Professional soccer is coming back to the Lehigh Valley.
In a press conference held earlier today, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, along with USL CEO Alec Papadakis and Lehigh University President John Simon, announced that Bethlehem will be home to the Union's new USL affiliate.
"This was a decision that we carefully studied and analyzed all possible options," Sakiewicz said in an announcement. "In the end, we've chosen an extraordinarily great soccer community in the Lehigh Valley that is underserved for professional soccer."
The team will begin play in 2016, and they'll play their home games at Lehigh University's Goodman Stadium. Built in 1988, the 16,000-capacity stadium is also home to Lehigh's historic football team, which competes in the FCS. Goodman Stadium is the only facility in the Patriot League that boasts a natural grass surface. Sakiewicz revealed that the Union's lease with Lehigh University is year-to-year, and they will explore the possibility of constructing a soccer-specific stadium in the Lehigh Valley. The USL team will train alongside the Union in Chester.
While we know where the team will play, we still don't know what it will be called. A fan vote to determine the team name will run from September 8th through September 30th on both the Philadelphia Union's website and the website of The Morning Call, the largest newspaper in the Lehigh Valley. There will be four pre-selected options and a write-in section for those unsatisfied with the presented choices. Though the vote won't commence for another three weeks, there is already an overwhelming favorite.
Since the Union wore replicas of their kits in 2013 and 2014, the Bethlehem Steel brand has stolen the hearts of the Philadelphia Union fanbase. When it was announced that the Union were bringing a team to the Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem Steel was the only acceptable name in the minds of many. Though the club may well end up playing under that moniker, a fan vote and confusion as to the ownership of the Bethlehem Steel FC trademark still stand in the way
"Since the naming contest hasn't been rolled out yet, I kinda defer off that question," Sakiewicz said when asked who owns the trademark. "We're still in the analyzing stage, and in the next ten days we're going to roll out the name-the-team contest. I think we won't be prepared to talk about names until the end of September."
Sakiewicz did not reveal when the club's first head coach would be announced, but he did say that they are currently in the interview process.
With the creation of the Lehigh Valley franchise, the 27th USL team, there are now nine MLS club-owned franchises set to compete in the 2016 USL season. The LA Galaxy were the first to field a USL side when they announced LA Galaxy II prior to the 2014 season. The tally rose to eight for the 2015 season, as more and more MLS clubs opted for full control over their USL affiliates. In addition to the Union, Orlando City SC plans to field a side in the USL next season, but nothing is official yet. The Houston Dynamo do not own their new affiliate (Rio Grande Valley FC), but they will be responsible for all personnel decisions.
Sakiewicz lauded the Harrisburg City Islanders organization, praising City Islanders President Eric Pettis in particular, but he implied that the more than half-decade-old partnership will cease after this year.
"We're gonna fulfill our contract to the fullest with them through the end of this year, then launch this team in March of next year," Sakiewicz said.