Analysis / USL - Philadelphia Union II

Contributors to the Shield

Photo: Rob Simmons

More than a few columns from a variety of writers and sources have emphasized the contributions the Union’s Academy has made to winning the Supporters’ Shield and thrusting the Philadelphia Union into the playoffs as a serious contender in the run towards MLS Cup. Although its contributions are myriad and immense (thank you, Richie Graham), the Academy is not the entire player developmental platform’s contribution to success.

Bethlehem Steel FC gave not just the academy boys exposure to growth-inducing adult professional play. Two other shield winners were recruited directly to the Steel from sources outside the Academy. Michee Ngalina signed his first pro contract with the Steel, is from DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, and is a promising future hope. Cory Burke’s second goal of his truncated Union season put the shield-clinching result beyond reasonable doubt.

Another 20-year-old

Ngalina arrived as an 18-year-old in April of 2018. He began practicing often, although not continuously, with the first team some weeks later that July. He was slight of build, so he was injured more than once that first Bethlehem year. But in what first-team fans will think of as “Ilsinho-like” fashion, he destroyed Red Bulls first team reserve defender Conor Lade in the first half of a match at Goodman Stadium on Lehigh’s south campus in Bethlehem, driving Lade off the pitch at halftime a year before what Union lore now calls “the Ilsinho game,” when the Brazilian did it too, after halftime, and telegraphed Lade’s subsequent retirement.

Ngalina was a mainstay of the Bethlehem team that won the organization’s first playoff game on PKs in Pittsburgh. He had tied that game to force overtime and the shootout. He continued practicing often with the first team, and it was obvious to those in the know that –again, Ilsinho-like – he needed to prove to the organization that he was a reliable two-way player, that defense was not the afterthought traditional wingers have made it around the world.

This season without the Open Cup, any summertime friendlies, or the Campeones Cup with the Mexican league, he has gotten no first-team game minutes. Since he is young and inexpensive and an attacker, he is a perfect fit for Austin FC’s stated philosophy of roster-building. Elsewhere I have speculated that Ernst Tanner may be hiding him from the new Texas side’s expansion draft. He has seen the first-team bench four, or perhaps five, times and was the fourth striker on the depth chart while Burke remained in exile.

Cory Burke

Jamaica’s direwolf striker is Bethlehem’s other non-academy contribution to the Supporters’ Shield winners. He had been added to the Steel during their first preseason in January of 2016 but had been called up to the Jamaican national team for a look-see and suffered an unspecified knee problem. So he did not debut from the beginning at Lehigh, and when he did he did not come close to defending in a fashion acceptable to the first-team’s head coach, a noted stickler for two-way players up top.

But Burke listened and learned. And to borrow then Sporting Director Earnie Stewart’s phrase, he built his engine. By mid-summer, he could not yet sustain the necessary effort for 90 minutes, but he was immediately pressing defenders the way John Snow’s Ghost hunted down enemies and prey. Did he foul? You bet. Once it was catastrophic late in the season, when he conceded a penalty kick in the 18th minute that Bethlehem could not surpass during its final attempt to sneak towards a playoff spot.

By chance before one 2017 late-spring game as I walked through Goodman’s press entry gate, a 6’ 4” slim red-head now well known to more than just PSP’s readers walked through at the same time. He said something friendly, so I introduced myself, reached up to his shoulder, gave it a pat, and told him to hang in there, since the first-team was going through a bad patch. Later, before tap-off, from the press box’s open window I heard voices below me, and out of curiosity I looked. Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin were sitting together well away from anyone else having a serious but indiscernible conversation. By the middle of the second half they were gone.

After Burke was subsequently signed that December, I wondered if the purpose of the Sporting Director meeting the first-team head coach one-and-a-half hours’ drive north of both their offices in Chester might have been to evaluate Cory Burke as a first-team candidate.

