To many Philadelphia Union supporters, the Bethlehem Steel FC are precisely what the Union technical staff has repeatedly stressed that they are, a development squad for the first team.
But for diehard soccer fans in the Lehigh Valley, the team is far more than just a development squad for an out-of-town top flight club. So when the Philadelphia Union announced on Monday that they would be moving all but one or two of the team’s games for 2019 to Chester, the news didn’t go over too well.
“To put it bluntly, this sucks,” Mark Cole, founder of the East End Army supporters group, said. “We’ve been able to see the writing on the wall, but, now that it’s official, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
For supporters like Cole and Andy Knauss, president and founder of the I-Beam Ultras 1907 supporters group, the arrangement with the Bethlehem Steel and the Philadelphia Union has never been an ideal one.
“In an ideal world, Bethlehem, where I was born and still reside, would have its own independent club,” Knauss said. “This distinction would permit us to be freed from the limitations of MLS2 (heavy youth lineups, squad rotations and lineup incosistency, development focus over competitive focus).”
Now that they are facing the reality of not having professional soccer in the Lehigh Valley for 2019 and possibly beyond, both have expressed anger with the parent club, which claims they were unable to find a suitable venue that will be ready in time for the 2019 season in the Lehigh Valley.
That Goodman Stadium at Lehigh University doesn’t meet USL standards isn’t anything new. The football stadium doesn’t have lights and the nearby soccer facility doesn’t meet standards for locker rooms and seating capacity so the team needed waivers from the league to use the venue its first two seasons.
“If they really were committed to Bethlehem they would have resolved the field issue in the two plus years this has been brought to the Union front office’s attention,” Knauss said.
In McDermott’s statement on the matter released on Monday, he mentioned that all Steel FC season ticket holders from 2018 and all 2019 Philadelphia Union season ticket members will get free tickets to Steel games at Talen Energy Stadium.
Cole isn’t impressed by this gesture and like Knauss he’s intrigued by the idea of what a non-affiliated club would look like should the Union not return to the Lehigh Valley.
“There is potential for a team to succeed in this city,” he said. “The only reason it didn’t was due to a complete lack of effort by the Union to make this thing a success. There was basically zero marketing efforts following the launch of the team. A billboard here, and a newspaper ad there isn’t enough. Yet, in true Union fashion, they did it half-assed and on the cheap because (Union chairman and majority owner) Jay Sugarman is a millionaire that refuses to spend any of that money.”
Fred and Bev Reiss have been devoted soccer supporters in Lehigh Valley since the days of the amateur Pennsylvania Stoners, which played at Whitehall High School during their run in the NPSL from 2007-2009. They became season tickets for the Philadelphia Union in 2011 and Bethlehem Steel FC from the beginning.
“I think we had a special environment in Bethlehem that won’t be duplicated in Chester,” Fred Reiss said. “We have a small but very loyal group of supporters. A number of us followed the team to Harrisburg, Richmond, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Louisville this season. The close confines at Estadio Goodman allowed us to get to know the team, staff and coaches on a personal basis.”
Fred Reiss has a dream that many supporters of soccer in the Lehigh Valley share: for a new stadium they can call their own.
“I can only hold our hope that they will return to the LV where they belong in 2020 or soon after that,” he said. “A dream scenario would be a new stadium on the South Side of Bethlehem in the Steel Stacks area that could be used for concerts and other events when not used for soccer.”
It wouldn’t be the first soccer-specific stadium in the city’s history: Bethlehem Steel Field hosted the original Steel Football Club from 1913-1930. Today the facility, with its original grandstand, is known as Steel Athletic Complex and plays host to the Moravian College football team.
Knauss drives by that facility on his way to work every day.
“I supported the MLS2 club because they played in my town and wore a crest over their hearts that I never thought I would see,” Knauss said. “But we deserve better than to settle for less than a true Bethlehem Club. I love the passion the players have shown and wish them no ill. James Chambers and Matt Mahoney in particular for me stand out as men who never felt like they were travelling from Philly — they left everything on the unsatisfactorily lit pitch for us time in and time out and I will love them and sing their names in our bars until the end.”