Zach Zandi had a goal and helped create another in his professional debut and Philadelphia Union forward Kacper Przybylko scored in his first minutes in a regular season match since signing with the first team last fall to lead Bethlehem Steel FC to a 2-0 win over Birmingham Legion on Sunday.
Playing in front of a standing-room only crowd of 5,807 at BBVA Compass Field, the Steel made the most of their opportunities to give head coach Brendan Burke a win in his 100th game at the helm.
Zandi, one of only three players over the age of 21 in the lineup, created the first goal when he chased down a ball that had been cleared off a corner kick and sent in a curling ball that Kacper Przybylko headed toward the goal. Legion keeper Trevor Spangenburg saved the initial attempt, but gave up a rebound Przybylko was able to put away to give the visitors the 1-0 advantage in the 53rd minute.
Fifteen minutes later, Matt Real set up the second goal from the left flank when he found Zandi open just outside the D. The recent Villanova grad from West Chester, Pa. collected the ball and calmly turned and fired a low curling effort that beat the keeper to his left.
The Steel back line anchored by teenage center backs Ben Ofeimu and Jamoi Topey was put to the test in the final 20 minutes of the match, but did well to limit chances for a Legion attack that looked threatening but turned their best chances on the day into relatively routine save opportunities for Union homegrown goalkeeper Matt Freese in the 20-year-old’s professional debut.
Captain James Chambers nearly put the Steel up in the 37th minute with a well-taken free kick, but Spangenburg’s diving effort robbed the 32-year-old of the opening goal of the season in his 85th appearance for the Steel.
Przybylko, who was very active on the day, came close to a brace in the 64th minute when he and Anthony Fontana combined to set up a shot attempt that went wide. Zandi started the play by pouncing on an errant pass and sending a ball in from the right flank to Przybylko, who was able to chest the ball down and then backheel it to Fontana, who danced around a couple defenders and got the ball back to Przybylko for the attempt.
All four of the defenders, which included Issa Rayyan at right back for his first game with Steel as a professional, put in solid shifts but Ofeimu stood out with a key sliding intervention on a dangerous cross and some other timely clearances. Topey took a little bit of a beating going up against Femi Hollinger-Janzen, but created quite the formidable pairing with Ofeimu while Rayyan and Real were a handful with their skillsets going forward (Rayyan with his technical skill on the ball, Real with his passing) and relentless defending coming back.
Burke held onto his subs until very late with the Legion pushing hard in the final 10 minutes, but ended up giving short cameo debuts to academy trio Cole Turner, Shanyder Borgelin and Jack de Vries. In total, 9 of the 14 players on the pitch were making Steel debuts.
“We had five or six guys make their professional debut today in a great environment and get a result,” Burke said after the match. “So happy for each of them and proud of all of our young guys out there who put in mature performances across the board. It’s only one game, but 2019 got off to a very good start for a lot of promising young players.”
The Steel return home to host North Carolina FC at Talen Energy Stadium Saturday at 7:30 p.m. North Carolina is coming off a 4-1 win over two-time defending USL Cup champions Louisville City.
Bethlehem Steel FC: Matt Freese*; Matt Real*, Jamoi Topey, Ben Ofeimu, Issa Rayyan; James Chambers©, Chavany Willis; Zach Zandi (Jack de Vries# 90+6’), Anthony Fontana*; Saed Díaz (Cole Turner# 88’), Kacper Przybylko (Shanyder Borgelin# 90+4’)
Substitutes not used: Tomás Romero#; Walter Cortés, Nathan Harriel#
#-Union Academy amateur *-On Loan from Philadelphia Union