Responding to rumors circling the internet on Tuesday night that the Bethlehem Steel and other MLS-owned USL clubs could be on their way out, the Philadelphia Union issued a vague statement about the team’s future on Wednesday.
“We love being in the Lehigh Valley and the environment it creates for our player development,” the statement reads. “Our priority is to create a first-class experience for our players and fans, and part of that process includes identifying soccer-specific stadium options in the Lehigh Valley. At the same time, as in any business, we evaluate options as they arise. Even though we’ve spoken to multiple teams in MLS and the USL on different options, we stay committed to our goal of a long-term future in the Lehigh Valley.”
Further comment was declined by Steel officials after training at the Power Training Complex in Chester on Wednesday, where the team was prepping for a playoff match-up with Louisville City FC in Louisville on Friday night.
Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated posted the rumor on Twitter on Tuesday evening and noted that Rochester Rhinos could become the Union’s new affiliate.
While the Rhinos have a number of players with ties to the Philadelphia area, an affiliation with the team, which ended a mostly unsuccessful affiliation with New England Revolution earlier this year, would seem a backward move for the club. Prior to starting up the Steel, the Union sent players on loan to Harrisburg City Islanders but didn’t have the added benefit of academy players training in a professional environment and getting minutes in games like they have had with Steel.
As mentioned in the statement, it’s the stadium that appears to be causing the uncertainty.
Steel have played at Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University the past two seasons and while it meets requirements for the league in terms of capacity (16,000), the venue does not allow for night games and is too large to create the kind of atmosphere a smaller, soccer-specific stadium would help to facilitate. It also has the inherent problem of all fields where American football is played: gridiron lines on the field during the college football season.
A plan to build a soccer-specific stadium was first brought up when the Union announced the new team, but there hasn’t been much more than talk on the subject in the two years since.
If the Union do end up pulling out of USL in 2018, all hope won’t necessarily be lost for the future of the Steel. A move to the USL’s Division 3 league, which is slated to begin play in 2019, could still be a possibility.