Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
One could certainly contend that nobody knows the USL like Evan Villella. A host of The USL Show and Views from the Bridge podcasts (covering the USL Championship and the Philadelphia Union, respectively), he’s an expert on the Bethlehem Steel. I picked his brain on Nashville SC’s next opponent.
For Club and Country: Has there been a shift in how the Union are using the Steel as a developmental mechanism since Earnie Stewart departed as Sporting Director to take over the USMNT General Manager role? More/fewer minutes for academy players, more/fewer non-Union-prospect veterans alongside them, etc.?
Evan Villella: There has been a shift for sure and you could see it coming as far back as last year’s superdraft. Stewart and company at least would take fliers on guys in the MLS draft and ended up with Bethlehem pocketing guys like Santi Moar, Chris Nanco, Drew Skundrich and Matt Mahoney. Under Tanner, the club gave away all their picks to Cincy and has brought in a fair amount of youth international players. The arrival of guys like Jamoi Topey (Jamaica), Steve Kingue (Cameroon) and Saeid Diaz (Panama) have me thinking the club sees the future moreso in the young kids in developing countries as opposed to our college system. Looking for more Sergio Santos and less Santiago Patino.
FCAC: Last year the Steel started upper-middle of the pack and basically stayed there all year. This year they’ve been toward the bottom for much of the early season. Is there anything (other than maybe bad luck) behind that change? Do you expect it to persist through the end of the season?
EV: The defense has been a bit leaky. Topey has taken a bit of time to gel and mesh and without Matt Mahoney there to clean up Ben Ofeimu hasn’t quite hit his potential yet. The first team goalkeeping situation where both Andre Blake and Matt Freese were hurt at the same time had Carlos Coronel as the first team starter, which saw him move from his usual (at that point at least) job as Steel’s number one. Matt Real’s playing with the U20’s and just general time should help this out but it’s been a bit rough to watch early on this year.
FCAC: How has the team adjusted to playing in Chester instead of Bethlehem? Are there positives (structurally within the Union organization) to go along with negatives of moving and not having a dedicated home venue?
EV: Well, the atmosphere is horrid but that’s not a surprise to anyone right? For the organization it’s a great move. You have your whole club playing within 23 miles now, which has to be great. The kids probably get a bit of a jolt playing in the stadium for the club that’s dominated their young lives and yknow, the training facility not being two hours away has it’s advantages I’m sure. I understand why people in Bethlehem are upset and I do honestly hope there’s a spot up there for Steel to settle into but from a pure “where do we have more oversight and info on our club” standpoint, Steel being in Chester helps that.
FCAC: Obviously the gameday rosters can vary wildly at the whims of the Union, but who have been some of the key performers for the Steel so far this year?
EV: Surprise, James Chambers is still trying to absolutely carry a team on his back. Ben Ofeimu is a guy that everyone’s been really high on due to his size and speed and Zach Zandi has emerged as a pretty solid playmaker on his day. Union Academy transplant (originally from Florida) Shanyder Borgelin only spent 2 years in the Academy but put up 14 goals in 39 appearances, so they think there’s some raw finishing talent there.
FCAC: What would have to happen for the Steel to pull an upset over Nashville SC? Is there a specific player who’d have to have a great day? Any specific predictions, including a final score?
EV: Control possession, take DJ and Bolu to school or something and generally avoid being hit out on the counter I guess? Spoiler, I’d be stunned if it happened.
I’ll go 2-1 to Nashville
Many thanks to Evan for his insight on the Steel. Follow him on Twitter @SpeakEvanSpeak, and across the Beautiful Game Network of podcasts.