The Union sees its United Soccer League affiliate Bethlehem Steel as an intermediate stop on the development path from the club's academy to the first team.
This week, that intermediate stop includes a destination of its own.
For the first time, Steel will play in the USL playoffs. It has the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, and will play at top-seed Louisville City at 7:30 p.m. Friday (live video via YouTube will be available at philly.com/soccer).
Bethlehem finished its season with a 12-8-12 record. Head coach Brendan Burke's team lost just four of its final 13 games, dating to the start of August.
The squad has young Union academy products in some key positions. Left back Matthew Real and midfield creator Anthony Fontana are both 18, while Medford-born playmaker Brenden Aaronson and Cherry Hill-born backup goalkeeper Tomas Romero are both 16.
"They're now in a really competitive second division in the USL, where you have teams pushing some serious resources into winning and developing their own environments," Burke said. "So, there was pressure on these guys, and they responded very well."
Fontana is already signed to a big-league contract for next year. Real could be the next player to make the move up, especially because he plays a position where talent is rare.
"He always had a good soccer IQ, and I think he has really polished up the defensive side of his game," Burke said. "He certainly does enough in our environment to be afforded the chance [with the Union]. … It's time for him to get a taste of it, I think."
Burke gave Aaronson the lead playmaking role in the attack toward the end of the season. It was a big vote of confidence in a player that young, and it has paid off.
"He is constantly scanning the field and taking pictures, and he's got a really good sense of what's going on around him all the time, and he trains and plays with great urgency every day," Burke said. "His technical quality affords him the ability to jump in with the big guys, maybe ahead of the curve."
Bethlehem has also made ample use of Union midfielders Adam Najem (22 years old) and Derrick Jones (20), and defenders Auston Trusty (19) and Keegan Rosenberry (23). Burke said he is likely to again this weekend.
That's news, because it will happen on the same weekend as the Union's season finale against Orlando. In many circumstances, a team out of playoff contention would use a season finale to give experience to young players for next season.
Last month, Union manager Jim Curtin said first-team minutes matter more. But Burke said Wednesday that for this weekend, the organization is putting an emphasis on Steel's game.
"We're putting some weight behind that game — we think it's going to be a good environment for young players to gain some valuable experience in a win-or-go-home type of game, and you don't get those games rolling around often," Burke said. "So we're, I think, viewing that … as an opportunity for a couple of our young guys to maybe go with the USL team and see what they can accomplish."