The countdown clock for Union prospects

Feature photo courtesy Philadelphia Union Communications

A player development process is a continuous flow, and Keystone’s Sports and Entertainment’s player development flow recently passed a new milepost.

A truly homegrown first-team player has been moved out of the organization.

Derrick Jones is the first to pass this waypoint, as he has been first past other such waypoints throughout his Union career.

Time frame

New Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has continued the idea that the principles governing the Steel also govern the Union.

Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke is on record three times as saying that – normally – players playing with Bethlehem have 12 to 24 months to prove that they have a future role of some type with the Philadelphia Union. Burke articulated the principle twice during Earnie Stewart’s time in charge, and once since Ernst Tanner arrived.

Youngsters signed really early may receive more time. Burke stated that Selmir Miscic would have more time, and he mentioned Brenden Aaronson as a second such possibility well before Aaronson began proving his first team worth, so 12-to-24 is not without flexibility. And injuries may extend the time period to a degree.

But indications late in the spring of 2018, before Stewart’s departure became public, were that several Bethlehem individuals would be moving on. Ernst Tanner’s impact has not been the turnover itself, but the young age of the replacements.

To illustrate, the organization moved on from first-teamer Adam Najem and Bethlehem’s Santi Moar. Najem is now Memphis 901’s starting number 10 and Moar’s nine goals for Western Conference leader New Mexico United is second in the entire USL Championship.


Practice only tells talent assessors so much. Coach Burke is on record as wanting eight to ten games to assess a player’s potential fairly. Eight-to-ten gives players and their judges time to

  • Overcome nerves
  • Discount “flashes-in-the-pan”
  • Discover an individual’s sustainability
  • Face a variety of opponents’ styles and quality levels

Burke is also on-record that keeping a player who has no chance at the first team is unfair to the player.

In 2019 there are four categories of players on Steel FC’s game-day rosters:

  • Those who have advanced to the first team for practice, but do not seem serious candidates for its game day 18 and get their game minutes with Bethlehem
  •  Those who signed Bethlehem contracts in 2018
  • Those on loan to the Steel itself this season; these players are under the most immediate pressure as they could be sent away as early as mid-season, but are trying to earn their 12-24-month opportunities
  • Those who signed Bethlehem contracts in 2019

We consider first-teamers below, since the countdown clocks for some are getting awfully far along.

The clock is counting down

Anthony Fontana: Fontana has never been under contract to Bethlehem itself, having gone straight from the Academy to the first team in mid-July of 2017, taking effect January 1, 2018 for official roster purposes. He spent significant weeks last season injured and similarly just returned from an ankle issue. The Union have a track record of fairness about injury, but it does not wait forever.

Favoring further opportunity for Fontana, he switched midfield positions late last summer when Aaronson came back from his broken collarbone and looked more effective in consequence, so his clock may get extra time.

Insiders continue to enthuse about Fontana’s potential and Jones’s departure might get him a look as understudy to Haris Medunjanin and James Chambers at number 6. We do not know whether he would a candidate to replace Chambers’ on-field leadership when the ageless Irishman transitions onward in the future.

He still needs to become a difference-maker at the USLC level, not just the hard-working, energetic, highly competent, fearless member of the side that he is.

Matt Real: Real remains a left back, but the position’s responsibilities have been substantially redefined by Tanner. Bethlehem provides a solid learning environment with lots of minutes. It also provides meaningful competition from Walter Cortes, who also is learning the same new position nuances.

Real did a nice job as a center back in one emergency situation and a recent Burke comment indicates that the quality of the young man’s defending has improved. That he did not step in for Kai Wagner’s suspension in Vancouver is not a surprise because he needs minutes playing. He does not need eye exercises sitting on the first team bench.

Like Fontana, he needs to become a difference-maker in USLC.

Olivier Mbaizo: The Cameroonian right back is a superb athlete with plenty of technical skill. He arrived in this country with no language facility in English, and has begun to acquire it. He originally signed with Bethlehem, but was clearly a first-team-level athlete and moved up in mid-April of 2018.

As Adam Cann of Union Communications explained so well in his recent discussion of Jack Elliott on the occasion of the Englishman’s contract extension, Tanner’s new system puts especial strain on the instantaneousness of a defender’s anticipatory thought. Mbaizo has given up inside position for fast-break goals twice in 2019.

Furthermore, Mbaizo rarely breaks out of the rote patterns of play inherent in his position. Such spontaneous creativity has flashed forth only rarely. There seems to be an intrinsic fear of making a mistake. And new 2019 Bethlehem Steel signing Issa Rayyan has so far combined good defending with Mbaizo’s missing offensive creativity at the USLC level, as well as being positionally versatile.

The Cameroonian remains potential rather than actualization, and the Union, while trying to be fair about the language issue, will not wait forever for the necessary mental breakthroughs.

Brenden Aaronson: The 18-year-old attacking midfielder has not been a candidate for Bethlehem Steel minutes in the first third of the season. Whether that continues as MLS play increases in physical and mental pace and quality – it always does from June to October – remains to be seen.

Youth, being a number 10, and earlier indications of interest from overseas clubs increase the amount of time he will be given to prove himself. Right now, he is an integral member of the Union’s gameday 18.

Matt Freese: Freese has an initially promising but injury-truncated small initial body of work on which to be judged. Freese’s catching hands seem better than Carlos Miguel Coronel’s, so he “feels” more reliable on saves that are difficult but routine, those expected at the professional level in other words. Coronel brings a hint more uncertainty.

Freese was expected in preseason to be Bethlehem’s primary keeper, but he had changed that expectation by the time Andre Blake went down hurt, a major first step in the proving process. He has plenty of time to continue to prove himself.

Michee Ngalina: Ngalina, 19-years-old and from the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, is the newest first-teamer. He combines elite pace with excellent individual technical skill. Over his time with Bethlehem he has improved his commitment to defending and is now executing that commitment game after game in the the fashion the first-team wants. He switches seamlessly in mid-game from striker to the more forward of the two lines of central midfielders.

Since his arrival last spring as a classic winger, he has spent almost all of his practice time with the first team, certainly from July 2018. He had cameos last year in  U. S. Open Cup matches and the mid-summer friendly with Eintracht Frankfurt. He has been a difference maker offensively in USL’s division two league from his entry into it.

He is physically small and takes a beating, but seems increasingly able to survive it.

He debuted for the Union in MLS in the last ten minutes of the recent home match against Portland.

The most recent example of the regard in which the first-team technical staff holds him is that when Fafa Picault went down before Minnesota with an injury, the organization put Ngalina on a plane for the Twin Cities after playing 90+ minutes against Red Bulls 2 in north Jersey to be part of the game-day 18 this past Sunday.

Author’s error: Only today, Monday, June 10th, do I realize that I omitted Carlos Miguel Coronel from this list. I apologize to both the player and readers.



  1. “Mbaizo has given up inside position for fast-break goals twice in 2019.”

    I know you are just the messenger Tim, but I hate this attitude. We’ve seen Gaddis get burned plenty of times yet he is still a lock starter, so I don’t think getting beat sometimes should mean we never see a young player start ever.

    • True in that it’s probably too early to close the book on Mbaizo just yet, but it is concerning if he’s getting burned from mental errors at the USL level given that the competition is a step below the MLS level.

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