Bethlehem Steel FC: Cameroonian defender Olivier Mbaizo’s addition creates more competition for 2018 back-line

Go back about 10 days ago when rumors were floating around regarding a certain Cameroonian soccer player who allegedly made travel arrangements to fly across the pond to USA aiming to ink a professional deal, specifically in Major League Soccer (MLS). The rumors continued and sure enough the Philadelphia Union were one of the clubs linked with this news. However, whether an MLS contract or a deal with United Soccer League (USL) affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC would come next was unclear. January 22nd, the news broke that 20-year old defender Olivier Mbaizo was officially signed as an international player with Bethlehem Steel FC.

2018 SuperDraft + Accam deal overshadowed Mbaizo’s signing

During the week of January 22nd some other rather exciting news went down involving Philadelphia Union soccer. Not only was the Mbaizo signing overshadowed by the 2018 MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia, but a major trade occurred on top of that event. Wingman David Accam swapped teams and joined Philadelphia for allocation money. The Union faithful singularly focused on the Accam acquisition – rightly so given his past three MLS seasons – but unfortunately the signing of Mbaizo remained an afterthought on the minds of many.

Philadelphia ended the MLS SuperDraft with not only a new goal creating/scoring winger in Accam but also selected three players to join the organization, most likely with Bethlehem if they perform up to par in preseason. Mbaizo’s signing did not gain the attention it deserved due to those happenings.

Who is Olivier Mbaizo?

Olivier Mbaizo of Cameroon celebrates goal during the 2017 Total Zambia U-20 African Cup of Nations match between Sudan and Cameroon at Levy Mwanawasa Stadium, Ndola Zambia on 02 March 2017 ©Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

He hails from Cameroon, the same homeland of Union midfielder Eric Ayuk. Ayuk and Mbaizo have played together in the past. Last year during the 2017 Africa U20 Cup of Nations, the two played for Cameroon U20. Interesting side note regarding Cameroonian soccer, the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations champion was the Cameroon senior team who won in surprising underdog fashion.

During the U20 Cup of Nations, Ayuk and Mbaizo both tallied goals. Both Ayuk and Mbaizo played every minute for the Young Indomitable Lions (Cameroon team name). Ayuk scored in two of three matches, contributing two goals and an assist following their first two matches. Mbaizo netted his only goal in the second match victory against Sudan 4-1. The U20 Cameroon team failed to make it out of the group stages with a 1-0-2 record and just three points in the standings.

Starting with the Cameroon U17s in 2014, Mbaizo worked his way through the youth international system to secure his opportunity to perform in the 2017 U20 Cup of Nations. His international experience beginning at such a young age is something Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke noted when the signing was first announced.

“Olivier is an exciting addition for us… We are looking forward to welcoming in another quality young defender to our group, especially one with extensive youth international experience,” said Burke.

Mbaizo’s home club and the connection between MLS + USL

Occupying an international roster spot, Mbaizo makes his way to the USL from a team known as Rainbow FC. There is a long and somewhat odd history between Rainbow FC and the MLS and USL. The connection between the club and the two US professional leagues has been reported on in the past here and here. The basic gist behind both stories is the muddied connections Rainbow FC has with their players. The pattern of sending players overseas while still demanding to control player rights makes Rainbow FC seem more like a third-party acting on behalf of the player instead of simply a team trading or loaning a player.

It is all a bit confusing and head scratching. There are specific rules in place which maintain the dignity of the player while seeking to avoid third parties simply interested in a small payday if the player would sign a professional contract. You can research it on your own accord if you’d like. To be warned, there is little information out there to draw solid conclusions.

Steel FC’s back-line battles

In 2017, Bethlehem were anchored defensively by former 2016 USL defender of the year Hugh Roberts. Steel FC decided to cut ties with Roberts when they announced their end of season roster moves back in early November. For those interested, Roberts is currently a free agent.

Without a veteran to glue the defensive unit together, Steel FC will look to center back Brandon Aubrey as their new anchor in central defense. Aubrey has valuable USL experience as a 22-year old and his knowledge will be useful going forward.

Mbaizo will slot in as a RB or a RCB, like Matt Mahoney who played RB primarily but when needed in an emergency Mahoney played central back in early July against in-state rival Pittsburgh Riverhounds and came out the team leader with four clearances.

The Mbaizo v. Mahoney training competition will be a matchup to watch heading further into the USL preseason for Steel FC. However, that battle will be placed on a brief hold as Mbaizo was invited to Clearwater, FL a week in advance with first team Philadelphia Union.

Aubrey seems poised to take the LCB position on the back-line based on how Burke has explained he will fit in with the club. Mark McKenzie plays center back and recently signed with first team Union. However, the Union currently have quite the position battle shaping up in that slot. McKenzie should see a lot of time with Bethlehem in 2018 playing center back as he preps for MLS play.

At left back, Steel FC currently have no players on the roster to field that position. Given the promotion and homegrown signing of Matt Real, Bethlehem will be without one of their top players in a hard-to-fill area of the pitch. With 12 Academy players participating in day one of training at YSC Sports Tuesday and a handful of trialists, Steel FC will need to continue adding players to a slowly building roster.

The USL rules state that teams must have a minimum of 12 players signed to USL contracts on official roster. Last season Steel FC entered league play with just 13 players on their USL Master/official roster, Academy players and Union reserves filling the remainder of roster slots. Steel FC have 7 total international roster slots as well. Three are occupied to date by midfielders James Chambers and Santi Moar, and defender Olivier Mbaizo.

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 Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Graduate of Pennsylvania State University '16. Interests include sports and history. Follow on twitter for Philly sports news - @m_mcclain15. Philadelphia Union writer.

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