When defender Matthew Real signed a USL contract with Bethlehem Steel FC in January, it signaled two things: one that Wake Forest was no longer an option and two that he would be available for the long haul of the season.
His play for Steel - after returning from an injury in preseason - made good on the promise he has shown for years playing in the academy system and for various U.S. youth international teams.
The 18-year-old Drexel Hill native finished the season with 18 starts at left back and played arguably his best soccer during the Steel’s stretch run that put them in the playoffs. He scored his first professional goal against Saint Louis FC in the regular season finale that secured a 1-1 draw and a first ever playoff berth for the club.
While he locked down the starting job in the latter part of the Steel season, left back was split on the first team this season between veteran Fabinho and newcomer Giliano Wijnaldum, who made 13 first team starts and seven starts with Steel. The 25-year-old had mixed results in his first season with the Union and is rumored to be possibly moving on.
Wijnaldum leaving would make signing Real a no-brainer, but the club might have to sign him regardless or risk losing him to a club abroad. A USL deal was one way to keep Real with the Union during his senior year in high school, but a first team contract may be the only way to keep him here now.
Beyond Real, the options for homegrown signings are plentiful but the targets aren’t quite as clear.
Mark McKenzie spurned a USL offer and some interest abroad to go to Wake Forest and he’s struggled for playing time, checking in to just nine of the Demon Deacons 16 games this season. Former academy teammates Justin McMaster and Joey DeZart have seen more playing time there with McMaster chipping in a pair of goals and three assists and DeZart getting regular starts in the midfield for a team that is 15-1-0 on the season.
Dawson McCartney has continued with Dartmouth where he left off with Steel in the summer with a pair of goals and six assists in 13 games for the Big Green (Tiger Graham has a pair of goals in 13 appearances). Also at the college level, South Florida freshman Josue Monge has made an impact with a pair of goals and an assist in 14 appearances and 11 starts for the Bulls, Zach Zandi continues to be a catalyst for Villanova and goalkeeper Andrew Verdi has started all but two of Michigan’s games in goal as a redshirt freshman (2 clean sheets, 1.02 goals against average).
Looking back again at the recently completed Steel season, the South Jersey trio of Brenden Aaronson, Michael Pellegrino and Tomas Romero have all given fans reason to be excited about the future. All three don’t graduate high school until 2019 so they could have at the least another full season with Steel before decisions about going pro or going the college route come fully into view.
Goalkeeper Kristopher Shakes hasn’t made his Steel debut yet, but he’s another from a strong 2019 graduating class to keep an eye on. Central midfielder Cole Turner is still another player from the 2019 class turning heads with his play for the U17s.
Going even younger, some other players to watch for the future include U17 midfielder Julian Anderson and U17 and U19 forward Axel Picazo. There are also a slew of players at the U15 level making names for themselves like Selmir Miscic, who has 16 goals in 10 games across all competitions this fall, playmaker Paxten Aaronson and holding midfielder Dante Huckaby. Though he’s still only 12, Nelson Pierre is a name to remember considering his play for the U15s (he had a pair of goals in the first leg of Generation adidas Cup qualifiers) and his 47 goals in 30 games over the past two seasons between the U14 and U12 teams.