Irish midfielder James Chambers may be new to the concept of American-style playoffs to crown a league champion, but he’s far from being a stranger to big games.
During his long career in his native Ireland, Chambers played in and won multiple cup titles, most recently capturing a League of Ireland Cup for St. Patrick’s Athletic in 2015 (he converted one of four penalty kicks in the shootout).
“A playoff is a new experience but it’s something I’m relishing,” Chambers said. “It’s win or go home essentially so yeah I have a little bit of experience with that but the playoff thing is a little different here.”
On a team where lineup fluidity has been a constant, the 30-year-old Chambers is one of a core group of players who has provided stability to the Bethlehem Steel project in his two seasons with the team both on the field and in training.
While 41 players have seen the field for the team this season, only Philadelphia Union loanee Aaron Jones has played more minutes than Chambers (Jones has 2,487, Chambers 2,251).
“Obviously we have some moving parts when people come down and people come up from the academy but our core group of players have been phenomenal,” Chambers said. “It’s a group; not one player has gotten us here.”
To get to tonight’s playoff match-up against top seed in the east Louisville City required a run of results in seven of the Steel’s last eight games.
“We turned it on when the time was right this year,” head coach Brendan Burke said. “There is zero hesitation in us this year and that’s why we were one of the best teams on the road in the league this year.”
Chambers is one of three key returners from last year’s inaugural team along with Cory Burke and Seku Conneh, who combined for 19 goals this season to lead the offense.
Roster additions of defender Hugh Roberts, rookie left back Matt Real and Union draft picks Santi Moar and Chris Nanco to the roster along with first team loanees Jake McGuire, Aaron Jones, Adam Najem, Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty have all helped the team go from 28 points in the first season to 44 this year.
“We understand the project a little more,” Chambers said. “I think more people understand their roles and responsibilities, which is key first and foremost but then I think too a lot of the players have come back as better players.”
Contributions from the academy, from goalkeeper Tomas Romero to Mark McKenzie and Dawson McCartney before they left for college and Brenden Aaronson and Michael Pellegrino of late in the midfield have shown the team can still win while providing a proving ground for potential future first teamers.
“We’re playing multiple 16-year-old guys and we’re aggressive about playing I think 14 teenagers this year,” Burke said. “I don’t think that precludes you from the playoffs.”
Chambers has also been key in this area, serving as a mentor to young players both in training and on the field as he did to great effect while sharing the midfield with Pellegrino and Aaronson in late September when the Steel earned a crucial road point against Tampa Bay Rowdies.
With the team skewing as young as it does, Chambers won’t be the only one experiencing the playoffs for the first time tonight.
“Most of the young guys it’s their first experience of it,” Chambers said of tonight’s game, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. eastern and is available to stream on YouTube. “They’ll relish and cherish it and it will give them a good experience going forward in their careers.”
For Chambers, he’ll be treating tonight much like he has all of the other big games he’s played in his career.
“Plain and simple we’re looking to win the game,” he said.