In the extra time of the first round of the 2018 USL Championship playoffs, James Chambers rocked Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ new stadium with a ferocious free kick that led Bethlehem Steel to their first playoff win. The 32-year old Irishman celebrated raucously with a bevy of young teammates, many still teenagers, before rallying the troops to hold on until they could win the match in a shootout.
It was a classic Chambers moment: Unadulterated joy and energy mixed with leadership and discipline.
James “Chambo” Chambers’ name sits atop nearly every statistical category in the Steel record books, but if you ask any coach or young player they will tell you the numbers are only a small part of what the gregarious but intense captain brings to the club.
With over 100 appearances, 17 goals, and nine assists, Chambers has, along with head coach Brendan Burke and assistant coach Stephen Hogan, been a foundational piece of Bethlehem Steel. This season, however, the Irishman has had to lean even harder on his professionalism and leadership, while steadying one of the three youngest squads ever to play in USL Championship. Playing alongside youth is nothing new for Chambers; playing the role of leader while spending time on the sidelines? That’s different. Steel’s longest-serving captain has, as ever, risen to the challenge of knowing that in this age range, no one has ever successfully maintained a competitive balance at this level. With Chambers’ leadership, the Steel have a real chance to change that this year, even if they can’t get over the playoff line.
“I’m professional, so I’ll remain professional through everything,” Chambers asserts. “I’m paid to do a job and I’m doing the job.
“Any professional wants to play every week, but I understand the situation. You have to remain as professional as possible and when you’re called upon or in the team and get five minutes, 25 minutes you have to be ready to make an impact. That’s something that I’ve been preaching to the boys, especially the young lads, that if they get five minutes then they have to make an impact.”
Chambers also lets his younger teammates know that when they don’t get the minutes they want or feel they deserve, they need to channel their emotions into hard work and dedication to their team. And now that he’s one of the players hungry for more time on the pitch, Chambers isn’t only talking the talk, he’s walking the walk.
“I’d be lying if I said that I’m not pissed when I’m not playing,” the midfielder admits. “But that’s not on the guys in the group or these young players.”
“I have to remain professional and keep pushing for me and for the guys in the group. It’s as simple as that.”
Steel head coach Brendan Burke sees his captain fighting daily to prove he deserves a spot in the first eleven, and both men understand that Chambers is in a difficult position at a club that prioritizes playing time for young players over all else, even when a guiding hand may benefit those with less experience.
“When we call on him, as you saw in North Carolina, he changed the game. He was a massively important piece of why we were successful down there,” Burke attests.
Chambers played from the start against North Carolina FC, and his second half free kick – a wicked curler that snuck inside the post – helped Steel rescue a point in a breathless comeback after going down 3-1. That was Chambers at his best: Surrounded by youth, he never let heads fall.
But often this season, the Union’s focus on providing young players with minutes has pushed Chambers to the sideline as Burke has had to turn to an inexperienced midfield. Mentoring, leading, and motivating from the bench is a new experience for Chambers, and Burke knows it.
“I would say, if anything, that he’s been tested in a way that he’s never been tested before, Steel’s head coach says. “He’s kind of been removed from his role as our leader on the field; he’s handled it really well, is doing everything that he knows how to do to hand the reins over to guys like Chavany Willis and Cole Turner and has really refocused himself on their development.”
Turner is soaking in knowledge from Chambers as he prepares to join Philadelphia Union’s first team in 2020, and Willis is fresh off his first call-up to the senior Jamaica National Team and continuing to find his feet in Steel’s midfield.
Chambers, meanwhile, wants to ensure that Turner, Willis, and Steel’s next generation of talent understands what it means to be a professional, and how it takes as much commitment off the field as it does between the white lines.
“Not everybody wants it,” Chambers says candidly of the advice he doles out at each training session. “But of course I’ll offer myself to everyone and keep pushing them. With some people it falls on deaf ears and I get that, they want to figure it out themselves.”
The Steel captain takes a moment for himself, gazing at the training fields and Talen Energy Stadium, where Steel have played their USL Championship home games this season.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he admits. “But I have an idea of what it takes to play on this field, in this environment, and to be a good professional. That’s how I think I can help, but I can only advise and help in the way that I see fit.”
It remains unclear whether Chambers will return for another season with Bethlehem Steel. He has been enjoying a part-time role with the Union academy and he knows the time is approaching when he will have to choose the next step in life.
But that is for the future, and with seven matches remaining in the 2019 USL Championship regular season, Chambers knows the future can wait. For now, he will continue to do what he does best: Behave as a professional, and show others how to do the same.
Chambo and the rest of the Steel face off with Loudoun United FC at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, September 18 on a special Kids Night at Talen Energy Stadium.