While Bethlehem Steel FC was hard at work in the opening month of the season, fans might have noticed that a pair of its youngest players were absent due to national team call-ups. Philadelphia Union Academy members Tomas Romero competed with the El Salvador National Team U-17s in the 2017 CONCACAF Championships in Panama while Mark McKenzie played for the United States Men’s National Team U-18s in the Slovakia Cup.
“It’s a blessing and an honor to represent the U.S. crest every time that you get called up,” McKenzie said upon returning to Steel FC training this week. “Overall it was a great experience and I got to play against some of the top players from around the world.”
During his time with the U18s, McKenzie earned starts against Hungary in the opener, hosts Slovakia and versus Russia in the final. McKenzie said that the opening match took some time to adjust to the style of international competition but credited the jump he made with Steel FC, where he earned starts against FC Cincinnati and Harrisburg City Islanders, for making the transition easier.
“Playing with the Steel certainly helped me get accustomed to the playing environments that I came up against,” McKenzie said. “It’s professional soccer and you have to be prepared for anytime your name is called whether it’s for a game or a training session. You’ve got to be ready both physically and mentally and this season with Steel FC has helped me continue to grow and raise my game.”
McKenzie and the U.S. finished runners-up in the tournament, falling 3-1 to Russia in the final. Off the pitch, the team got to take in the country’s most prestigious derby, the battle between FC Spartak Trnava and Slovan Bratislava. In the 136th edition of the rivalry, Bratislava defeated Trnava 3-0.
“It was different than an MLS match and much more physical, you could tell is was European soccer,” McKenzie said. “A couple of the guys kept saying that they could play against them and see how we’d do but they are grown men and it’s a different challenge.”
Goalkeeper Tomas Romero stayed closer to home, competing with the El Salvador U17’s in Panama. Paired in the group of death against Mexico, Jamaica and the U.S., Romero earned a pair of starts in the tournament. In the toughest group of the group stages, the club came up short in all three matches. Despite the results, Romero said the experience will only make him a better athlete.
“As an individual, I thought it was good and I used it as a learning experience,” Romero said. “As a team, we didn’t perform as well as we wanted to but I feel like I learned so much from it. I got to learn about different styles of play from around the world, against Mexico they used a formation (4-2-4) that I hadn’t played against so I had to work on my communication with my defenders.”
The Cherry Hill, N.J., native faced other challenges besides tough competition, the language of his teammates while talking to his defenders during the match.
“The biggest challenge was the language barrier,” Romero said. “I’m not fluent in Spanish but I know enough to pass but there were moments when I couldn’t be descriptive or fast enough for them to comprehend what I was saying. I’m used to having to adapt to playing with new players in front of me thanks to the Philadelphia Union Academy and Bethlehem Steel FC but my ultimate position is to save shots and prevent them. Preventing the shots comes from communication and there were challenges.”
Back in training with Steel FC, both players are working hard as Steel FC prepares for its first extended road trip of the season. The three-game road swing begins against the Charleston Battery on Saturday, May 6. Kick off from MUSC Health Stadium is set for 7 p.m.