January 29, 2016, in an innocuous enough “Bethlehem Steel FC Add Seven To Roster” headline, St Patrick’s Athletic sold James Chambers to the Lehigh Valley’s newest professional sports franchise. One hundred and twenty-six appearances later, the Philadelphia Union have moved on. No one will ever play 126 times for Bethlehem Steel again. No one will ever captain that side for (on and off) three years. No one will ever go from winning an FAI Cup and playing in the UEFA European Championship to playing for Steel FC. James was and is an oddity.
Fiery on the field, could turn games upside down with one free kick, and managed to make a few fanbases hate him. He had the passion of someone that was playing for a club three times its size in a cup final every week. Described multiple times as another coach by Brendan Burke, Jambo was critical in the development of guys like Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Matt Real, Brendan Aaronson, and the list goes on. Could hit any pass you wanted, had a go at just about any freekick inside thirty yards, and certainly wasn’t shy about getting some tackles in. Sometimes a world-class trash talker (“you’re half the player your brother was” to Alex Martinez), sometimes a confusing chirp here and there (“I’m here to win games” to Austin da Luz in a loss in Cary). On the field, tenacious, determined, other cliches. There was no one in USL you could convince me would be a better captain for this team, in that town, with that badge. Now, there never will be again.
I’d often bang on about how he could hit any ball he wanted, and while I saw him miss plenty, I still never saw a pass that I thought was stretching his limits. Surely, he was (you play different in your 30s after all), but it always looked like it could come off. Same on set pieces and shots. Anyone lining up and having a crack from 30 yards is ambitious, but most guys that go for those go for them because they’ve hit before. St. Pats in 2015:
A bit longer out for Bethlehem against FC Montreal (RIP) the next year:
Pats again in 2015 against Limerick:
“That goal” in 2018:
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) October 21, 2018
You don’t make those goals by giving a damn about who or what you’re playing for. Hard enough as that seems to be for various “2” sides loaded with 18 to 24 year olds, it has to be harder as the grizzled old veteran in the group. You’re thinking about mortgages and getting engaged and becoming a citizen while your teammates are worried about whether or not they should bring back crushed velvet for prom. Maybe the reason for caring has been muddled and it’s actually just a visceral hatred of losing, maybe it’s putting on for all the boys back in Ireland, maybe it’s not knowing any better. Maybe it was playing with Santi Moar and Chris Nanco and Ryan Richter and DJ and Bolu and Font and Trus and Aaronson and Mo. Maybe it’s knowing that you were still just a bit too good to play in a quasi u-23 team. Maybe it’s none of that. Maybe it’s knowing that what could be the final stop in an illustrious career, the last time CHAMBERS is on a kit, was largely spent in a quaint private university football field and that while your impact off the field would be immense, you needed to be just as good on it.
And here’s the self-serving part, to try and articulate what made the off-field person a giant. I’m 25, which means I’m just a touch older than a lot of the guys that came up through Bethlehem Steel before last year like Nancs, Santi, Hugh, Mahoney, Skundrich, etc. Which meant in part, a lot of the interviews and interactions I had felt like talking to friends I had outside of soccer. The other part of that is that I literally grew up and developed as a person with dynamic changes, around a professional soccer team. Relationship changes, dropping out of college, burning through various jobs, and the one constant (besides Brendan Burke’s immaculate formal wear) was Chambo. More specifically, it was a handshake and a “be good.” after every interview or quick chat and things like that stick with me, perhaps everyone. And I’ll be honest, I probably wasn’t always good. Some days, the miserable Irish guy that I saw run way too much for through balls that weren’t going anywhere in particular sort of reminded me of the American kid that also knew he, well, wasn’t going anywhere. I also saw that Irish guy and the club he captained refuse to quit almost every time of asking, and maybe I’m delirious and this won’t be worth anything, but art imitates life sometimes. Getting to know and being around Bethlehem Steel FC was a whirlwind. People came in and out and times and ideas and results changed, but there was always someone trying to be good. And he was f***ing good.