Commentary / Roster News

End-of-season roster turnover sees some longtime players depart

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Seven years ago, the day after the Philadelphia Union had announced the appointment of Earnie Stewart as Sporting Director, they officially announced the creation of Philadelphia Union II’s immediate predecessor, Bethlehem Steel FC.

The announcements firmly launched Keystone Sports and Entertainment into its identity as an organization specializing in professional youth player development. That identity had begun with the acquisition of Rocket Sports in Wayne, PA, and Richie Graham’s foundation of YSC Academy immediately across the street, three years before.

Academy players who earned the chance practiced with Bethlehem. The better ones got game minutes. The best signed professional contracts, either with Bethlehem or with the first team itself. Derrick Jones pioneered a pathway followed by roughly three dozen others since, not all of them with the Union.

Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie fully proved the pro youth player development concept in the 2020-2021 offseason when they earned sales to Red Salzburg of the Austrian Bundesliga and Racing Genk of the Belgian Jupiler league respectively. According to current Sporting Director Ernst Tanner when the Aaronson deal’s sell-on clause is included (see link to presser video below), as of end-of-season 2022 the concept-provers have generated about $20 million dollars.

In that same press conference Tanner iterated and reiterated that developing young professionals to sell onward is the organization’s fundamental genetic identity, its DNA to use his words.

Sales and departures continue

Paxten Aaronson has just been sold to Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. Tanner said the deal checked all the boxes for both the player and the club. Frankfurt is well run. It has excellent coaches. It starts two attacking midfielders. And there will be time for the 19.2-year-old American to adjust to the new team, the new league, the new language, and the new culture. The most basic checked box is that the negotiated transfer fee is accepted by all.

Cory Burke has also Instagrammed a thoughtful, heartfelt farewell to the organization. They brought him to Bethlehem from Jamaica’s top division in February of 2016. They promoted him to the first team two years later. They have improved his play enough that New York Red Bull have signed him as a 30.9-year-old free agent striker.

Four younger professional strikers lie behind Burke on the depth chart: first teamer Chris Donovan, 22.3, second-teamer Stefan Stojanovic, 21.7, Jose Riasco, 18.8, and Nelson Pierre, 17.7. A fifth, 17.8-year-old academy amateur Marcos Zambrano will likely become the fifth professional after his 18th birthday January 20, 2023. Burke’s departure unblocks the striker pipeline.

Finally, Cole Turner is a 21.6-year-old defensive midfielder and a second Steel FC alumnus who is moving elsewhere in soccer’s universe. He had by far his best season as a defensive mid, showing mastery of the position’s two-way responsibilities both mentally and technically. He was instrumental in Philadelphia Union II’s late push into their 2022 playoffs.

But he plays the position most heavily populated on the organization’s professional depth chart. He is its sixth defensive mid. And chronologically he is at the end of the organization’s academy developmental cycle. He needs to seeks his soccer future elsewhere, and has done well enough in his valedictory season that opportunities should be available to him.

And then there were two

The 2022 departures mean only two alumni of Bethlehem Steel FC remain, 25.3-year-old right back Olivier Mbaizo and 23.4-year-old left back Matt Real.

Mbaizo is in Qatar at the World Cup with Cameroon. If he gets his chance and showcases well, speculation suggests he may move on.

Mbaizo illustrates the developmental value of a pipeline populated by capable younger players. 21.6-year-old homegrown Nathan Harriel took Mbaizo’s job after a poor opening performance and forced Mbaizo to improve his game in order to get it back. Mbaizo also blocks Harriel if he stays with the Union, lending background credibility to the Cameroonian’s possible departure.

The right back question would become the depth behind Harriel, since currently only two amateurs occupy those slots, promising though Frank Westfield and Noe Uwimana are.

 The other remaining Bethlehem alumnus is also involved with departure speculation, but the departure is not his. It is left back Kai Wagner. If Wagner were to leave, Matt Real would be his successor in-house.

Rumors that Wagner might leave have concrete detail to them. More of it focuses on English Premier League side Leeds United with its American coach Jesse Marsch. Leeds‘s first-choice left back has a long-term injury. There has also been mention of Wagner going to Nice in France’s Ligue 1. Providing background-level credibility, left back is a position of scarcity throughout soccer.

When asked about additions to the 2023 roster during the end-of-season presser, Tanner said nothing about outside backs. The omission can be taken at face value or it can be interpreted as “smoke-screening.”

Either way, Real may be the final surviving Union player to have ever worn the Bethlehem Steel FC badge.


  1. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Thanksgiving “what should we be thankful for” columns popping up.
    The Inquirer’s Marcus Hayes: “While most of us had our noses up the Eagles’ and Sixers’ butts the last four years, coach Jim Curtin and sporting director (GM) Ernst Tanner constructed the best team in town. It came within three minutes and a Gareth Bale header of its first MLS Cup title.”
    MLS “The power of the collective. From the front office to the coaching staff to the squad, most clubs get nowhere near the maximum out of the people in their organization. The Union came up just short in MLS Cup (and the Supporters’ Shield) but nobody can argue they left any potential unexplored. Sometimes the bounces don’t go your way. Someday they will for the Union.”

  2. … it will come, hosting MLS Cup 2023 in Chester!

    What a great season this was.
    Thank YOU Herr Tanner, Mr. Curtin and the Boys in Blue!

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!


  3. … and to Cory Burke.

    We met when you first arrived at the Union, in the Club… smiling when I said “you’re gonna do great”.

    YOU DID. Thank you.

    But Cory, now you’re just a Pink Cow!

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