more strength and stamina to dominate for the full 90 in USLC, let alone internationally.

But how many other of the MLS2 player development sides past and present have had teenagers called into senior national sides? And others of  Bethlehem’s boys have youth national team call-ups in plenty.

All previous heavily youthful USL sides have been predominantly North American. Bethlehem’s current roster — 13 — is nearly 70% international, with two from Europe (Ireland and Germany), two from the Caribbean (Jamaica), two from  Central America (Costa Rica and Panama), and three from central Africa (Cameroon and Congo-Kinshasa).


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    I remember arguing so vehemently for this. Not going to lie- feel a bit vindicated.
    Here’s the rub. They are still too old.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      9 of the 13 listed are under 20. I don’t often question the superior mind of The Elephant, but that’s too old?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Yes. I believe the average age will drop even more over the next couple of years… as the occasional 14, and 15 year old and more and more 16 and 17 year old players start being incorporated.

        Has to happen. If this is the model they are married to. And Ernst is a business man. Prep them. Get them on the field against men in USL asap… debut them for First Team… sell them.

    • I actually agree. But I think that is because it’s still a work in progress. Tanner has significantly lowered the age but his quotes on the level of the team last year were pretty harsh. He clearly felt the need to bring in a bunch of international players that are honestly probably 2-3 years older than he wanted just to raise the level of the team/training.
      Now there will always be exceptions, and I think Zandi fits that. There is a such thing as late bloomers that you don’t want to outright dismiss. I also think there is room for 1 more older vet but that could be argued.
      I really wish we had a division 3 team as well.

    • Also can’t bring in Internationals much younger due to FIFA laws.

  2. One factor in the ages of outright professionals in the United States is labor law.
    Where is PSP contributor Steve Holroyd when we need some one who knows?
    In conversation with informed club sources prior to herr Tanner’s arrival, I got the overal impion that child labor law in the US makes it really complicated to sign not-US personnel under the age of 18.
    So far, all the underage signings have all come from within the Academy.
    Th other issue besides underage is competitiveness. I hav heard Tanner cares little, but I know Burke does, and I strongly suspect Curtin, Albright, etc always., do as well.
    I am guessing that the organization as a whole wants to see how successful this age group can be before they take the project any younger. Miscic can successfully practice with men. Play may be another story.
    Do recall please that in a clean play last season The Kid, as el P has christened him, bounced off Forest Lasso and broke a collarbone. Was out the majority of three months. That’s minutes lost.

    • Not just US laws but FIFA as well. Isn’t it what got Chelsea and Man City transfer bans. If they are under 18, it needs to be due to the parents “movement for work.”

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