Going into last Saturday’s Bethlehem Steel FC match in North Carolina, 16 players had appeared for the Steel on amateur academy contracts. None had scored a goal.
That changed in the 83rd minute when defender Ben Ofeimu collected a pass from Santi Moar in the box, calmly took a touch and blasted a right-footed shot through traffic into the back of the net.
“When it went in I was so surprised and happy,” the 17-year-old said of his equalizer. “I didn’t expect to score, I didn’t go into the game looking to score, I just looked to not mess up basically.”
Ofeimu became the sixth Philadelphia Union Academy player to make his debut in the starting lineup when head coach Brendan Burke selected him to start the match. He also became the third academy player to make their Steel FC debut this season, joining Jeremy Rafanello and Tonny Temple.
“Obviously, the goal is just kind of a bonus, it certainly wasn’t fluky.” Burke said during his weekly press conference on Wednesday.
As a 6-3 center back who has a strong aerial game, Ofeimu is more accustomed to scoring on headers, which he’s done three times since joining the academy in 2015.
“When I was little I had goals like that, but the past couple years it’s been all headers,” Ofeimu said.
The goal aside, it was the job Ofeimu did pairing with Brandon Aubrey on the defensive side of that field and keeping the deficit to one when the Steel weren’t playing their best football in the first half that earned the highest marks from the coaching staff.
“I thought Ben was one of the guys in the first half and the second half that won his individual battles,” Burke said. “I can’t really remember him breaking down, he at least absorbed pressure at the worst in those moments where he was isolated and for his first time out there, that’s a massive step forward.”
After missing half of the season last year with an injury — he met MLS Commissioner Don Garber during a rehab session last March when Garber was on a tour of YSC — Ofeimu began the season as a starting center back for the Union U19 team and by February had shown enough progress to get an invite to Steel FC preseason. While still playing for the U19 team and training for Steel FC, his form in recent weeks gave the Steel FC staff confidence the time was right for his professional debut.
“He handled it really well,” Aubrey said of Ben’s debut. “For me I was just trying to constantly communicate and try and get him into the right positions, have him look over his shoulder, pick up the striker, step in when he needs to step, drop when he needs to drop. He did a really good job of it and there were a couple key challenges he made so I was really proud of him.”
A night that @OfeimuBen will never forget! pic.twitter.com/jf9QEWtTVZ— Bethlehem Steel FC (@BSteelFC) June 3, 2018
Making the moment even more special for Ofeimu was having his mom in the stands at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. When she found out he would be making his debut, Tiffany Ofeimu was able to book a last minute flight from Detroit.
“I was so excited to spend that moment with him,” Tiffany Ofeimu said. “Everything was in order. Flew in that morning, flew out the next day.”
Ofeimu’s older brothers and other family and friends back home in Michigan were also watching. Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, his classmates at YSC Academy hit pause on a dance they were having to watch the video of his goal together.
“That brought tears to my eyes,” Tiffany Ofeimu said. “Those are lifetime relationships he’s building there. It’s been a great experience.”
Verbally committed to Penn State for the 2019 recruiting class, Ofeimu is looking ahead to the postseason with the U19s — his teammates shut out Montreal Impact 2-0 in their final regular season game without him last Saturday — and more opportunities with Steel ahead of his senior season.
“I’m just looking to get games with Steel as much as I can, make the roster and develop in training,” Ofeimu said. “This whole setup, the pathway is clear, you just have to work every day to make a step up. It’s really helping me to become a pro and act like a pro every day.”
The Steel return home Saturday to take on defending USL Cup champions Louisville City FC at Goodman Stadium at 5 p.m. They lost 3-1 in Louisville in the previous meeting between the two teams in late April.