The Union are mired in another discouraging season: just two wins in nine games so far, and losses in all four of their road games. Their fifth road game — and their third in nine days — comes Saturday at Montreal (3 p.m., PHL17).
Is there anywhere to look for optimism? Believe it or not, you might find some on the same practice fields where the Union train in Chester. The team's minor-league USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel, quietly continues turning Union academy products into pros.
The best prospect is Brenden Aaronson, a 17-year-old midfield playmaker from Medford.
Yes, you read that sentence right: a 17-year-old midfield playmaker from Medford. Aaronson has already played eight games for Bethlehem. He'd have played more had he not suffered a broken collarbone last month.
Steel coach Brendan Burke described Aaronson as a player who is "always thinking forward, he's always trying to play forward, and he's got really soft feet, so he can catch it [the ball] in tight spaces."
Here's video of Aaronson's work in helping to create a goal for Bethlehem against FC Cincinnati a few weeks ago:
Who else is coming up? Watch for two more 17-year-olds, forward Tonny Temple and defender Ben Ofeimu, to move from the Union's under-19 team to Bethlehem soon.
Behind them is what might be the Union's best academy class yet, a crop of 15-year-olds led by Nicholas Pariano and Royersford native Selmir Miscic.
"I want them in training, but physically, they're just not quite ready to be around men yet," said Burke, now in his fourth season as Bethlehem's head coach.
Burke's development work doesn't just involve players coming up. He also has to deal with players coming down from the Union to spend the weekend with his team, so they can get minutes on the field instead of sitting on the bench.
Derrick Jones is the most prominent example. He played in 12 MLS games for the Union last year, making his debut in the season opener. But he's played just once for the Union this year and six times with Bethlehem.
"The players all have a clear understanding from the people that matter at the very top of the organization, that when they come down, there are huge expectations on them to perform at a certain level," Burke said. "To show positive energy. And the guys have been great, so I don't have to do too much to motivate."
Jones has worn the captain's armband for Steel recently because James Chambers is out injured. Burke made that decision, and made sure Jones knew about it.
"I think it gave him a little more confidence to know that we're still all invested in him," Burke said. "We're just trying to help him embrace being good over the course of five, seven, 10 games at our level. Which is what it takes to, I guess, regain the trust of the people that are making the decisions at the top."
It would be easy to get frustrated as a coach with having your roster change weekly, and Burke acknowledged that has happened to him. But he said he has "stopped worrying about it," knowing his job is to support the Union first. He speaks regularly with Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, and all the plans are communicated clearly.
"We just aren't set up necessarily from a personnel standpoint to win consistently — but the expectation [to win each week] will never go away," he said. "Sometimes it's maddening because you see things that you could use certain personnel to beat teams that we play in the league, and things like that. But you just have to accept that your job is to identify and develop players for the first team, to help the first team stay fit … and then to go and try to win your game."