Commentary / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Bethlehem Steel won’t leave the Lehigh Valley, but they should still move

Photo: Rob Simmons

When news broke earlier this week that Anthony Precourt was holding Columbus Crew SC hostage and would move the team to Austin, Tex. unless the city of Columbus built him a shiny new stadium, it sent shockwaves through MLS communities online and an even more real one in Ohio.

If MLS would allow such a thing to happen, what’s preventing it from happening in other cities?

What’s stopping it from happening here?

The simple answer there is that Philadelphia is too large of a media market, fourth largest in the country, and even if the Union were to leave, it is inconceivable that a new tenant wouldn’t be signing a lease for Talen Energy Stadium before Jay Sugarman had returned the keys.

But then a more believable rumor began to circulate.

That sounds all too plausible.

Bethlehem Steel FC isn’t an attendance liability. In fact, with an average attendance over 3,000, it’s the best-attended MLS-owned club in USL.

But it also isn’t an unmitigated success like FC Cincinnati or Sacramento Republic.

Speculation spiraled out of control, and there was much wringing of hands and rending of garments. There was so much strife over this fragment of a rumor, that the Bethlehem Steel released an official statement-

Below is a statement from the Philadelphia Union in response to last night’s USL rumors.

Posted by Bethlehem Steel FC on Wednesday, October 18, 2017

That’s not a bulletproof guarantee that Bethlehem Steel is here to stay, but that’s as close as you’re going to get in the always-shifting world of minor league sports.

The Union are committed to staying in the Lehigh Valley, and we shouldn’t be surprised.

Having a “pipeline to the pros” is an essential part of Earnie Stewart’s vision of the Union as a team that builds talent from the ground up, and anything other than a first team controlled subsidiary makes the path from academy to MLS much more circuitous. It doesn’t matter if the second team isn’t making money if you consider the cost part of first team talent acquisition. Plus, putting a farm team in the Lehigh Valley serves as an important marketing buffer against New York. It’s why the Iron Pigs play in Allentown.

The statement suggests an interesting possibility though: A soccer-specific stadium.

It’s an exciting idea, but it sounds like a bit of a reach at this point, considering so many MLS teams lack the political or financial capital to achieve that goal. It’s unreasonable to expect a USL team to do what they can’t.

But it hints at the fact that all is not well at Goodman Stadium. While there’s nothing wrong with those facilities, there’s more than a few things that aren’t right.

Most obvious is the lack of illumination, a shocking omission for an NCAA Division 1 football team let alone a professional team like Bethlehem Steel. No night games isn’t crippling, but it can’t be doing wonderful things for attendance either.

On top of that, the location on Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus is on the wrong side of a literal mountain. While this makes for picturesque views, it means that, unless you’re going to Stabler Arena for a different event, the game is completely hidden from the city of Bethlehem, let alone the Lehigh Valley at large.

So if the team isn’t going to stay at Goodman, but a soccer-specific stadium is a pipe dream, what’s the answer?

Nostalgia would suggest Steel Field, currently occupied by Moravian College’s football program, as an exciting option. The main grandstand was built by Bethlehem Steel (the company) for the original Bethlehem Steel FC. It would be poetic, and the location is as good as anyone could hope for putting the action close to the city. But with a capacity of just 2,400 it’s significantly smaller than Goodman Stadium’s 16,000. Maybe it could be sufficient if USL reports extremely inflated attendance numbers, or maybe a partnership that brings the new Steel to the home of the original Steel could include plans for adding capacity.

A more realistic option though would be neighboring Bethlehem Area School District Stadium. With a standing-room capacity of 16,000, it has all the room Bethlehem Steel could ever need. With that said, the FieldTurf playing surface isn’t great news, especially considering the wear it sees from use as the Bethlehem Area School District’s primary venue for high school football, soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse.

No matter if Bethlehem Steel moves or stays, even if they suffer some sort of terribly misguided rebrand, they will be staying local, and the Union will be staying in Philadelphia.

So no matter how cheesy the marketing, no matter how disappointing the on-field performance, or inept the ownership, we can take comfort in one simple fact. We don’t support a team owned by Anthony Precourt.

