Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Bethlehem Steel aims to play a lot of Union backups and academy players

As of now, the Union’s team in the second-tier USL Championship has just seven players on its roster.

Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke.
Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff (custom credit)

If you think the Union have a lot left to do to get ready for the season, spare a thought for Bethlehem Steel coach Brendan Burke.

As of now, the Union’s team in the second-tier USL Championship has just seven players on its roster. There were only six before Wednesday morning, when Union academy-bred centerback Ben Ofeimu signed his first pro contract.

This is intentional. The Union plan to keep a relatively small number of players on USL contracts so minutes can go to academy prospects and Union reserves.

The USL requires that teams sign a minimum of 12 players to their rosters. The maximum is 30. There's also a limit of five amateur academy players per team, and five on a game day roster of 18 players.

"We'll probably live right on that line" of 12 USL players, Steel head coach Brendan Burke said. "There's a handful of guys in the first team that are 18, 19, 20, 21 years old that can come down to us. I don't think we'll see anyone much older than that this year."

The main exception to that is James Chambers, the 31-year-old Republic of Ireland native who has served as Steel's captain for the last two seasons. He's back this year, and will once again be as much of a teacher as a teammate.

Steel's second-oldest player right now is Zach Zandi, a 22-year-old who went to Villanova from the Union's academy.

The remaining USL signings are likely to be a mix of Union academy products and young international players. An example of the latter group is Saed Diaz, a 19-year-old Panamanian forward whom Steel signed earlier this month. Diaz has played for his country’s under-20 national team, including at last month’s Concacaf championship tournment.

Burke doesn’t mind building his team this way, but that doesn’t mean his job will be easy.

Most teams in the second division are independent outfits with veterans who've played in MLS before. Steel are one of nine teams in the league run by MLS clubs, but Toronto and Orlando decided to move their minor-league teams down to the USL's new third-tier division. Other MLS clubs may follow suit in the future.

Burke said that from his conversations with the USL office, he's heard that "if we can stay competitive, stay relevant to the league and not get our doors blown off," the league won't mind Steel's way of doing things.

One problem Burke might face is keeping the heads up of Union players who are sent down to Steel for a weekend. That will be mitigated somewhat by Steel playing home games this year at Talen Energy Stadium instead of in Bethlehem. There won't be the mental signal that comes with taking a bus ride up the Northeast Extension to a stadium that isn't as nice as the Union's.

Some guys might be annoyed anyway, just as a Phillies player would when sent to Triple-A amid a slump. But according to Burke, that has become less of a problem each year.

“We’ve gradually gotten the group on the younger end to the point where they know the drill and they know the expectations, and they’re actually a pleasure to deal with,” he said. “We don’t have many guys that side-eye us when they get called into the Steel out of the first team. They know that there are important opportunities for them.”