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Ben Ofeimu following example of Trusty, McKenzie with Bethlehem Steel FC success

18-year-old Michigan native has made 10 appearances for the Steel this season

Ben Ofeimu (left) has helped anchor a Steel back line that has conceded one goal in their last four games
Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photogr

When Ben Ofeimu left his family, friends and teammates in Michigan to join the Philadelphia Union Academy as a 15-year-old three years ago, he did so with one thing on his mind: becoming a professional soccer player.

Three years later at 18, the 6-foot-3 center back with an obvious nickname is looking more like he could be the next player to go from an amateur earning minutes with Bethlehem Steel FC to inking a professional deal with the organization.

The West Bloomfield Township native has helped anchor a Steel back line that secured a playoff berth allowing only one goal in their last four games. Starting in four straight games, Ofeimu now has 10 pro games under his belt. Though he’s verbally committed to go to Penn State next fall, it’s looking less likely by the week that that will happen.

“It’s been exciting and I’ve learned a lot and every single day I’m learning something new,” he said. “I feel more mature and that I’m taking the steps toward becoming a professional. I’m getting along with the players on the team and that’s showing on the pitch.”

Bringing young players from the academy is one of the primary reasons for Steel — developing players for the first time takes priority over results always — but that doesn’t mean academy players are just being handed opportunities to play in USL games.

Ofeimu is one of only six unsigned players to feature for Steel this season. Brenden Aaronson, who has made 16 appearances, was an amateur for most of the season but signed a first team homegrown deal last month. The other four players — NC State commit Tonny Temple (seven appearances), Penn State freshman Jeremy Rafanello (two appearances), Duke freshman Issa Rayyan (one appearance) and Georgetown commit Tomas Romero (one appearance) — have combined for only one more game than Ofeimu this season.

Part of what has enabled Ofeimu to play so much is rookie defender Mark McKenzie’s play with the first team while splitting the starting job with Jack Elliott. McKenzie getting minutes with the first team opened up minutes at the next level (Steel only carry one traditional center back in Brandon Aubrey on the roster) and Ofeimu has proved deserving of being the “next man up” in training and games with the U19 team.

McKenzie was in a similar place to Ofeimu just two seasons ago — an academy player getting minutes with Steel at center back — something Ofeimu says has served as a motivator in his development, which really took off after returning last fall from a knee injury that saw him miss a good chunk of the 2016-17 academy season (MLS Commissioner Don Garber had a memorable impromptu meeting with Ofeimu while doing his rehab workouts in a visit to YSC Sports in May 2017).

“Auston and Mark they have fantastic mentalities and they’re really good examples for the rest of the guys coming out of YSC,” head coach Brendan Burke said. “Ben’s been lucky in a way to have those guys just a couple steps in front of him and he’s really drawing on their experience and the examples that they’ve laid out for him.”

Traveling that pathway forged by Trusty and strengthened by McKenzie requires hard work day in and day out, from training and playing with the academy teams to training with Steel, repeating performances and showing the consistency the technical staff is looking for that shows that a player is ready to take part in games on the weekend.

“Now as we’ve grown through these games, he’s proving that he can hold up over and over again and that’s when you know you might have a guy who could be a pro in the very near term,” Burke said.

In the 10 games Ofeimu has played this season, the Steel have posted four wins, five draws and a loss. They’re 4-0-3 in the seven games he’s started and gone the full 90 minutes.

Ofeimu has yet to face the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Saturday night’s opponent in the first round of the USL Playoffs. The Riverhounds beat the Steel twice this season, handing them their worst loss of the season in a 4-1 win in early September.

Given his form, it wouldn’t be surprising if Burke goes with Ofeimu for the second playoff game in team history and in the process introduces his young center back to a whole new experience in front of an anticipated packed crowd of ‘Hounds supporters.

“To play young players and to make the playoffs is something that I’m honored to be a part of,” Ofeimu said. “We have a lot of young guys and we’ve all contributed so it shows that the system we have in place is working. It’s one thing to get on the field but not only are we there but we are producing.”

The game kicks off at 7 p.m. at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh and will be broadcast on ESPN+.