Photo: Courtesy of Dan Morrison/bethlehemsteelsoccer.org
The Baker Bowl was no more by 1950. Shibe Park didn’t survive to see the bicentennial. The Vet was imploded to make way for a parking lot, as was the Spectrum.
To a Philadelphia sport fan, these hallowed grounds are the stuff of legend and lore. They have seen World Series, NBA Championships, Stanley Cups, and NFL Championships (if not a Super Bowl winner). One of them even played home to an NASL Champion.
Fans of Philadelphia’s established teams have lost these connections to the past. There are no more bases to be run, no more center ice, no more 700 Level. This is the way of the world for cities like Philadelphia. Out with the old, in with the new. Real estate is at a premium.
This concept is unfamiliar to those of us who live in the industrial towns that dot the region.
From where I sit, I can still see the blast furnaces of long silenced steel mills towering over South Bethlehem, once a mark of progress, now a reminder of times gone by.
When the Philadelphia Union chose to honor five-time U.S. Open Cup Champion Bethlehem Steel with their third jerseys, they ostensibly sought not only to draw connections to one of the most successful teams in American soccer history, but also forge a regional identity.
In doing so, they may have stumbled upon an opportunity that eludes their Broad Street brothers.
Long before PPL Park gave professional soccer a home in eastern Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest soccer specific stadium was built 60 miles north in Bethlehem, Pa., where it remains today. Steel Field and its brick grandstand were originally built by Bethlehem Steel Corporation and became the new home for the Bethlehem Steel Football Club in 1916. While the club would only survive another 14 years, the field and its grandstand remain today and now play home to football of another kind under the ownership of Moravian College.
2013 provides a major opportunity for a Philadelphia Union team eager to make its mark on the region’s rich sporting heritage. This year marks the 100th edition of the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament for which Bethlehem Steel is still recognized as its most successful entrant. It would seem only fitting that the Philadelphia Union should continue to honor this legacy by taking the short trip north to resume Open Cup play in Bethlehem, Pa.
Philadelphia’s other teams see the value in taking the trip up the Northeast Extension. When the Phillies moved their Triple-A affiliate to the Lehigh Valley five years ago, they soon encountered the ravenous desire for professional sports in the region and were rewarded with the best ballpark attendance in the league. The Flyers see similar opportunities when they look to make Allentown’s PPL Center the permanent home of the Phantoms. Finally, anyone who attends the Eagles training campus at Lehigh University will recognize the passion and excitement Lehigh Valley residents bring year in and year out for the opportunity to see the team.
To bring the beautiful game back to Bethlehem for just one Open Cup game would cement the Union’s ties to the legendary club while leaving a lasting impression on the sports-crazed community. It is not uncommon for MLS teams to play Open Cup matches away from their home stadiums. D.C. United plays at the Maryland SoccerPlex, while Seattle plays at the Starfire Sports Complex, both drawing strong, yet intimate crowds. I’m sure a number of Union supporters would relish the opportunity to make the pilgrimage north to see the Union play in those beautiful third jerseys, while Lehigh Valley residents would embrace the chance to revisit a unique piece of sporting history.
The Union may not be old enough to have a Shibe Park of their own, but much of the legend of Connie Mack Stadium belongs not to today’s Phils, but to yesterday’s A’s. Mentions of the old ballparks remind less of the teams that played there than about the community that embraces them. Just as the A’s are a part of our sporting heritage, so is Bethlehem Steel. While you won’t be seeing the Phillies rounding the bases at Shibe, we could see the Union running the length of Steel Field.