12 Comments

  1. That statement by the Union/Steel makes it sound like if anything happens to Steel it is because MLS or US Soccer or some other outside influence caused it. Now there could be something brewing with the stadium, but the Lehigh Valley is a great place for minor league sports and Steel is drawing pretty well for how new and what they are. I could easily see that number doubling or tripling in the next few years. Plus there’s no way the team is losing a lot of money so that can’t be the reason either.

  2. I’ll go ahead and stand by my speculation from yesterday: USL wants MLS2 teams out of the D2 league. Steel will take a one year hiatus and then return in 2019 as part of USL’s D3 league. (And in that case, I suspect the capacity at Steel Field becomes less of an issue. Help expand capacity to, say, 5,000 and you have a nice cozy home with tons of nostalgia built in.)

    • It sounds more like USL wants a no-waiver D2 bid, which is more about SSS than MLS2 teams.

      Bethlehem may be given a year to find a site for a SSS in the LEigh Valley. Which to me honestly is perfectly good idea.

    • USL feels powerful now because they are stable and just beat out NASL, but they better be careful not to overplay their hand since MLS teams own 1/3 of the league and are affiliated with another 1/3. It’s a tricky line to walk if they want to knock down the MLS owned teams, especially since a lot of those teams are in the playoffs.

  3. I work in Bethlehem, and if they could find a piece of land near the Sands complex, I think that’s their best bet, visibility-wise. I doubt the Union would want their professional team playing on a HS stadium ground, ala BASD stadium.
    What’s different/difficult about the Valley is the lack of public transit. All these newer “downtown” stadiums rely heavily on public transportation, because they don’t need to build as much space for vehicle parking.

    • I grew up in Nazareth, you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know about LANTA. But that’s not why I think “downtown” would be better than the Goodman Campus.

      The Goodman Campus is HUGE. It’s designed for large events with attendance over 10,000. And it’s designed to accommodate that many people without impacting anyone else in a significant way. Traffic backs up a bit at the Hellertown Road exit, but that’s it. Perfect for concerts, graduations, and conventions.

      But it just swallows and smothers smaller events. If you were at Stabler Arena on a given Saturday, it’s not guaranteed you’ll know the Steel are playing. It’s just too big of a space for any kind of atmosphere from the (totally reasonable and beyond reproach) number of fans who attend. Put it somewhere smaller, not by number of seats but by proximity to anything other than the empty Rauch Field House, and I think the atmosphere improves significantly.

      That said even if I did think a SSS was a possibility, I think the ship has sailed for putting anything on South Side. Between the Casino and Lehigh’s real campus there’s not enough real estate to go around.

      • Yeah, born and raised here in Allentown. There are some undeveloped lots (maybe not for sale, however) near Lehigh Forge that should be utilized.

    • Scott of Nazareth says:

      I would love to see a stadium along the river. They should partner with Sand’s, Steel Stacks/MusikFest and Lehigh University for a modest stadium there that could also serve as a concert venue and athletic field for Lehigh sports, maybe even BASD or Bethlehem Catholic school events if the city kicks in some cash.

      • WeAreSteel2K17 says:

        It’s not happening. Musikfest is once a year. Lehigh just spent a ton upgrading their athletic facilities – except Goodman, sadly. I know Steel fans hate the Goodman campus but it works for Lehigh. This idea was already looked at before the team was announced and it’s not happening. Not going to get any public money. I wish it would.

    • Back when I was living and working as a reporter in Bethlehem, the former Steel plant site on the South Side was discussed as a possible venue for a minor league sports stadium. Now, that was before the Iron Pigs showed up, obviously, so the game has changed a bit. It always struck me though that the stretch was ideal for a minor league stadium along the Lehigh River, even if it was all the way up by the Minsi Trail Bridge.

      Now, I’ve been out of town for quite a while, so I’m not up to speed on things of late, but I got to think that’s still the hope. The problem there in the past was the cost of environmental remediation, but … well, some companies obviously did it.

      I also don’t think public transit is as much of an issue for most USL clubs. Bethlehem can draw 5,000 fans a game and be considered a huge success, so that’s not as much traffic to worry about, which means you don’t need public transit that much.

  4. Scott of Nazareth says:

    The Moravian location would be cool, couple bars/restaurants withing walking distance, but not a lot of parking down there.

    I think the ability to have night games would do wonders for attendance. Their schedule starts in late March and ends in October which forces the bulk of their games to be played mid day on Saturday or Sunday, which is precisely when a large chunk of their target market is likely involved with youth soccer games.

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