Commentary

USL-Bethlehem: The Union’s best move in years

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union just made their best move in years.

The club’s launch of a USL minor league affiliate in Bethlehem is right on so many levels. In fact, it’s hard to find a single flaw. (And this being Philadelphia, folks will certainly try.) Whatever criticism Union ownership has garnered recently, right now they appear to have gotten this one absolutely perfect. This is even better than signing Vincent Nogueira and Chaco Maidana in the same month.

Philadelphia led the way six years ago on establishing ties with USL clubs but had fallen behind as the trend outpaced their original good idea. With Wednesday’s announcement of a new Union-affiliated USL club in Bethlehem, the Union are not only catching up, but possibly lapping the field by planting their club not in their home stadium but in a well-populated, crucial satellite area for their fan base.

A boost to player development

The Union’s current USL affiliation with Harrisburg provided playing time to a handful of players a year, but only two of them truly broke through with the Union as regular starters: Sheanon Williams and Richie Marquez.

Others have run into walls and progressed no further. Zach Pfeffer should have been playing with a Union-affiliated minor league team full-time since he first signed with the club. Jimmy McLaughlin got significant time in Harrisburg but still hasn’t cracked the Union first team rotation. Cristhian Hernandez apparently struck out. Others progressed no further.

It’s not that the Harrisburg affiliation was pointless. It was a great idea. It simply had limitations. MLS has grown significantly since the affiliation began in 2010.

The Bethlehem club will increase the number of opportunities to Union-affiliated players. With Harrisburg, it’s four or five players on loan. With Bethlehem, it will be 18-25 players on a roster. This substantially increases the probability that some of them will get the playing time necessary to develop, prove themselves, and break through to the Union’s first team. For a club that can’t drop $5 million on a player, player development is crucial.

As Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz said Wednesday, it’s “massive.”

Better logistics to give opportunities for fringe first teamers

Bethlehem is much closer to Chester than Harrisburg, little more than an hour’s drive up I-476.

This creates a better logistical framework for getting minutes to Union senior roster players who need them. It becomes much easier for an Andre Blake or Antoine Hoppenot to bounce back and forth between the squads as needed to get playing time.

Joint practices are easier. Joint operations are easier. Just because the Union’s USL team plays in Bethlehem, it doesn’t mean they have to practice there. Would it be good if they did at some point? It would have its advantages, in that the team might feel more a part of the community. But realistically, you lose some control and oversight over the players by pulling them away from the senior team. For now, it’s enough to put the games in the Lehigh Valley and leave it at that.

The economics could be better

The Harrisburg arrangement brought the Union minimal net financial gain at best. Philadelphia paid the players, but those players played for Harrisburg. The City Islanders kept the ticket, concession and other revenues from games. The Union benefited in player development, but again, few Harrisburg loanees have earned meaningful minutes with the Union.

In Bethlehem, the opportunity is there to, put simply, make money. The area is full of Philadelphia sports fans, so there are already Union fans there who would logically broaden their allegiance to the Union’s minor league affiliate. That has proved to be the case for successful minor league hockey and baseball clubs affiliated with the Philadelphia Flyers and Phillies, respectively, and it will likely be the case here. Further, smart scheduling could result in Union fans from the Delaware Valley making the trip to Bethlehem, provided that USL games don’t conflict with Union games. (i.e. Their schedules should be coordinated so that the Lehigh Valley team plays at home when Philadelphia is out of town, and vice versa.)

Now, how much money they’ll make with a USL club depends on many things, including the specifics of the deal with Lehigh University, which we have little information on other than that it is a year-to-year lease.

  • How much is rent for Lehigh’s stadium?
  • How well will the club be marketed in the Lehigh Valley?
  • What kind of promotions will there be to draw families and, yes, college students?
  • Will game times be scheduled intelligently so as not to compete with youth soccer and Union games? Will the fact that Goodman Stadium has no lights for night games complicate this?
  • How will stadium traffic be managed? (Anyone who has driven the windy road through Lehigh’s campus and up the mountain to Goodman Stadium should be nodding along right here.)
  • What kind of coordination will there be to make the club’s games a part of the overall South Side entertainment scene so that there is a mutual beneficial relationship? (Lehigh University tends to feel divided from the rest of the South Side.)
The politics should be better

The political relations in Bethlehem should be much smoother than those in Chester. If they’re not, it will reveal that the bigger problem in the Union-Chester relations is likely on the Union side.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez is about as reasonable, pragmatic, low key, and classy as politician as you’re apt to come across. I dealt with him for two and a half years when I was the Bethlehem city hall reporter for The Express-Times and he was city council president. If you have problems with Donchez, chances are you are the cause of them.

