Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union
Had Philadelphia Union fans watched Bethlehem Steel FC’s first two games, they might wonder whether some of the young players on Goodman’s grass up at Lehigh should be on the pitch at Talen this Friday.
Considering a few of them are on loan from the Union, it could happen.
Could Giliano Wijnaldum, Adam Najem, Marcus Epps, Jack Elliott, Auston Trusty, or – perhaps – Cory Burke help the Union now?
The 24-year-old Dutch left back has begun to adapt to North American soccer. He practices daily with the Union – as do all above save Burke — so is known well to Jim Curtin, et al.
Bethlehem evaluation: Wijnaldum has played twice and unspectacularly but effectively contained two good USL right wingers, one of whom is pacey for USL. Neither player unduly affected the outcomes of either game. Both opposing coaches seemed to question Wijnaldum’s pace, and he refuted their assumptions.
His offensive role is beginning to grow. He is more conservative in his decisions to overlap than Fabinho or the 2016 version of Keegan Rosenberry. When the move is obvious, he makes it. He delivers good crosses, but he has not shown the ability to create his own space by beating a man with his own individual moves. The combination of him and Marcus Epps in the left channel seems increasingly positive.
Union projection: A Union role for Wijnaldum makes no sense unless he is a starter, since he will grow more from game minutes at Lehigh than he will watching in a padded seat in Chester. Ray Gaddis is a pacier capable MLS fullback whose ceiling is clear and who is towards the end of his contract. Wijnaldum should not come to Talen unless he is going to start, to avoid losing the Lehigh growth opportunity.
Assessment: Wijnaldum is not yet clearly superior to Fabinho but may be moving toward that by later in the season. So, not yet.
The 22-year-old center channel midfielder has so far been effective in the opportunities given him since January.
Bethlehem evaluation: Najem has played as a No. 10 but also as a No. 8 because of the emergence of Cory Burke-Seku Conneh as Bethlehem’s experimental “striker-and-CAM/side-by-side-strikers” hybrid, as awkward as the poorly understood descriptor is. In either midfield role, Najem finds good positions from which he delivers effective short passes regularly and killer ones upon occasion. Rochester’s good veteran defense and midfield contained him adequately during the hour he played against them as a No. 10. Defensively, in part to Najem’s credit, neither side attacked at will down the center of the pitch while he was on it.
Union projection: A Union role for Najem makes most sense at the No. 10, given first team depth at the No. 8, and would send a powerful negative signal to both Roland Alberg and his potential future employers, dropping his asset value. It also would deny Najem the Goodman growth opportunity, a la Wijnaldum.
Assessment: Najem would make most sense during a Bedoya national team absence, as it would not challenge the national teamer’s current club role.
The Union’s top draft pick is a flank midfielder whose first-choice offensive move is to attack his defender on the dribble, and he doesn’t care how many defenders surround him when he attacks.
Steel evaluation: He seems to have become a left flank player. He has good pace for the USL and showed the same against MLS reserves. He should establish himself as an effective USL winger. Defensively, he knows his responsibilities and recovers with speed to execute them.
Union projection: His role with Union lies in the future, as he is buried under Pontius, Herbers, Ilsinho, Picault, and – potentially – Bedoya on the depth chart. That he has a future is suggested both by his presence on the Union’s bench last Saturday night ahead of Fafa Picault and by the age and contract status of Ilsinho and Pontius. He is pacier than both but has not yet proved himself as a professional-level scorer. He is not yet the Union’s Fabian Herbers, but neither was Herbers himself this time last year.
Assessment: Could be ready, but the depth chart for wide midfielders is quite deep.
The 21-year-old English daddy longlegs has already proved himself as an MLS center back substitute. He made a case Saturday that he may also be a defensive midfielder.
Steel evaluation: He played the No. 6 as well as James Chambers does offensively and better defensively because his long legs cover more ground. So far, the only time he had been beaten badly one-v-one was by Josh Heard for the penalty in the Union-Steel friendly/training session. He shows good passing vision for a defender. His long, diagonal aerial ball found Cory Burke for the penalty in the 24th against Cincinnati, and a similar pass found Seku Conneh for the game winner in the 61st.
Union projection: He is already established as a center back, and in an emergency, he could finish a game for Haris Medunjanin. His distribution is superior to Carroll’s and Creavalle’s. His reading and positioning as a DM were quite good, and he did look good as two or three of his well-anticipated slide tackles ended Cincinnati threats. His legs cover more ground than Carroll’s, although Carroll likely remains the superior defender at defensive midfield as a whole. Elliott does not accelerate explosively like Creavalle and is not as fast once accelerated.
Assessment: He would not be an ideal choice against a truly pacey striker, but he seems a credible MLS central defender.
The 18-year-old homegrown left center back is generally expected to go to South Korea in May and early June for the U-20 World Cup, handicapping him in his competition with Elliott as the substitute center back.
Bethlehem evaluation: He has started twice this year and played the full 180. He positions himself well, has good pace and excellent leaping ability, and tackles strongly. In combination with fellow 18-year-old Mark McKenzie, they shut out Cincinnati’s new striker Djiby Fall, who had scored in each of the Ohioans’ matches up to this point in the season.
Union projection: If Richie Marquez got hurt and the next opposition striker was fast, Trusty might step ahead of Elliott, as Jim Curtin might sacrifice distribution for pace along his back line, gaining the high restraining line as well as the individual matchup that pace would provide. The mid-season Union exhibition game just announced will almost certainly be his first-team debut, if it does not happen beforehand. That’s when Derrick Jones debuted in 2016. As in several cases above, playing for Bethlehem is better than bench-sitting for the first team.
Assessment: He could be ready, with the right matchup and if needed.
Unlike everyone else on this list, the big Jamaican is not yet a Union player. Eric Ayuk’s loan, however, frees up a roster spot and an international slot, should the Union want to sign him.
Seku Conneh has gotten all the press, rightly, because he has had the poise to finish. Burke forced the Cincinnati penalty but headed a Conneh service just wide and pounded a breakaway off the post. It has been Burke’s and Conneh’s defensive energy that has enabled the Steel to press the opposition high up the pitch, but especially Burke’s. He hunts defenders like a hungry wolf tracking caribou.
Recently, Steel head coach Brendan Burke casually but overtly connected Cory Burke with the Union, as an appropriate future goal for the Jamaican. The big Jamaican has showed MLS-level energy and commitment, both with the Steel and in February in Nashville with the Jamaican national team. Keep watching.