Philadelphia Union II / Season Review

Season review: Bethlehem roster evaluation, part two

Photo courtesy Bethlehem Steel FC

My discussion of the 30 players who have accumulated statistics for Bethlehem this year finishes below. Last time I considered the first-teamers and Academy players who have played for Bethlehem. Today I discuss Bethlehem’s own roster.

Players signed with Bethlehem who have had occasional time (767 to 254 minutes)

Steve Kingue missed virtually all of preseason getting permission to come to the States, and immediately suffered an injury upon arrival.  Once fit he was tried first at defensive center mid, without being a difference maker. Then he was an outside right back with the same result.  But when he was tried as a central defender in the back 3 of a 3-5-2 he was effective.  He has continued to be so in Bethlehem’s more usual four-man back line. Had he not suffered a hamstring strain against Indianapolis in mid-September he would have completed enough starts and minutes at center back to be fairly evaluated there. He now totals nine starts, 14 appearances and 767 minutes for all three positions. Until his recent successes at center back his departure at year’s end was probable. But he may read a 4-4-2 diamond’s game better than some of his competitors. He plays the ball forward out of the backline in a possession-style game more quickly than they. One is better than he at longer range passing, and both are better in the air. Were the budget large enough to buy him and a colleague and to salary three central defenders, he would return for 2020. But the budget is not likely to be that generous.

Yomi Scintu had a training cameo with the organization in late January before the teams went to Florida but did not return to join Bethlehem formally until March.  He has the size and basic athleticism that Ernst Tanner covets in a striker, but at 22 is older than the sporting director likes for a player development side. He has never displaced Faris or Ngalina when either has been available.  In late summer he and Borgelin seemed to alternate as the game day 18’s reserve striker, until the Academy U19s resumed play. Now both Borgelin and Saed Diaz seem ahead of him in that role. He will not return for 2020.

Saed Diaz was one of the first Bethlehem players acquired under Tanner’s directive that most Bethlehem players be between ages 17 and 21.  Throughout preseason he consistently paired with Faris at striker.  Once the regular season began he gave way to Ngalina for games. And his injuries started quickly, both with the Steel and his Panamanian youth international team. His injuries lost him 2019 as a season, finally involving surgery for a meniscus in his knee. He has only three starts, nine appearances, and 254 minutes and was not returned to game shape by season’s end. He is now 20 years old. I would not expect him to return next year because while he had few chances, he never showed himself a good finisher and for a striker that is essential.

Bethlehem’s mainstays (2605 to 1794 minutes)

Todd Morton.  Morton is the first goalkeeper to be signed to Bethlehem’s own roster since the middle of 2017. In the interim the first-team’s third keeper or Academy amateurs on zero-dollar contracts have filled the two keeper slots on game days.  Morton signed August 1, 2019, and has since started all ten of his appearances for 900 minutes. He has been with the team for only 13 games. Morton is old for a Tanner player development side at 24. He seems adequate for Bethlehem’s needs, but he would do well to copy the physical explosiveness Tomas Romero developed in 2019. If an academy keeper of the caliber of the now-departed Romero emerges, Morton will have been an end-of-season stop gap. The unknown with the academy is late summer academy arrival Ben Martino. No academy keepers beside Tomas Romero played minutes for Bethlehem this year.

Zach Zandi is an attacking midfielder who leads the team in assists with six. He also has three goals.  And in the last three matches he has been effective next to Chambers in the trapezoid as a DCM. When he stepped onto the pitch against Pumas in the recent friendly, he became the first ever to play at all the rungs in the Keystone soccer developmental ladder, the Academy, Reading, Bethlehem and the Union. We do not know whether the sporting director thinks he will ever make the first team, but we expect him to return to Bethlehem as a team leader next season, especially were captain Chambers to hang up his boots.

Ben Ofeimu has had a season of “learning opportunities.”  In preseason his coach thought he already knew his starting right center back, but there have been enough mistakes that Burke’s expectation has not been fulfilled, although Ofeimu has 26 starts and 2,330 minutes. Tanner’s 4-4-2 diamond system provides center backs with less protection to their front, and places greater demands on them for both aggression and one-v-one success. It also demands perfection in initial offensive passes. Ofeimu is playing again after a recess from the lineup, but recently the defense as a whole has been disastrous. He needs development opportunities badly during the three-month offseason if he returns. Against a team that does not follow the old USLC physical intensity and direct play, he is not the first choice in a possession-on-the-carpet, short-passing game plan. His return to Bethlehem for 2020 seems uncertain.