City officials would probably see the arrangement as yet another step forward in a long period of redevelopment after the shuttering of the Bethlehem Steel plant on the South Side. Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz indicated there was a possibility of building a stadium in Allentown. That may not be a bad idea, but there are good reasons to consider South Bethlehem as a permanent home, particularly with land still available (although in need of environmental remediation in some places) on the former Bethlehem Steel plant site.

That’s right: Imagine a Bethlehem pro soccer team playing literally on the land of the old Bethlehem Steel plant.

Government funding for a new stadium may be unlikely

The question is whether the Union want to build a new stadium on a new site so that they have more control over revenue and operations, or maintain a long-term relationship with Lehigh in renting the stadium. It depends a lot on the numbers and whether you can find other uses for a stand-alone stadium besides just soccer.

Local government funding for a new stadium may be unlikely. The Union would probably have to rely on private funding with benefits from tax incentive zones. A site on the old steel plant in South Bethlehem might be the only way to pull in government funding.

In Allentown, the environment is a little different because the city government could — could, but probably can’t financially — play a bigger role. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski is a low-income housing expert who ran the successful group, Alliance for Building Communities, prior to his first electoral win in 2006. He’s now running for U.S. Senate and was successful enough in the city’s redevelopment that he was actually both the Republican and Democratic nominee for mayor in 2013. (In case you’re wondering, no mayor had ever pulled that off before.) Pawlowski is a sharp guy with a unique understanding of redevelopment. He knows it down to the nuts and bolts of redevelopment, literally. I’ve walked with him through half-finished South Bethlehem homes under renovation. That knowledge could be a positive or negative for a soccer stadium in Allentown. He has surely seen the success of the minor league hockey and baseball teams in Allentown, but he may also feel that you can only push that concept so far in a city of about 100,000 people.

South Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel and soccer

We know Bethlehem has history — the Moravians founded the city in the 1740s, according to local lore — but let’s talk 20th century history.

In particular, the South Side has so much history and character — and is the home of the old Bethlehem Steel plant — that it could make a fantastic permanent location for the club. Not merely the history of the famed Bethlehem Steel soccer club, but the history of the area itself. There are various reasons Bethlehem Steel produced those great soccer teams back in the early 20th century, but a big part of it is all the immigrant groups that came to work at the steel plant. The descendants of those immigrants remain, in many cases. The mayor’s last name, Donchez, for example, is strangely common in Bethlehem, and it stems from the Hungarian immigrants who came to the region and brought their sports and names with them. There’s also a very big Latino population centered in South Bethlehem that the Union would be wise to target.

Finally, there is the name. Already, soccer fans are clamoring for the club to be called Bethlehem Steel FC. Imagine that being set on the South Side.

You cannot call the team “Bethlehem Steel” if it plays in Allentown, however. While the Lehigh Valley is certainly one region, it has its internal divisions and rivalries too. The only way you can call the club “Bethlehem Steel” is if they play in Bethlehem, and preferably on the South Side. (Yes, there are even divisions between the North Side and the South Side in Bethlehem. Strong divisions.)

If they don’t play in Bethlehem, they need to be called Lehigh Valley SC or something similar. That may not resonate the same with soccer traditionalists, but within the region, you could argue (but I won’t — yet) that it’s better because not everyone in the Lehigh Valley identifies with Bethlehem. “Bethlehem Steel” means something much different to people whose fathers lost their jobs at the steel plant than it does to soccer fans from outside the region.

Can other areas in the Lehigh Valley compete for a stadium location? No, probably not. Locals have learned from failed previous efforts, notably the Williams Township stadium debacle that preceded the current minor league clubs. Bethlehem is the best choice.

