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Union Academy players to watch in USL this season

Brenden Aaronson, Tomas Romero and Michael Pellegrino lead a group of Union Academy players who will compete for minutes this season with Bethlehem Steel FC

Tonny Temple in a preseason match for Steel FC against Penn FC
Matt Ralph

One of the benefits of having Bethlehem Steel FC the past two seasons has been the opportunity the team has provided for players in the Philadelphia Union Academy to compete for minutes in USL.

Derrick Jones, Anthony Fontana, Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie and Matt Real have all used their time in USL well, parlaying playing time in the Lehigh Valley to first team contracts. All but Derrick Jones made their debuts in Bethlehem as amateurs.

With Trusty the only bonafide first team starter in the bunch, you can expect to see many of the homegrowns still playing in Bethlehem. But you’ll also have a chance to see some potential future homegrowns this season.

Head coach Brendan Burke said during a news conference on Wednesday that two players have stood out among the crop of about two dozen who have been with the team in preseason.

“I think there are two guys that have gone in and established themselves at the end of last year in Michael Pellegrino and Brenden Aaronson,” Burke said. “Outside of those guys, I think Issa Rayyan and Tonny Temple are really pushing to be involved heavily with the group at the start of the season and I think there is another tier or group of players that are pushing behind them. But those two in particular, Aaronson and Pellegrino, are guys that I would not hesitate to put into a game right now.”

He also said that goalkeepers Tomas Romero and Kristopher Shakes are locked in a battle for the chance to play should one of the first team goalkeepers not be available. Romero became the youngest in USL history to start a game in goal when he made his debut at 16 last season. He ended up playing seven games. But Shakes is a highly touted prospect in his own right.

“I do envision there being first team involvement and that the opportunities that are left open would go to the next academy players and I do think Shakes and Romero are in a dog fight for that one,” Burke said.

Here’s a look at the academy players to watch for in Bethlehem this season:

Brenden Aaronson, MF, Medford, N.J.
Aaronson has been a star in the making over the past couple years so it wasn’t really that surprising that he made such a splash with the first team in training camp down in Clearwater, scoring a goal in a scrimmage against New York Red Bulls. Aaronson will compete for minutes at the No. 10 spot for Steel, but they won’t come easily since second-year first team midfielder Adam Najem (and possibly Anthony Fontana as well) will need minutes somewhere in the midfield when they aren’t in the first team 18. He still has another year of high school and an offer from Indiana University for 2019 to weigh but his place in the depth chart could factor into how soon he decides to start his professional career.

Tomas Romero, GK, Cherry Hill, N.J.
It’s hard to find a young goalkeeper more hard-working and dedicated to improving his craft than Romero. He made major strides last season thanks to the decision by the Union organization to not roster a goalkeeper in USL. He made his debut at 16 and despite a few bumps in the road is poised for another year of growth this season. Like last year, he’ll have a chance to play when Andre Blake is away on international duty or one of the three first team keepers is unavailable for selection. He’s committed to Georgetown University for 2019 and could follow a similar path San Jose Earthquakes homegrown JT Marcincowski has followed.

Kris Shakes, GK, Austin, Texas
While he’s had to buy his time behind Romero, Shakes continues to impress and improve in his play both for the U19 and U17 teams and for the United States U18 team. A skilled shot-stopper and a dynamic leader on the field, Shakes could be poised to be the next young Union goalkeeper to make an impact on the USL level.

Tonny Temple, F, Millville, Pa.
Temple returned to the Philadelphia Union Academy last summer after spending a couple years down in Florida with the now shuttered United States U17 Residency Program. He’s been on the fringes of breaking into the Steel since he first trained with the team while home on spring break last year. But building on his stellar performance in the preseason could very well earn him minutes this season. Another 2019 high school graduate, Temple has all of the skills to become a professional. This could be an exciting year for him.

Michael Pellegrino, MF, Wenonah, N.J.
Pellegrino made his Steel debut under the most difficult of circumstances — Tampa Bay Rowdies away during a playoff push — and performed admirably. He also spent time with the first team in Florida and captained the U17s in Generation adidas Cup play so he’s had plenty to prepare him for the USL season. The question will be how Pellegrino works his way into a crowded Steel midfield. As a 2019 high school graduate, he’ll be with the team all season and should have ample opportunity to prove himself and continue his growth at the very least on the training pitch.

Issa Rayyan, F, Dearborn, Mich.
Rayyan has made a pair of appearances over the last two seasons with Steel and while he’s still only 17, is committed to Duke University for the fall. He provides Brendan Burke with options down the left flank as he’s shown in preseason minutes. Look for him as a possible late game substitute to stretch the defense.

Other academy players who have participated in preseason with Steel FC include forward/midfielder Jeremy Rafanello, midfielder/left back Seth Kuhn, center back Ben Ofeimu, right back Nykolas Sessock, midfielder Darius Lewis and goalkeeper Lukas Burns.