Because of his back issue Issa Rayyan is no longer the team leader in games – he has 26. He still leads the team in positional versatility spreading those starts among right wing back, right defensive midfielder, right attacking midfielder, and right striker. He has four goals and three assists. Hopefully next season he will get to focus his attention on a single primary position. He will provide veteran leadership for next year’s newbies coming up from the Academy and coming in from elsewhere. His age lies well within the program’s age limitations. He needs development opportunities during the three-month offseason.

If Rayyan leads the team in positional versatility, Chavany Willis follows him as second most versatile. While primarily playing in either midfield line, he has also appeared as a forward. Since arrival in Florida, he has been the midfield jack of all trades in all four spots.  When he has been unavailable, his quality has been sorely missed, but he has just turned 22. I suspect he may turn out to be a one-year transitional international player, a stopgap while Academy players were learning the new system that they played so well for stretches of the Ottawa and — yes, in spite of the score — Charleston games. The only time Chambers’ offensive creativity from DCM has been even roughly approximated has been when Willis and Zandi have been on the pitch together. He was called up to the Jamaican national team twice this fall, and he started October 15th against Aruba in the Concacaf Nations League scoring a goal. It is clear that others are aware of his growth and his quality. I simply doubt Tanner will carry 5 extra international slots for Bethlehem again, nor will he spend lots of money to buy internationals who can be replaced by academy players. Willis is likely an age-and-cost casualty.

Faris leads the team in scoring with 11 goals, surpassing Seku Conneh’s ten in 2017 for the club single season goal-scoring record. He has become a meaningful scoring threat in USLC. But he also leads the team in red cards with three, thus missing five games above and beyond the usual injuries. His on-field attitude has seemed mercurial, although better since his three-game suspension for the third red.  When the underlying attitude becomes stable, and when he accepts that referees cannot be corrected, he will be ready to challenge for practice time with the first-team. With future emotional maturity he could evolve into a meaningful first-team goal-scoring force. He definitely needs continuing development opportunities during the three-month offseason. Were he let go I have no doubt that other USLC teams would compete, hard, to sign him.

Jamoi Topey falls with this group even though his minutes (804) and games (nine) are noticeably lesser. He sustained multiple reported injuries earlier this season.  The reasons for his most recent absence, a long one, are unknown. Topey has not been a reserve in several late-summer/early-fall game day rosters that were without any reserve defenders whatsoever. Whatever their causes, his absences have given opportunities to other teammates, most noticeably to Matt Real who has emerged as a competent USLC left center back in his own right, and Steve Kingue (see above). While outright comparison of Topey’s ability to Jack Elliot’s to distribute the ball breaks down given differences in the qualities of levels of play and numbers of games played, the beanpole Jamaican has similar range and accuracy. As such, were he to return for 2020 after an off-season of physical training, his potential might be mouth-watering. Wherever he ends up, he badly needs development opportunities during the three-month offseason in addition to the workouts. He is the most likely of Bethlehem’s transition-year internationals to return after Cortes (see below), particularly given Tanner’s concerns about defense throughout the organization.

We have saved the best newcomer for last. He will return. He is the Costa Rican youth international left back from Club Saprissa, Walter Cortes. Cortes is not perfect, witness Charleston’s first goal in Bethlehem’s season finale.  He still has plenty to learn in USLC, but he has shown well there in his 27 appearances, 23 starts, and 2,101 minutes played.  He has taken positive steps in learning Tanner’s version of outside wingback play.  He has filled in elsewhere successfully, a few times at outside left midfield and once at right wing back. He and Matt Real interchanged very well between outside back and outside mid in the games in which coach Burke  experimented with a 3-5-2.  Towards the last quarter of the season when James Chambers was not playing and Matt Real was unavailable, Burke named Cortes captain three times. No one from Louisville City will ever again give him space when he is inside 30 yards of goal. And, that his bicycle kick save off the crossbar at Nashville was not even nominated for Save of the Week, Month, or Year makes that entire USLC award a laughingstock. Left back is now a position of strength for the organization with Kai Wagner, Real, and Cortes. Cortes might easily sign with the Union during the offseason as Fabinho goes full time into coaching. He should be coach Burke’s starting left back next season. As with others, he does need further development opportunities during Bethlehem’s three-month offseason.

James Chambers.  If you are enough of a Steel fan to have read the previous 3,500 words, you already know the captain.  He played his 100th game for Bethlehem earlier this season at Goodman Stadium against Tampa Bay. Unlike the previous three years, only 27 of his 32 appearances have been starts. I do not know how to interpret the pinned, highly complimentary tweet at the top of Bethlehem’s Twitter page. I offer the additional information that he is listed as a “manager” for the Union Academy teams on the United States Soccer Development Academy website, but I have no idea what “manager” means. Keystone Sports should pick up an option on his contract if it exists and bring him back for 2020, but I have no idea what he himself thinks about next season.

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