Feature / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Zach Zandi’s journey from the academy to the Open Cup

Photo Credit: Bethlehem Steel FC

Becoming a professional soccer player can take a variety of pathways for different players. With four different levels, the Philadelphia Union organization values and emphasizes local youth development, and it’s been paying off. West Chester native, Zach Zandi is one of those recent payoffs.

After setting foot on the field for the Philadelphia Union in the 100th minute of their US Open Cup match against D.C. United on June 12th, Zandi made history. He became the first player in history to have ‘completed the cycle,’ that is, playing competitively for all four levels of the Philadelphia Union organization: the Union Academy, Reading United AC, Bethlehem Steel FC, and the Philadelphia Union.

It’s true, 22-year-old Zach Zandi has had a long journey to the pros. He’s played for at least seven different local and professional teams throughout his career.

“That just shows everyone takes a different path. Mine was a bit longer – had to go through college, had to go through Reading, but I’m here ultimately and that’s what matters. Each person is different and this is just my path.” – Zach Zandi

1 – 3) Youth development and academies

We’re going all the way back to Zandi’s youth development days. The three big clubs the West Chester native played for in his childhood were West Chester United SC, Penn Fusion SA and the Philadelphia Union Academy. For the bulk of his youth career, Zandi played for West Chester United and Penn Fusion.

Zandi only played for the Union’s academy team for a short time. When the Philadelphia Union’s academy started in September 2013, Zandi had recently turned 17. This meant that he played on the academy’s U18 team for one year before aging out and leaving for Villanova. Throughout his youth career, Zandi claims he had a lot of great coaches who get a lot of the credit, having helped him become the player he is now and building his foundation.

4) Villanova University

A recent graduate, Zandi attended Villanova University from 2015 to 2018. In his four collegiate seasons, he made 63 appearances, 60 starts, scored 14 goals and provided 10 assists. Zandi led the team with seven goals scored in 2018, and earned honors every season at Villanova.

“I think I needed time to develop and learn a few things, and I think I was able to do that there. It helped me prepare to be the pro that I am today. I don’t regret it at all.” – Zach Zandi

Attending college was never a regret for Zandi because it gave him the extra time he needed to grow as a player. Among the Steel’s current roster, Zandi is the only one to have attended and graduated from college, although Issa Rayyan is currently in school and could catch him in a few years. He’s also pretty happy to have been at Villanova to witness some amazing basketball, including two National Championships in his sophomore and senior years.

5) Reading United AC

While attending college, Zandi also played professionally for Reading United AC for three seasons. from 2016 to 2018, Reading United in the USL League Two was his first professional team. During his time with Reading, Zandi made 24 appearances, scored two goals and had five assists in three seasons. Most notably, he also made three appearances and two starts in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup matches in 2017 and 2018.

6) Bethlehem Steel

Signed on January 8, 2019, this season is his first year with the Bethlehem Steel. So far, he’s played in 14 of the Steel’s 18 matches, started in 12, has five assists and one goal that he scored in his debut match, earning USL Team of the Week honors.

“I think [this season is] going well personally. As a team we can do better. I’m just doing everything I can to help the team get to the playoffs and get wins.” – Zach Zandi

What those stats don’t really tell you is what type of player Zandi is for Bethlehem. Brendan Burke has been using Zandi as a bit of a utility player in the Steel’s midfield. It’s because Zandi works hard, on and off the ball. He’s great at reading space and can put himself exactly where the Steel need him to be. Pair that with strong passing and crossing abilities, and you understand why Zandi leads the club in assists.

7) Philadelphia Union

Technically, the Open Cup match wasn’t Zandi’s first appearance with the Union. He played in a preseason match in February this year, but preseason doesn’t really count. Really, his first game with the first team was Philly’s Open Cup loss to D.C. United, where he made his appearance in extra time, coming on for Fafa Picault and fouled by Wayne Rooney.

“To make my appearance for the first team was a moment I’ll never forget – something I’ve been working for my whole life. But it’s just the beginning. I really hope to do more and accomplish more in my career.” – Zach Zandi

Of course Zandi desperately wants to make another appearance for the first team. His dream is to be signed to the first team, so he’s putting in the work with Bethlehem this season to prove that he deserves a regular position on the Philadelphia Union. It’s been a long, historic journey for Zandi so far, but he isn’t stopping at the Open Cup match.

One Comment

  1. Old Soccer Coach says:

    For all the parents out there who are bravely supporting their children’s soccer aspirations and activities, Zach’s father is one of the movers and shakers behind West Chester United, I understand from the Head coach of WCUSC’s adult side, Blaise Santangelo.

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