Bethlehem Steel FC lost their season opener to the visiting Rochester Rhinos 3-2 on an 88th minute goal by Rochester’s Jochen Graf.
The Rhinos jumped out to a 2-0 first half lead on goals from former Philadelphia Union youth player Darius Madison in the 9th minute and a penalty kick scored by Wal Fall in 34th.
The Steel scored two penalties of their own, by Philadelphia Union loanee Charlie Davies in first half stoppage time and Seku Conneh in the 72nd minute, to even the score.
Then Graf, the Rhinos’ striker substitute, won a ball headed by Jalen Brown from 16-year-old Steel goalkeeper Tomas Romero just outside the six and stroked home for the win.
The Steel started eight players loaned from the Union, one actual Steel-contracted player, and two Academy players who practice regularly with Bethlehem.
After 35 minutes of the first half, Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke rearranged his flank midfielder and back combinations to place together players who have practiced together more regularly. Union loanee Marcus Epps switched to the left channel in front of fellow loanee Giliano Wijnaldum, and Steel player Santi Moar changed to the right side in front of Aaron Jones. The improvement in offensive performance was immediately clear, and those combinations continued after halftime.
The most striking improvement in Steel performance came after the 57th minute when coach Burke substituted Cory Burke and Conneh for Josue Monge and Moar. Adam Najem dropped back to center mid, Conneh played attacking center mid, and Burke reprised his recent role with the Jamaican national team on the right wing.
The move amplified the increased intensity with which the Steel had begun the second half and resulted in Burke winning the penalty that Conneh scored to level matters. Both brought size, strength and skill and fresh legs and pushed Rochester back on their heels.
Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley countered by bringing on Graf for starter Madison, with apparent instruction that the Rhinos strikers were to contest the Steel back four for possession. Previously, Bethlehem’s backs had faced no resistance in the half.
Once the score was leveled, the Steel continued to fight for the winner and were twice caught short by Rhinos’ counterattacks. The first was saved wonderfully by Romero, who killed a 1-v-1 breakaway. In the second, Romero was defeated physically by Graff in a rugby fight for the ball, at the cost of the game.
- Epps shines: Marcus Epps grew into the game very brightly. He attacked Rochester defenders on the dribble quite successfully. His established left flank threat lead to the most creative Steel attempt on goal from the run of play. Wijnaldum faked to him up the left channel, opening space for a cross to Charlie Davies beyond the far post outside the six that Davies laid back for on-rushing Adam Najem. Unfortunately, the shot was just wide left.
- Coaching adjustments help: Brendan Burke made two tactical adjustments during the game that brightened the Steel’s performance and brought them level.
- Depth chart update: Ken Tribbett appears to have fallen behind Jack Elliott on the organization’s depth chart, although it’s possible he may have featured with Bethlehem for injury rehab. He was sent to play in Bethlehem, and later in the evening Elliott debuted at halftime for the Union replacing injured Richie Marquez. Tribbett faced some challenges from Darius Madison’s pace, challenges that Auston Trusty dealt with effectively in the first half when Rochester seemed to be targeting the 18-year-old.
Steel: Tomas Romero;** Aaron Jones,* Ken Tribbett,* Auston Trusty,* Giliano Wijnaldum;* Brian Carroll,* Josue Monge** (Seku Conneh, 57’); Marcus Epps,* Adam Najem,* Santi Moar (Cory Burke, 57’); Charlie Davies.* Unused substitutes: Jahmali Waite,** Charlie Reymann, Hugh Roberts, Mark McKenzie,** Josh Heard
*Union loanee, **Academy player
Rochester: Tomas Gomez; Jordan Dover, Joe Farrell, Ryan Felix, Bradley Kamden; Stefan DeFregger (Brandon Beresford, 75’), Wal Fall, Kenardo Forbes, Mike Garzi (Jalen Brown, 86’); Ryan James, Darius Madison (Jochen Graf, 65’). Unused substitutes Dan Lynd, Todd Pratzner, Ray Lee, Christiano Francois
9’ – ROC – Darius Madison (Mike Garzi)
34’ – ROC – Wal Fall (penalty)
45’+3 – BSFC – Charlie Davies (penalty)
72’ – BSFC – Seku Conneh (penalty)
88’ – ROC – Jochen Graf (Jalen Brown)
Bethlehem play again next Sunday April 9 at 4:00 PM at Goodman stadium hosting FC Cincinnati.