Photo Paul Rudderow
The governing principle of the Philadelphia Union’s Bethlehem Steel project continues to be player development.
Within that context there have been changes since last season. The tactical shape remains the same, but many people are different.
On the defensive line new flank backs seem technically more versatile than last year’s counterparts. Charlie Reymann has better offensive feet than his predecessor, and Aaron Jones is fluidly less predictable than last year’s incumbent.
In the defensive center, Auston Trusty returns a year older, more experienced, stronger and better, while Hugh Roberts replaces Mickey Daly and Wake Forest signee Mark McKenzie pushes each hard for starting assignments.
The midfield protectors of the defensive critical area – the rectangle centered on the “D” at the top of the penalty box – will not be as physically imposing this year as they were last year. Ball-winners Bolu Akinyode and Derrick Jones are gone, Akinyode sold to North Carolina FC and Jones promoted to Philadelphia Union’s starting line-up.
James Chambers replaces Akinyode and will provide on-field leadership and more versatile offensive distribution. One among Anthony Fontana, Josue Monge and Josh Heard will replace Jones as the new central midfielder. None is as imposing a ball-winner.
For 2017, central midfielder is a large question mark that Rochester Rhinos veteran coach Bob Lilley will test in the home opener this Saturday.
Offensively, the two stories of last season were the searches for:
- an effective attacking center midfielder, and
- better finishing.
James Chambers was the most productive No. 10 on that squad but is better suited to distributing from the defensive central midfield role given his particular skill set.
Adam Najem and Anthony Fontana are this season’s candidates to fill the attacking center midfield role, with 22-year-old Najem having a creative and technical edge over the 17-year-old Fontana. They have both had promising preseasons against MLS reserves and NCAA programs but are untested against quality, veteran USL sides, such as the Rhinos.
At striker, the Steel held over every finisher from last year. To be expected are more physical maturity and greater experience.
Most strikingly, Amoy Brown is no longer a pencil-thin young boy. It no longer looks like reckless endangerment to put him on a USL pitch.
Seku Conneh appears to be the most improved Steel player since this time last year. He has played his way into the team during this preseason. He now adds strong hold-up play to his repertoire of well-timed check-back runs supporting his midfielders. He started at striker against the Union with Cory Burke at right flank midfielder, reprising Burke’s recent role with the Jamaica national team in the friendly against the US in Nashville.
Burke will be healthy from the beginning and start from a stronger base of endurance and strength. As Steel fans know, he leaves it all on the field, often needing substitution by game’s end. With only three available subs this season, that will challenge his coach, especially in medical rehab games for Union loanees, with their mandated substitution circumstances.
The new offensive story for the 2017 Steel is on the flanks. Last season — and so far, in this — the Steel liked to attack down the flanks.
But last season, the primary method in such attacking was combination play. Only Walter Restrepo looked first to defeat his marker by himself, and Restrepo relied a lot on his speed. Ryan Richter and Eric Ayuk were a well synchronized machine together on the right, but neither man challenged flank defenders 1 v 1 as their preferred method of attack.
This year the Steel have 1-v-1 attackers out wide.
Santi Moar has combined excellently with Reymann behind him in the left flank channel during preseason. Their coordination reflects that they have been polishing it together for nine weeks.
But Moar first looks to challenge his flank defender 1-v-1, and he also likes to penetrate into the center taking that first defender by himself. His offensive instincts are what first attracted head coach Brendan Burke’s attention. His penetrations have produced several of the Steel’s goals this preseason.
Marcus Epps on the right consistently tries to defeat his mark on the dribble. In Bethlehem’s friendly against Notre Dame, the Irish quickly began to double and triple team Epps when he had the ball at his fee to prevent it. During Union practices, he and right back Aaron Jones have been secondary players rather than primary ones with the Steel, so the polish and coordination between them is not as advanced as that on the left.
The possibility that Cory Burke will appear as a right flank mid emerged only in the final preseason match against the Union. The trouble he gave Fabinho presages similar difficulties for USL left backs.
Fans should expect:
- The offensive characteristics of Steel flank play to be noticeably different: more technical, individual, versatile and productive.
- The central midfield spine to be less adept at breaking up opposing play but more adept at creating it due to greater imagination at the No. 10.
- A defense comparable to that of 2016’s midseason, not its end-of-season.
- Frequent minor game roster discontinuities, and occasional major ones.
- A heavy bet on improvement from last year’s three finishers that seems so far justified.
- And finally, opponents will try to surround and suppress James Chambers, since the Steel are designed to play through him. Those around him will need to provide support and improve their abilities as secondary distributors.
- The flank defenders are improved in that regard.
- The center backs are unknowns, but all are young enough to improve.
- The center mid will be lesser in that role.
- The attacking center mid and the left flank mid are improved, strongly.
- The right flank mid’s identity is in flux.