Just over a month ago, the Philadelphia Union put together a dominant 3-0 performace against the Montreal Impact. This confident victory kicked off their current six-match unbeaten streak that has carried them to the top of the Eastern Conference. The day’s other important milestone, the first ever Philadelphia Union-Bethlehem Steel doubleheader, has already faded into the background. But that’s mainly because the very idea of a Union-Steel doubleheader in 2019 faced an uphill battle from the start.
The date for the two matches was picked well in advance, so it’s nobody’s fault that the April weather didn’t cooperate. When April 20th dawned, most of Chester County was still under a flood watch. The forecast was for a clear and warm afternoon, but the rain didn’t stop until close to 10 a.m. and the strong gusts of wind coming off of the Delaware River didn’t die down until the second half of the Union match.
Because of the Union’s recent successes, it’s easy to forget that the expectations going into this match were fairly low. Philly was coming off of their frustrating 2-0 loss to the LA Galaxy where 2019’s marquee signing Marco Fabian picked up an ankle injury. The cautious optimism brought on by the Union’s victories over Columbus, Cincinnati and Dallas had mostly dried up.
The idea of a free doubleheader didn’t seem to really move the needle much as far as attendance went. The promises of a free second match, Union Kids day and Phang in a pair of bunny ears didn’t stand a chance against that fact that it was the Saturday before Easter and many people probably had other plans already.
The Union did their share of the work that afternoon. Cory Burke electrified the crowd with a long distance goal in the 14th minute and Jamiro Monteiro’s first half penalty pretty much sealed the deal for Philly. Alejandro Bedoya’s second half tap-in was just the icing on the cake.
Shortly after the final whistle blew, the announcer at Talen Energy Stadium was quick to remind the crowd that there was still another soccer match to be played. “Don’t sit in traffic,” the voice said, “stick around to watch Bethlehem Steel versus Indy Eleven!” Despite that plea, and many other announcements throughout the match, about 90 percent of the people at Talen chose to get up and leave rather than stay to watch the Steel.
Unfortunately for those who did choose to stick around, the Steel were having an off day. After a close first 30 minutes, Indy Eleven punched through for two quick goals and then never looked back from there. Out of the announced 1,537 who stuck around for the Bethlehem Steel match, many chose not to return for the second half.
In the end, perhaps the most significant memory from this match was that it would be Derrick Jones’ last at Talen before being traded to Nashville SC.
So in the end, the Union’s first ever doubleheader with the Steel was a bit of a dud. But with all the hoops that both teams had to jump through in order to make a doubleheader possible, the chances of success were poor from the start.
Here’s something to consider. Whenever you have an event with multiple performers, the biggest performers always go on last. It doesn’t matter if it’s a concert, a wrestling pay-per-view, or a major music festival, you save the biggest draw for the end. That’s how it’s always been because it makes the most sense. You bring on the smaller acts first, but everyone sticks around because they’re staying for the main event.
And here’s where the Union-Steel concept struggles because the Union have to play first. It’s MLS and the Union who are paying the bills, so they’re the ones who get to play on a fresh pitch, not one that’s already seen 90 minutes of wear and tear. Plus, ticketing would be a nightmare in that scenario. People would either have to buy a Union ticket in order to see the Steel’s match or anyone who bought only a Steel ticket for the day would have to be rounded up and shooed out of the stadium.
So even though it’s a less appealing scenario, the Steel will have to follow the Union and they’ll just have to make the best of it.
And there’s no overlooking the fact that a Union-Steel doubleheader in 2019 doesn’t have the same appeal that it would have had a few years ago. If the Steel had visited for a match or two in 2016 or 2017 the novelty of it would have generated far more interest. But with the Steel playing their home matches in Chester this season anyway, the freshness just isn’t there anymore.
There were a few aspects of April’s matches that stood out as big positives. The laid back approach to seating in between matches was a nice touch. If people had been forced to leave the stadium and be readmitted then it’s likely that even fewer would have stayed to watch the Steel. And having access to the full range of amenities at the stadium with zero lines is always a big plus. Long lines for the bathroom on game days are overrated.
The Union and Steel will pair up once more in 2019 when they have their regular season home finales against New York City FC and Charlotte Independence on October 6th. Perhaps the later kickoffs and the late season playoff implications will bring more people out to Chester that day. And in the end, it really is worth it to stick around for the second match. Because even if it ends up being a let down, it really is an amazing way to avoid the usual post-match traffic.