Earlier this year when U.S. Soccer announced that MLS-owned teams in the USL would no longer be eligible to compete in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it was a big blow to the Bethlehem Steel FC fanbase.
The first iteration of Bethlehem Steel after all is still tied for the most ever Open Cup trophies with five. The Open Cup is a huge part of the legacy of a club that competed from 1907-1930 and got its name from a company that went bankrupt in 2001.
While Steel FC won't be able to compete in the competition, some of their star players not already under contract with the first team still have a chance to make an impact if given the chance.
That chance could come when Philadelphia Union enter the competition with a match at home against Harrisburg City Islanders on June 15. While MLS roster rules prohibit players not signed to the first team from being called up for league matches (except in hardship cases), short-term loans are available for cup competitions, which opens the door for some players not under MLS contracts to step up and give some first-teamers a breather.
Though the Union is on a much-needed hiatus for the Copa América Centenario and should be plenty rested by June 15, the match offers an opportunity to give an extra three days rest to players ahead of a trip to the Big Apple on June 18 and two more games sandwiched in on June 22 and 25.
Two players in particular in need of a rest are rookie sensation Keegan Rosenberry and ageless wonder Brian Carroll. Rosenberry has played every minute of the season so far - the only rookie in the league with that claim - and Carroll will be 35 in July.
Those two positions - defensive midfield and right back - also happen to be two of the strongest being filled by non-first team players on the Steel right now.
Ryan Richter, who scored a goal in a 5-3 win for the Union over Harrisburg in a friendly in 2011, has been a rock for the Steel in their inaugural season on both sides of the field. He's played every minute of 10 games so far, has a pair of goals and has created countless other chances for the offense while holding down his defensive spot with confidence and poise. Richter also has MLS experience, playing in 13 for Toronto FC during the 2013 season.
While Ray Gaddis is higher on the depth chart, few players have proven that they deserve another look in a Union jersey than Richter.
Steel FC's first signing, Derrick Jones, hasn't been far behind Richter in terms of the impact he's had on the young club. The midfielder who was still with the U18 team back in the fall has made tremendous strides in his development, and has just been too good not to be at the top of the list of homegrown targets for the first team.
While Jones has been more of an attacker through much of his development, he's shown well sitting deeper in the midfield, especially when pairing with Boluwatife Akinyode, who has a case of his own for being called up for Open Cup duty. The former New York Red Bulls II player is a physical shut down force in the middle of the field.
James Chambers is another intriguing player who could bring something to the table for the first team in a match against a USL team that seems to be hitting their stride after a rough start (they beat Steel FC 3-1 in Lancaster a couple Sundays ago). At 29, the Irishman is an elder statesman on the team who brings a solid work rate and a, dare I say, Philly Tough by way of Dublin attitude to the team. If it's true that the Union have filled the Steel roster only with players who have a shot at the first team, there's no time like the present to test that out with Chambers.
One last attacking player who could come in handy - particularly with questions over CJ Sapong's health after he was flanked by two teammates helping him to the locker room following Wednesday night's win - is a guy whose been getting a lot of ink lately for making the Liberian national team, Seku Conneh. The 20-year-old forward who Earnie Stewart knows from his Netherlands days hasn't found the back of the net yet for Steel FC but his overall play has often exceeded that of first-teamer Fabian Herbers.
Herbers is likely to start in the Open Cup match if Sapong isn't cleared so Conneh could make for an option off the bench in what always seems to be a closer than expected knockout competition match-up (all-time the Union are 2-0 in Open Cup matches and 4-1-1 in friendlies).
The Union have made the final of the Open Cup two years in a row and lost to the champion three times in a row without the aid of a USL team (Harrisburg as an affiliate was helpful but limiting in terms of development and synergy). Now with playoffs a very real possibility, the Cup drops to second on the priority list and frankly isn't worth the strain if it means dropping points late in the year because of tired legs.
What felt like a bummer when it was announced - Bethlehem Steel FC being barred from the competition - could actually end up being a blessing in disguise if the Union play their cards right and bring in some key reserves to fight the lesser of the two battles. After all, who among us wouldn't mind getting to play in two cup finals this year?