In an ever-changing soccer landscape that has seen teams embrace playing young talent, a key piece of the developmental puzzle has been finding an environment that can test and push top academy players so they are ready for the leap to Major League Soccer. For Philadelphia Union, that place has been Bethlehem Steel FC in the USL Championship, and Brendan Burke’s side has already shown to be a strong proving ground.
When Bethlehem Steel FC kicked off its inaugural season in 2016 there were some younger pieces planting their roots. Under the direction of Burke, a former Union assistant coach who has embraced a challenging task with Steel, 17-year-old Auston Trusty rose from the Union academy to become the club’s fifth-ever homegrown signing that August. Steel FC made its own Academy signing, adding 19-year-old midfielder Derrick Jones. Up top for Steel FC was Cory Burke, brought in on loan from Jamaica to see if he could adjust to a new country after performing as a top striker in his home country.
Even in the first season Steel FC provided major returns for the Union as both Jones and Trusty earned homegrown contracts. But 2016 also gave the first taste of professional soccer to even younger talent. Future homegrowns Anthony Fontana, Matt Real and Mark McKenzie all made their USL Championship debuts as members of the Academy in that first season.
In 2017 the organization and mission of Bethlehem Steel FC was established and put into motion. The club would focus on finding talent, giving experience to the top players in the system and keep first team players in gameday shape. As Steel FC qualified for the postseason for the first time in club history, the seeds planted that inaugural season produced heavy yields. Cory Burke bagged nine goals, Auston Trusty played every minute of each match in which he appeared (a streak that only recently came to an end in 2019). As that first group developed, a new generation was arriving: Future Union and Steel signings Brenden Aaronson and Issa Rayyan made their debuts from the Union academy.
In the end, Steel FC exceeded expectations by making the playoffs in 2017, and three players inked deals with the Union. After two strong seasons, Cory Burke became the second Steel FC contracted player -- and first not affiliated with the Academy -- to sign. A few weeks later defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie joined the first team as well.
As Philadelphia Union continued to look for younger talent, the average age of Steel FC’s group trended lower but Burke still found on-field success while meeting the organization’s developmental goals. As Brenden Aaronson grew into a creative force against players nearly twice his age, Bethlehem Steel FC continued to develop the future in defender Ben Ofeimu and forwards Michee Ngalina and Faris. The club also found outside back Olivier Mbaizo who impressed in preseason training and earned a contract with the big club.
Youth has become Steel FC’s calling card, but it’s hardly the only reason for its existence. Break down the 2019 Union roster: 14 of the club’s 26 players have appeared with Steel FC at some point in their careers. Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll, Fabinho and Marco Fabián have all suited up for Steel FC and used the minutes to not only get ready for Union matches but also pass along their knowledge of how to be a professional to players getting their first tastes of pro soccer.
The Union’s “Path to the Pros” has already produced strong players that have experienced high-intensity matches. For a club that requires 18 and 19 year-olds to make an instant impact at the highest levels, there must be a space where those young players can feel the speed and professionalism of top level soccer. Steel FC has been that place for the Union.
Seeds that were planted years ago are bearing fruit, and roots are taking hold each season. Patrick Bohui recently became the youngest player ever to step on the field for Steel FC, and Shanyder Borgelin became yet another talented young attacker to join Burke’s team from the Union academy. Aaronson? Burke? Trusty? They were the first to arrive in MLS, but they certainly won’t be the last that Steel grows into pro-ready players for the Union organization.