Mid-afternoon on President’s Day, Bethlehem Steel FC announced the signing of AJ Paterson following an extremely quick turnaround for the 22-year midfielder over the past four weeks. Paterson’s name left the 2018 MLS SuperDraft board during the latter half of the second round when New York City FC (NYCFC) selected the former Wright State University Rowdy Raider 42nd overall.
A no-show at SuperDraft
Paterson was not present inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, PA on draft day back on January 19th, however – also missed watching his selection when it occurred. There is definitely more to that story to come.
Perhaps his absence was a blessing in disguise considering how overjoyed NYCFC were with their first round selection at pick number 19, goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell out of the University of Virginia (UVA). The excitement around Caldwell’s selection came about mainly because Caldwell entered the draft as arguably the best incoming goalkeeper – four keepers selected in first round. But there is clearly some added glee coming from NYCFC considering their Sporting Director, Claudio Reyna played college soccer at UVA.
Despite Paterson declining to attend the SuperDraft festivities, the event ended with a tremendous opportunity for him: a chance to sign a professional soccer contract – a lifelong goal for Paterson. He was drafted.
Paterson’s college head coach at Wright State, Bryan Davis had some nice thoughts to share on draft day to acknowledge Paterson’s monumental moment. “AJ Paterson deserves all that is coming his way,” Davis said. “AJ took a risk committing to an exciting yet growing program, leaving Florida for Ohio. He[Paterson] let us coach him the whole way, and here he is today, a second-round pick in the SuperDraft,” stated Davis in an expression of both gratitude and pride.
Bump in the road
The MLS preseason officially began just two days after the SuperDraft. Paterson along with his new team (for the time being) traveled south to Jacksonville, FL for a few days of evaluation and training. Paterson was a full participant to start preseason, all was well.
Unfortunately, Paterson could not quite get the hang of the new environment in the very brief moments of transitioning an incoming draft pick must be able to adapt and adjust to all while remaining professional in nature when attempting to land an MLS dream. A few days after arriving in Jacksonville, Paterson was informed he would no longer be invited back to NYCFC camp – things just had not progressed the way NYCFC staff anticipated most likely. As quickly as the dream came to be, Paterson’s chance to play professional soccer vanished just as fast. After four years as a college starter carrying the label ‘SuperDraft pick’ Paterson was sent packing with well wishes for his future, if any.
Steel FC come knocking
But Paterson has some physical traits which helps his game. These aspects ultimately drew the eyes of Steel FC staff. In addition to Paterson’s size at 6’2” and his sturdy and wide 182 lb frame – he is predominantly left-footed. Yes, the left-footed soccer player. Rare, like a unicorn.
Paterson is also a defensive-minded player which lessens the chance he would be a liability in the center of the field. Paterson knows defense so well, that he chose to participate in the MLS Combine as a center back instead of training at his college position as central midfielder. Versatility and size are always welcomed traits in a potential future center midfielder.
“AJ brings versatility and size and he showed in college the ability to fill up the box-to-box role by eating up ground,” said Steel FC Coach Burke. “He has a defensive presence and is good in the air plus adding a left-footed player is always useful to a squad,” explained Burke. The advantage of having a left-footed player mainly comes from the training ground as players gain exposure defending a left-footed dominant player.
Paterson’s size and defensive awareness throughout the center of the field definitely impressed Coach Burke. Arriving to camp February 5th, Paterson needed to make quick work of the little opportunities he had to show his skills. By the end of Paterson’s first full week with Steel FC he had gained the attention of the coaches just in time for the team’s first preseason match against FC Motown – first true test of Paterson’s ability to play within Steel FC’s system alongside new teammates in a truly competitive environment. Paterson performed very well. Several times throughout the match, Paterson interrupted the opponent’s possession as he covered a lot of ground making it difficult for Motown players to find effective and open passing lanes. With a successful performance for Steel FC in the books, Paterson could only wait once more as his future rested in the hands of another set of coaches.
A goal accomplished
By mid-afternoon yesterday, Paterson received the news. Steel FC offered him a contract and he signed immediately. After inking his name on the contract, Paterson finally squared away an immensely important milestone in his life: signing a professional soccer contract.
“It’s an amazing feeling to achieve a lifelong goal from day one and I’m eager to get started as a professional with Steel FC,” said Paterson.
Paterson did not shy away from the process of events that brought him to Steel FC camp and he acknowledged his shortcomings in a brief statement following the announcement of his signing.
“I think being drafted by another club and being let go really lit a fire underneath me because it showed me the level that I have to be at as a professional. I wasn’t at that level at that time, but I feel this opportunity will give me the best chance to show that I can achieve that next step as a professional and maybe even more,” Paterson said.
College career + brief PDL trip
From this point, Paterson can rely on his impressive collegiate career and the experiences he learned during those four years in hopes of continually progressing with the club.
During his four years at Wright State University, Paterson played in 76 matches, scored 15 goals, and assisted on seven other goals. In 2016, Paterson was named to the All-Horizon League second team and All-Tournament team following the junior season to springboard into his best and final year with the Rowdy Raiders.
The summer of 2016, Paterson suited up with Southwest Florida Adrenaline for a brief stint in the Premier Development League (PDL). The PDL is a semi-professional summer league which serves players like Paterson an opportunity to play outside of a normally short collegiate season. Paterson utilized the PDL to prepare for his best season at Wright State University.
Last year, Paterson concluded his college career on a definitive high note. He was named the Horizon League Player of the Year – meaning best offensive and defensive player in the league in 2017. Paterson scored seven of his career 15 goals last year en route to the player of the year award.
In addition to experience playing in college, Paterson also gained a summer of semi-pro in 2016 prior to his senior year with Southwest Florida Adrenaline in the Premier Development League (PDL). The PDL serves players like Paterson with no academy connections to continue playing during the NCAA off-season, The league served several aspiring professional players as a stepping stone along the development process to more competitive soccer for the past 20 years.
Addition of Paterson adds competition for young academy midfielders
Paterson’s signing gives Steel FC nine official roster players, with three central midfielders. However, one of those central midfielders, Omar Holness, is still rehabbing an injured knee and his recovery still requires one to two months at least. James Chambers commands the whole Steel FC unit from his comfortable position just above the back line as a holding midfielder who can drop beauties for passes at any given moment. Philadelphia Union academy standouts Brenden Aaronson will most likely see a lot of minutes in an attacking midfield position slightly above a defensive Chambers. Another midfielder set to sprout from their academy roots and into Steel FC’s starting XI discussion is Michael Pellegrino. Both Pellegrino and Aaronson earned minutes with Steel FC last season and they should see the same again in 2018.
Steel FC continue Preseason
Steel FC continue their busy preseason week five schedule as they host two matches at their training facility, YSC Sports, in Wayne, PA. Tomorrow (02/21) a great matchup between Steel FC and one of their in-state USL rivals Penn FC at YSC Sports. Only a quick two-day rest for the club before they host the Syracuse University Orangemen to YSC Sports.
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Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports