Philadelphia Union II / Season Review

Season review: The future of Bethlehem Steel

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Last week’s season review of the Steel focused on the problems that were prevalent throughout this past season, which in a word, was everything. Today, we’re changing gears, looking towards the ever hopeful future of the Steel.

As Bethlehem continues to match the Union and fit Ernst Tanner’s mold, 2020 is likely to be another rebuilding year. The optimistic outlook is that the Steel can qualify for the playoffs next season now that the majority of the expected 2020 roster has at least one year of professional experience under their belts. But first, let’s review where and who exactly is the future of the Steel.

A future at Talen Energy Stadium?

The big question is where will the Steel be next year? There’s been no updates on Bethlehem’s home field situation for 2020, so let’s just assume that nothing has changed and the Steel will share Talen Energy Stadium with the Union again.

Last week I talked about the team’s home field struggles, particularly the very diminished home crowd. Losing about 2,000 fans was rough for the club, as was averaging about 400 fans every home match. If the Steel stay in Chester, similar attendance is to be expected. Fans from Lehigh Valley are still not going to make the drive down to Chester. There will still be demands from these fans for the organization to stop calling the team the Bethlehem Steel when they have no ties to Bethlehem now for the second year in a row. Does this mean that the Steel re-brands for 2020? Doubtful, re-branding a club is a pain that the organization doesn’t want to deal with now, and the Steel could still move back up to Lehigh Valley. But for now it looks like the Bethlehem Steel will continue to play their home matches in Chester.

Later on this off season, PSP will be discussing the Steel’s home field situation in more detail.

Future first team players

Jack de Vries and Cole Turner both picked up first team contracts this season, while Olivier Mbaizo, Michee Ngalina and Matt Real are also on contracts with the Union. All five players are still young and in need of some additional professional experience. I don’t expect them to make regular appearances for the Union next season, but can easily be five of the Steel’s top players. Before analyzing each player, check out last week’s articles where Tim Jones discussed the Steel’s roster in terms of players on the first team or Academy who featured for the Steel and regular Steel players.

De Vries and Turner were both new to the Steel this season and spent time figuring out their best positions. Turner played for the Steel more than de Vries did this season and seems to be a strong center back, but definitely still needs some more time in that position. Since defense is Bethlehem’s weakest position, expect some serious effort to be put into Turner’s development in the off season. Meanwhile, de Vries missed the Steel’s season in favor of the U-17 national team. He only made three appearances for Bethlehem in 2019, appearing as an all-around attacker in midfield and forward. Similar to Issa Rayyan, de Vries is a utility player that the Steel are looking to further develop to enhance their offense.

Mbaizo, Ngalina and Real aren’t fresh out of the academy and Bethlehem’s newest players, like de Vries and Turner, but they do still need to further their professional development with the Steel before moving on to the Union. Really, they all just need some more experience to reach that next level.

  • Mbaizo is intended to replace Ray Gaddis. He had opportunities this season but failed to claim the spot or even a spot on the Union’s bench. This off season, Mbaizo needs to become a bit more consistent, get 100% healthy and show that he can keep up in the MLS.
  • Ngalina improved his physicality this past season and is now looking to prove that he can attack effectively and keep up with the pace of the MLS. He had one match with the Union in 2019, but 2020 could possibly be Ngalina’s chance to take over Fafa Picault’s spot since “The Gazelle” will be out of contract.
  • Real made a few appearances with the Union, frequently in the 18 on the bench this past season since he’s a good defender, but needs to improve his attacking skills in midfield. Expect Real to become the Union’s reserve defender, unless Ernst Tanner makes drastic changes to the Union’s back line this off season.
Future rising stars

The Academy has been doing pretty well for the Steel. There have been some great Homegrowns come up from the Academy, play with the Steel and move to the first team, case in point, Brenden Aaronson. This is the Steel’s bread and butter right here, the model that Tanner has been pushing for: development from within. Academy grads is the real future for the Steel and as players age out, they’ll be tested in the off season to see if they can play for Bethlehem.

