When Bethlehem Steel FC took the Pittsburgh Riverhounds to penalties in the first round of the USL playoffs last weekend, the home side only had ten players available because of an earlier red card. Per USL rules, Steel FC had to remove one player from his group to make the numbers even. Head coach Brendan Burke pulled 18-year old Union academy center back Ben Ofeimu. But one thing that has become readily apparent over Steel FC's final regular season matches and first ever playoff win: Burke wants Ofeimu on the pitch, and Big Ben has earned the right to be there.
"I thought he was great," Burke said of Ofeimu after the match, "And he's been that way all season."
On a roster replete with top Union academy prospects, Ofeimu has managed to fly a bit under the radar. Perhaps this is due to circumstance — he's the third talented young center back to emerge in a club that only plays with two at a time on the first team — or perhaps it's due to questions about his speed, but with little fanfare Ofeimu has done everything in his power to answer questions about his ability to play at the top level.
Now, after playing every minute as Bethlehem gave up one goal across four matches to finish the season, Ofeimu will look to shut down Cameron Lancaster, USL's record-breaking top scorer, this weekend in the second round of the playoffs. Maybe he will, and maybe he won't. But whether Big Ben deserves such a high profile assignment is no longer up for debate.
"I feel the season has gone well," Ofeimu says in the buildup to the Louisville City match. "I've been learning a lot every single day, getting more mature, getting more into the professional game. I've gotten better as a player and I think the team has gotten better; it's been a great year."
With top academy players like Anthony Fontana, Brenden Aaronson, and Matt Real garnering many of the headlines this year, Ofeimu has simply put in work. His size is both a obvious asset and a source of potential criticism: Can such a big frame keep up with the tricky, darting attackers that increasingly populate MLS front lines?
It's a question that can only be answered on a MLS field during a MLS game. So all Ofeimu can do is give the best answer he has right now: Consistent play and clear growth week in and week out with Bethlehem Steel.
"I've been working a lot on my aerial balls, winning headers," Ofeimu says. "I think every game I'm improving in that. Also, I've been working on the mental part of the game, being confident going into the games. Just little parts of my game like heading, playing quicker — I've definitely improved this year.
"Say in a game you have a couple bad passes. Mentally, I think I've grown because before I would have put my head down and gotten myself out of the game. But now I feel the confidence to keep going no matter if my passes aren't on."
Ofeimu's intelligence on and off the pitch is impossible to miss. He's considered in his words and actions, and the tweaks to his game follow from areas he needed to improve the week before. For instance, Ofeimu was extremely aggressive stepping forward against Pittsburgh, constantly denying star attacker Neco Brett the space he needed to turn and bring others into play. After Brendan Burke circled Steel's 4-1 loss to the Riverhounds in early September as a low point in the season, Ofeimu knew he had to play a key role in preventing the experienced home side from finding the same offensive rhythm they developed just over a month prior. He was physical, aggressive, and -- another aspect of his game he has sought to improve -- vocal.
"I've learned a lot, especially on the vocal side," Ofeimu admits. "Being with guys like [Steel captain James] "Chambo" [Chambers] and Omar [Holness], they're so experienced so they've helped me out a lot.
"But at the next level, being vocal is very, very, very important. At the U19 level maybe you don't tell someone, 'Man to your left,' and nothing is going to happen. But at this level, they capitalize on your mistakes.
"It's just about being comfortable with your teammates," he explains. "As the year has worn on, I get more comfortable with the players and know what they want. You know some players don't want to be yelled at, some players want to be encouraged, so you just learn as you get to know the guys."
Those guys have gotten to know Big Ben as well, and it's clear that he's growing into the important role he occupies on a team that refuses to sit deep despite constantly putting out one of the youngest rosters in USL. In fact, getting goals from 18-year old Michee Ngalina and 31-year old James Chambers as they twice came from behind to defeat Pittsburgh was very fitting for Brendan Burke's Steel squad.
"When we tied the game up and then it went to overtime they scored... you always want to believe but at the same time, you're thinking in the back of your head the game's over," Ofeimu says. "But Chambo comes up big for us. That's a free kick that I probably won't forget."
And now Ofeimu wants to make sure Cameron Lancaster won't forget him. "I've been watching film, Burke helps us a lot with film every single week," Ofeimu explains. "[Lancaster] likes to show up in the box, so we have to be tight to him every time he gets the ball. And it's just about our game plan and being focused for 90 minutes. I think the back four is confident we can lock him down."
"Burke tells us every day that we have nothing to lose," he continues. "To be honest, we're not expected to win this game. We'll just play free, and I can't wait to get out there. If we put our foot forward and we really play with confidence, I think we can get a result."
The team is always first for Ofeimu, and so it remains. He hasn't sought out accolades, and he has earned every opportunity that has come his way. Brendan Burke has seen some excellent center backs pass through his team on their way to Philadelphia Union's first team over the past two seasons. Ofeimu didn't arrive with quite the same hype, but he hasn't needed it. Big Ben just needs a pitch to play on and he's showing he can take care of the rest.