He had played well for Bethlehem before and after that meeting, including a first, key goal against FC Cincinnati when Jack Elliott telegraphed his 2020 appearances as a number six through that goal’s long, flighted, diagonal assist. And there was also a memorable blind, flighted, outside-channel-to-outside-channel, inch-perfect assist of his own to defeat the New York Red Bulls II’s press and begin Bethlehem’s first ever win against their chief rival and continued nemesis.

In 2018 the Kingston man got lots of Union minutes and scored goals sufficient to tie for the first team lead (10). And then 2019 was off to a good start before his visa problems emerged. Earlier Ernst Tanner had been clear that he valued Burke and wanted to keep him, so he found Burke loan opportunities, first that September in Jamaica and this past January in Austria before and during the pandemic.

Now the genial Jamaican is back, currently holding the third slot at striker, as both the Chicago and New England back lines now lament. He secured the win against the Fire and put three points out of reach against the Revs.

Acknowledging contributors

Mr. Sugarman rightly mentioned Ernst Tanner, Jim Curtin, and their immediate staffs during his remarks on Subaru Park’s pitch before dinner Sunday. But others have contributed mightily as well and deserve public acknowledgement.

There is a single educational philosophy that underpins both YSC Academy’s Schoolhouse and its teaching on the pitch. It is curated directly by Head of School Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee among her teachers, and Academy Director Tommy Wilson among his coaches. It teaches the mentality Earnie Stewart and Ernst Tanner both value so much: self-responsibility, self-confidence, commitment to the collective good, bold willingness to take intelligently assessed risks, learning quickly from mistakes, and adapting to unforeseen change among other things.

Former Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke (now head of recruiting), his assistant Steven Hogan (still a second-team assistant to interim head coach Marlon LeBlanc), and his former captain James Chambers (now a full-time coach in the Academy’s lower teams), shaped every Bethlehem player who has made it to the Shield winners with constant encouragement and instruction, and the occasional pithy reminder to focus fully and immediately on the prerequisites for success.

Bethlehem contributed player development beyond Academy members. The contribution is wider than that, two of the five current first-team strikers and six points in the table.

6 Comments

  1. but the second team will be out of serious competitions of USLC. Time will tell about this decision made for U2.

    • I would suggest following @PhilaUnionII on twitter, and also Brotherly Game.
      .
      They have played 3 friendlies, one against Christos FC of I think Baltimore, and against West Chester United Predators’ Adult team, and against NY Red Bulls U-19s.
      .
      The most interesting — to me — detail in all the details is the assertion that Tomas Romero is with the team but unable to play because of NCAA rules.
      .
      And there is a name I do not recognize, which reflects my ignorance I suspect, Manu Diop.
      .
      Shanyder Borgelin is both listed and clearly identifiable in the Brotherly Game photo gallery.
      .
      Axel Picazo is with them, and apparently Jamoi Topey, although I did not recognize Topey in any of the pictures.
      .
      Matt Ralph reports that the squad took a week off and then resumed training, and has begun to play friendlies against local amateur sides.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Absolutely correct.
      .
      There has been no further news I have noticed since I last wrote ohs toppic.
      .
      I have paid less attention to Mr. Sugarman over e years than Mr. Graham, and I hav no sense of other members of the ownership team. Nonetheless, it makes no logical sense that they depart from a major component of the system that has produced B. Aaronson and McKenzie unless they are fully confident that something comparable will replace it.
      .

  2. Well said.

  3. I enjoyed this concept and would add one more name- Earnie Stewart. Even though i personally was disappointed in his tenure and wasn’t that sad to see him go, he still deserves a lot of credit for where the team is now. Remember the situation he walked into, a literal Sakwiecz 3-ring circus where no one had any idea what they were doing (their biggest accomplishment was a front office fashion spread in the Inquirer/Daily News). He was willing to step into that mess and created an actual soccer operation out of nothing and laid much of the necessary foundations to build on. So hat tip to Earnie. Sackiewitcz deserves no credit though.

  4. Union just made two new homegrown signings too. Looks like they’re reloading again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

%d bloggers like this: