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USL Preview: Bethlehem Steel built for both development and competition

Three things to look for in a really exciting 2018 Bethlehem Steel FC squad

Pat Jacoby Photography Pat Jacoby Photography

Bethlehem Steel kick off their third season this Sunday against Richmond, and while you can watch all the games on YouTube (Sunday’s is here) coming out to a match is the best way to figure out who comprises the next wave of Union stars and what the Academy-USL-MLS pipeline is all about. That being said, I totally understand that it’s money and time that people might not have or want to spend, so here’s a few plots coming into the 2018 season.

The young pros looking for rebound years (Brandon Allen, Omar Holness, Brandon Aubrey)

Allen is as pure of a striker as anyone in the US right now. After tearing it up for NY Red Bulls II two years ago, his trip to the first team and consequent loan move to Minnesota wasn’t what anyone was hoping for. Allen played a total of six minutes for the Loons and subsequently was snapped up by the Union and signed to a USL deal. Allen replaces Corey Burke in a like-for-like fashion, with Allen just needing to prove he can press like Burke did. Besides that, flanking him are the speedy Chris Nanco and USL Rookie of the Year nominee Santi Moar, which is a very dangerous attacking trio.

Omar Holness is another guy that will tear it up at this level. Holness was with Real Salt Lake/SLC Monarchs last year and was set for a banner year before an ACL tear derailed his campaign. While he’s not 100% yet, with Steel’s midfield depth (more on that in a bit) he can take his time coming back fully. He’ll run box-to-box and not only provide a solid passing and defensive outlet for Bethlehem, he’ll also help take some of the workload off of James Chambers. He’ll also probably wind up breaking into the senior side of the Jamaican National Team, which is a great individual accomplishment and something we’ve seen launch a few guys into MLS teams.

Brandon Aubrey is a bit of a wild card. After the departure of Hugh Roberts as the stalwart USL center back who runs things out of the back while pairing with a first-team CB more often then not, the Union tapped Toronto FC/TFCII center back Brandon Aubrey to fill the role. Aubrey (to try and get in the head of the organization) simply just has more potential than Hugh did. Between that, his magnet of a head on aerial challenges and smoothness hitting those ever-so-critical long balls out of the back, Aubrey seems to be a sleeper candidate to move up to the Union come the end of this year. If he can get rid of some silly mental mistakes that haunted him in the north, he’ll be a steal for Bethlehem and a name on everyone’s lips.

Draft picks looking to prove themselves (Aidan Apodaca, AJ Paterson, Drew Skundrich)

Interestingly enough, only one of these picks was a Union get. They went out and grabbed Aidan Apodaca in the third round, with the Cal Baptist forward coming off a literally unprecedented year in the NCAA. In short, no one has hit 29 goals in 19 games before, and I’d be stunned if anyone does it again for a long time. Where USL teams are going to really find trouble is that Apodaca is going to be a bench option to start. He’s breathing down Brandon Allen’s neck for the starting striker role, and if he comes out hot or Allen slips, the job falls to Aidan. In tandem they are a nightmare. Brandon is your typical Union-coveted hold-up play, big-bodied forward with a knack for creating goals inside the 18-yard box. Apodaca is smaller, elusive, and incredibly strong for his size. Both guys poured it in this preseason and if either of them produce the way they can, Bethlehem will leave everyone else in the East on the floor.

AJ Paterson came in midway through the preseason and the NYCFC draftee immediately impressed. He’s a hybrid center mid/center back who plays box-to-box and can basically do it all. He started every game of his senior year at Wright State, scored a career high 7 goals from midfield and was the Horizon League player of the year. AJ will pair up with anyone they put next to him well, whether it be the captain James Chambers, Stanford standout Drew Skundrich, Wisconsin’s destroyer Mike Catalano or even the Academy boys Brenden Aaronson and Michael Pellegrino. He’s got speed for his size and a knack for finding through balls to feed forwards. All these guys in this group are looking for an impact but I think somewhere AJ wants to make NYCFC regret passing on him.

Enter Drew Skundrich. Diehard Union Academy followers or maybe some of our Lancaster readers might know Drew for his 2012 Generation Adidas Cup win with the Academy. The Pennsylvania native went off to Stanford for his college career, where he proved he could win there too. He won three consecutive national titles, including a co-captaincy for the two most recent ones. Skundrich was the midfield engine for the Cardinal. Picked by the LA Galaxy, Skundrich was with Los Dos (the LA USL side) for a good bit of preseason so he’s already acclimated to the style of play that USL has to offer. Another multi-tool player, Drew is an option to play at right back, but it seems like Matt Mahoney has the starting gig there locked up. Where he fits in the squad might be more apparent after Sunday but there aren’t many teams with a guy with cup-winning success at every level in their side, let alone off the bench.

Complacency will kill you (Mike Catalano, Matt Mahoney, Goalkeeper)

The real name of the game for Brendan Burke and really the greater Union technical staff is player development. Bethlehem are going to see plenty of first team guys getting minutes, and this year, they have guys that will challenge some of the first team players in training week in and week out.

Mike Catalano is one of the most intense people on the field. He hates losing. He took the University of Wisconsin from a bottom-level team in the Big Ten to a NCAA tournament powerhouse. Between Cat, Skundrich, Paterson, Chambers, Pellegrino, Aaronson, Adam Najem, and Derrick Jones, Bethlehem have a ton of depth and talent at midfield. Brendan Burke has always been a bit more flexible with his lineup, so if someone in the middle of the park for Steel slips up, Catalano will take advantage and move up in the chart. Of course, that is to say if he’s not a starter already. The intimidating part about this Bethlehem lineup is that there aren’t guys who are clearly a cut above their squadmates. Predicting who starts where is futile at this point.

Matt Mahoney was a workhorse last year. Following up on his reputation from his time at Temple University, where he missed zero games, Mahoney was a guy that maybe wasn’t the first name on the team sheet but he plugged in and played well whenever needed. This year, a solid preseason has Mahoney firmly in the driver’s seat for the right back spot opposite Prosper Chiluya on the left. Union homegrown Matt Real will look to beat out Chiluya on the left side but Mahoney gets to prove himself at right back and will look to improve on his solid 2017 and his strong 2018 preseason campaign.

Goalkeeper is a weird spot for Steel FC. Last year we mostly saw Academy product Tomas Romero but were also given a heavy dose of Jake McGuire and in cameo roles John McCarthy. I’d expect McGuire and Romero again this year with Kris Shakes fighting Romero for that top Academy keeper spot. McGuire was a golden glove caliber keeper and Romero, then 16, was a constant source of frustration, playing well and making big saves against players ten years his senior. The revolving door might be a bit of a problem compared to other teams that have their number one keeper week in and week out but to the organization’s credit, the guys that Steel have are excellent communicators who all know what kind of back line they are working with.

It’s a new year, the team has new kits, the USL is better than ever. Bethlehem Steel FC are built for this. Interested? Come out and see it for yourself.