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Union Academy forward’s improbable rise continues with Steel FC debut

Jeremy Rafanello has gone from a local club to the Philadelphia Union Academy, the U.S. U19 team and the Bethlehem Steel FC in the past year

Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography

This time last year, Jeremy Rafanello was finishing out a stellar season with Continental FC in the Development Academy, looking ahead to his senior year at Delran High School and a scholarship at Drexel University beyond that.

So much has changed in the past 12 months.

The 18-year-old joined the Philadelphia Union Academy last summer, enrolled at YSC Academy for his senior year and has played his way into the United States U19 team and the Bethlehem Steel FC while changing his college commitment to Penn State.

Last Friday, he made his Steel FC debut subbing into a game against the Ottawa Fury in the 66th minute. The Steel were down 1-0 and if not for a tip over the bar by on loan Montreal Impact goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, he would have marked his debut with a goal.

The road trip was Rafanello’s first with the team, but he wasn’t necessarily expecting to see the field.

“It was fantastic. All the nerves, just very nervous coming in,” Rafanello said in training this week. “I’ve never been in an atmosphere like that before.”

One of the top scorers in the Development Academy over the past two seasons, Rafanello has found the back of the net 43 times in 45 appearances, leading the Continental FC’s U16 team with 20 goals in 24 games last season and leading the Union U19s with 23 goals in 21 games this year.

Matt Ralph

He’d probably have even more goals if he hadn’t missed games with the U.S. U19 team, which included a recent trip to Slovakia. It was Rafanello’s second camp with the team after earning his first call-up for the U.S. Youth Summit Camp in Florida back in January.

He capped his first overseas trip with the team with his first international goal in a 3-0 win over Azerbaijan in the third-place game of the Slovakia Cup.

“Scoring that goal gave me so much confidence,” he said.

Unlike most of his teammates on that U.S. U19 team, Rafanello’s pathway involved a year of high school soccer, a rarity in the international youth ranks and among his peers in the academy.

“When I was playing high school I didn’t even think about this,” Rafanello said. “I pretty much thought I had no shot with the Union, I thought I just wasn’t going to make it and thought I was going to play lower level D1 or D2. It’s come together with Penn State and everything too but I just have to keep working.”

Hard work and consistency have been key in him getting noticed by the academy staff, U.S. Soccer scouts and Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke, who tipped his hand a little bit in his press conference last week by naming Rafanello when asked about opportunities Brandon Allen’s trade to Nashville SC would create in the team.

“I think you have to prove yourself over a long span of time at whatever level you are playing before you get an opportunity at the next level, the way Cory Burke did at our level and is now getting the opportunities with the first team and taking them well,” Burke said. “Rafa was no different with the U19s and proved over a long spell that he was reliable at that level but also a little versatile in that he could drop in and play as a 10 and he has started to show some soccer IQ that is valuable at our level.”

His debut was the second this season from the academy ranks. Tonny Temple made his debut in Charleston on May 12.

Temple and Rafanello are the 15th and 16th players to debut with Steel FC while on amateur academy deals. Academy grads Derrick Jones and Yosef Samuel both made their Steel FC debuts after signing pro contracts. Rafanello is also the fifth from South Jersey, joining Brenden Aaronson, Michael Pellegrino, Tomas Romero and Dawson McCartney.

“When we put him on the other night, I thought he took everything in stride,” Burke said. “He got a great effort off on goal and forced a good save and almost got us back into a game that really we shouldn’t have been involved in.”

The Steel hit the road again this weekend to take on North Carolina FC on Saturday night in Cary, North Carolina.