Having just aged out, Academy grads such as Nathan Harriel, Shanyder Borgelin and Axel Picazo all had time with the Steel this season. Since all three are still quite young and Borgelin is already signed to a contract with the Steel, expect to see them in 2020. They all need some additional development time before they can move up to the Union, but 2020 could be a big year for them with the Steel.

Of course there also some young players still in the academy that will likely get playing time with the Steel next season too. We’ll be looking into those players and where they could possibly fit in with Bethlehem later on in the off season.

I won’t go into detail about Bethlehem’s main signed players this season including, Zach Zandi, Ben Ofeimu, Todd Morton, Issa Rayyan, Chavany Willis, Faris, Jamoi Topey, Walter Cortes, Saed Diaz, Steve Kingue, Selmir Miscic, and Yomi Scintu because I expect most of them to remain with the Steel to continue recovering from injuries obtained this season and continue their development before they can move on. All of those players are still young and have the talent to develop into quality professional players, but need some more experience, so they’ll likely be the foundation of the Steel’s roster and starters in 2020.

James Chamber’s future

Finally, we get to the veteran captain. James Chambers hit a major milestone this year, 100 starts with the club. Having been with Bethlehem since the club’s inception, Chambers is a major part of the team and even the Union organization. The Steel’s captain already coaches a youth academy team and has been vital to helping his young teammates develop professionally.

However, the midfielder is 32 years old and saw the least amount of time this season than he ever has in his four years with the Steel. Now, Chambers still played in the majority of matches in 2019, recording 2,605 minutes in those 32 matches, and he was one of the team’s leaders in goals and assists this season. Plus, Chambers just re-signed his contract on January 10, 2019. I don’t expect the captain to go away entirely in 2020, but I do expect the club to begin phasing him out as a player, especially now that there are so many young players coming up the pipeline. Because Chambers has proved vital to the organization, I wouldn’t be surprised if the organization later shifts him into a coaching role once his playing career is over, or even if his contract specifically includes coaching.


  1. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Thanks Sara! Look forward to reading more about the home field situation and what, if anything, is happening that leads them back up to the Lehigh Valley.
    Still can’t figure out what the major road block is towards getting lighting in place at Goodman Stadium. Beyond the costs that is…
    Outside of Easton’s Cottingham Stadium (Capacity of 5,500), I can’t think of any high school or colleges in the area that meet the USL requirements to have a grass field, lights and adequate seating.

  2. I certainly prefer that the team get back to the Lehigh Valley, but it if’s not looking good given the stadium options, it very well may be better to relocate the team to the Wilmington or northern Baltimore beltway area given the population and to compete with and act as a buffer against DC United competition for the fan base. In turn, the U can place a second tier owned or sponsored team in the Lehigh Valley that meets requirements for Goodman Stadium and other venues for the time being (Reading United is, and the former Harrrisburg City Islanders were, examples of that on the western ends of the market landscape). It’s entirely redundant to have it in Chester, won’t draw sufficient attendance, and create wear and tear on the Union’s pitch.

  3. Sara, you noted the following: “Losing about 2,000 fans was rough for the club, as was averaging about 400 fans every home match. ” It’s worse than that insofar as revenue loss. To keep Talen from being a virtual crickets concert, the U gave out free season tickets for Steel to all season ticket holders for the U.
    I was one of the rare ones that used those free tickets to attend the majority of games from midseason to the end because I ‘m interested in observing future U prospects. That said, I went because they were *free* for me and I suspect that was the case for many others who attended for the same or similar reasons who aren’t from the Lehigh Valley but local.
    Obviously, paid attendance in a minor league teams help defray organization costs and, in some cases, may even turn a small profit. That kind of paid attendance is only going to happen for a minor league team that represents a minor league town.

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