And yes, Bethlehem is just a great town

Now, might I be a bit biased here? You’re damned right I am.

I’ve lived a lot of places in my life. Of all of them, Bethlehem may be dearest to my heart. (I’m torn between Bethlehem and Philly.) I met some of the best people I’ve ever known there, including my wife and the guy who is probably the role model for all this varied, renaissance-lite experience that I call my life. The town is full of people I admire and think the world of, whether I keep in touch with them or (in most cases, sadly) do not.

I lived and worked in downtown Bethlehem for three years, and I loved it. I loved the music festival (Musikfest), the restaurants, paddling canoes on the Lehigh River, walking in the shadow of the steel plant, running with my dog along the Monocacy Creek and down to Sand Island, checking out the historic buildings, and generally just being there. I loved the echoes of history and the coal and limestone that shot through its veins. Even the Christmas City thing is pretty cool. If careers and beautiful girls were of no consequence (I followed my wife to Philly when she got a job in Camden), I may never have left. And I would go back and live there in a heartbeat if the right job came along. Bethlehem is just a great town. It’s a great place to visit, a great place to live, and it has a great place in American soccer history — and perhaps its future.

16 Comments

  1. el pachyderm says:

    Ah….yup.

  2. All in all I say this move provides one thing for Union fans. Hope. I hope the new team becomes successful. I hope they work well with local government. I hope they are able to fill the team out with talent that I hope will make their way to the Union. I hope a lot of things. I also see the two black clouds hanging over all of this hope. One named Sak. One named Sugar.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    Great post, Dan.

  4. Great post Dan. Living in Jersey and not from the area,your post is very informative. Working as an industrial electrician in the refinarys and nuke plants,I have had the pleasure of seeing and touching the steel beams made in Bethlehem USA. It always gave me a sense of pride to see the logo and know where they came from. I hope this works out for all parties.

  5. James Lockerbie says:

    Great article, I was wondering if the locals would embrace the Bethlehem steel name or if they would expect something different.

    • I don’t know. I think some people will really like it. And I think some won’t want any part of it. I don’t know how most people would feel. But I don’t think most locals know the soccer history.

      Bethlehem Steel is something altogether different there. It represents a way of life that is gone. When I lived there, the wounds were still raw. But that’s over 10 years ago at this point.

      • Why not let the people of Bethlehem name it then? Give them a stake in the new team. Leave us in the surrounding counties out of it. I wouldn’t want to force a name on them that basically amounts to “We fired you and your pappy”. That’s a sure fire way to start off on the wrong foot.

      • el pachyderm says:

        +1.

      • Roger Allaway says:

        I have to agree (although I’m not from Bethlehem) that it seems as though relatively few people there are aware that the Bethlehem Steel Corp. once had a soccer team.

  6. They need to not over think, and just name it Bethlehem steel.

  7. kevinsetbingo says:

    As a Bethlehem resident myself, I’m really looking forward to seeing the development of some of our players personally. Bethlehem (and the Lehigh Valley, for that matter) are growing so quickly.

    Also, please name this team Bethlehem Steel FC. They already sell so much merchandise with the name on Southside and in the Artsquest Center at the Steelstacks.

  8. Still think the best way to honor the history of the area is to use Steel as part of the name but this team will never be “Bethlehem Steel FC” that earned and won the Open Cup. That clubs time has passed, honor it and tie the clubs together with a name that honors both pro clubs and area.
    Tie the Philadelphia Union the area of Lehigh Valley and Bethlehem Steel FC. Best names I’ve hear that do this are “Union Steel FC” or “Steel Union FC”. Also this allows the club to be locate anywhere without tie it to only one town or city.

  9. The new team would be owned and operated by the Philadelphia Union and would play next year on Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus in Bethlehem. The Union plays in Chester, Delaware County, in Major League Soccer.

  10. As a native of Bethlehem who has moved away (South Carolina) and loves the beautiful game, I could agree more with your last point. Bethlehem, in my mind, is the quintessential small American town with history, industry, and character, and the Union were right to put the team there. Bethlehem Steel FC is the logical choice for the re-name, but honestly, anything will do. Get a combination of family entertainment and good soccer, and the people will turn out.

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