The first thing about Bethlehem Steel FC that you need to know is probably something that you really don’t want me to remind you of. But I have to in order to ensure new fans understand that this match might bring up bitter memories for many: Steel FC were the team that bumped the Riverhounds off in the first round of the 2018 USL playoffs on penalties.
Last October, coming off of a triumphant season under head coach Bob Lilley, with home-field advantage, and a rockin’ crowd of over 5000 fans, it seemed like the stars were supremely aligned for Pittsburgh to make waves in the USL playoffs. But a young and talented Bethlehem squad recovered twice from being down a goal to level in after extra time, 2-2, and the Hounds couldn’t get it done on penalties, losing 8 to 7. This is the first regular season match between the two teams since that night at Highmark, so we would hope that Pittsburgh will be motivated to take revenge on their Eastern Pennsylvanian foes.
A second thing you need to know about Bethlehem Steel is that any prognostication I make about who might play on Saturday will depend heavily on how Jim Curtin, head coach of Bethlehem’s parent club, Philadelphia Union, feels about his players. Last week the Union had several youngsters on the bench on Saturday who did not start, and so the Union put them on the pitch the next day with Bethlehem. (Note: the same happened with Swope Park Rangers last week, as I totally failed to mention Gedion Zelalem or Gianluca Busio in my scouting report because they were with Sporting KC, so of course they were sent down to the USL for the weekend and started against the Hounds for Swope.) So goalkeeper Matt Freese, defenders Olivier Mbaizo and Mark McKenzie, and midfielders Anthony Fontana and Brenden Aaronson could be on the field in Philadelphia, but they might just as easily be waking up this morning in a hotel in Cincinnati.
And the final thing you need to know about Bethlehem: they are young. No, I mean really young. Last week their backline defenders were all between 18 and 21 years old. The starting striker pairing of Faris Pemi Moumbagna and Michee Ngalina are both 18 years old; so are midfielders Issa Nayyan and Brenden Aaronson. In the second-half of the match against Memphis, the Steel subbed on Patrick Bohui, a wide midfielder and forward originally from Ivory Coast. Bohui is 15 years and 3 months old. With his appearance in Bethlehem’s season-opener, he became the youngest player ever to play in Steel FC history – younger than the next-youngest player ever by a full year. The obvious joke would be to say that the majority of the players on this team can’t buy beer yet, but forget about that. Most of this team is so young, they’re still swapping Algebra II notes with their teammates.
Bethlehem lost last week at home to Memphis 901 FC, 1-0, and in doing so gave Memphis their first professional victory in club history. They played Memphis evenly throughout the match, and were constantly dangerous in attack, but were undone when 18-year-old centerback Ben Ofeimu tried to clear a long ball back to his goalkeeper, under-hit a headed backpass to his keeper, and Rashawn Dally raced in, took the ball, and slapped it right into the net for what would turn out to be the game-winner. So maybe a ‘bonus’ thing to know is the Bethlehem will feel motivated to prove that they are better than last weeks result, or their overall record of 1-2-0 would indicate.
Steel FC are young, fast, talented, dangerous, and attacking. They play a very fluid offense, with players switching sides and floating into places far out of what you might expect from the positions that are listed on-paper.
Tactically, the team lines up in a 4-4-2 diamond with high fullbacks that looks very aggressive and attacking. In attack, though, it can often look quite amorphous and variable. Watch for wide midfielders and forwards to switch sides or cut inside and play centrally – get used to seeing different players make different runs in different channels on nearly every possession.
For defense they rely on their own good possession to limit their opponent’s chances. They also like to use a high press, especially early in the match, to keep their opponent off-balance. Finally, they entrust the organization and defense in the midfielder to veteran Irish player and team captain James Chambers (pictured above), who at 32 years old is practically a senior-citizen by Bethlehem’s standards.
A big player to keep your eyes on in the attack is pacey forward Michee Ngalina, who likes to run at the backline and terrify opposing fullbacks with feints and dips.
In defense, keep your eyes on Mark McKenzie, a 20 yr old homegrown player from Philadelphia. McKenzie was an MLS rookie of the year nominee in 2018, and 20 starts at CB for the Union.
On a team filled with youngsters just called up from the youth academy or on their way to the senior squad, the one reliable constant for Steel FC is manager Brendan Burke. Burke has been with the team as their one-and-only head coach since the team’s inaugural 2015 season.
— Bethlehem Steel FC (@BSteelFC) March 24, 2019
Featured image of James Chambers c/o Bethlehem Steel FC via twitter