Commentary / Philadelphia Union II

Why soccer in Bethlehem? A native’s view

Photo: Chris Luczkowiak

The Lehigh Valley is a weird place. If you ask someone from the Valley where they live, you could get any number of answers. These might include “the Lehigh Valley,” “Allentown,” “Bethlehem,” “Easton,” “outside Philly”, “outside New York,” “eastern PA,” “just south of the Poconos,” or any number of smaller towns in and around the Valley, depending on who’s asking, who’s answering, where you are, and whichever town/city/area that person feels like affiliating with at the moment.

This is due to a few factors.

Some background

The Lehigh Valley is a little over an hour north of Philly and an hour west of New York, two of the nation’s largest cities. This proximity is great for a number of reasons, but identity is not one of them. Do you know what and where Baton Rouge is? Little Rock? Syracuse? Wichita? Chattanooga? Well, all of those cities have smaller metropolitan areas to that of the Lehigh Valley, but unlike the Lehigh Valley they are not in the shadow of a New York or Philly.

The area is also disadvantaged by the fact that, instead of having one main population center, it has three. Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton are three smaller, but distinct cities. If you took just the city centers of all three of (excluding the surrounding towns and boroughs) and mashed them together, you would have a city with a population greater than Salt Lake City.

I don’t share all of this to sound like Rodney Dangerfield, but to give you a baseline for understanding the area Philadelphia Union’s new USL affiliate will call home.

Hungry for sports

Putting a team in Bethlehem makes sense from a historical point of view. I could go on about the history of Bethlehem Steel and pro soccer here (the ASL’s Pennsylvania Stoners, USL-A League’s Lehigh Valley Steam, and most recently Lehigh Valley United Sonic, which started in the NPSL in 2009 and just finished its first season in the amateur PDL), but it’s been covered on this site to a much greater degree than I could ever do justice.

Some might wonder though if the area could support a team, but the only reason why that is even a question is because many people don’t understand what the region is or how big it is —  including its own residents.

Consider this:

  • The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies’ Triple-A Affiliate, are one of the best attended minor league baseball teams in the nation.
  • The Phantoms (a.k.a. Flyers Junior), upon moving to the Lehigh Valley, sparked one of the greatest recent success stories in urban revitalization and have given Allentown one of the fastest growing downtowns in the country.
  • Alongside Musikfest, the Eagles training camp at Lehigh University was one of the Valley’s key end-of-summer attractions until it was cruelly taken away from us.
  • Finally, 52,000 people came out to SteelStacks to watch the 2014 World Cup in the hot summer sun. Some 8,500 came out to watch the Women’s World Cup.

Especially lately, pro sports have been big in the Valley.

I can’t say for certain if the Lehigh Valley has some special quality that makes it any more of a “sports town” than Philly, or any other metropolitan area for that matter. Maybe it’s just a matter of pent up demand to watch live sports for an area that has been traditionally neglected. After all, you can only spend so much time on the road to see a game in Philly or New York.

Whatever the case, the Union are smart to capitalize on this now while demand is high, just as the Phillies and Flyers have.


  1. The Lehigh Valley is a great place and emblematic of everything at once historical and pastoral about the Keystone State. Bethlehem is one of my favorite places to go and the downtown bookstore tops I’ve ever been in.It is a dead obvious selection. Congrats.

  2. And YOCCO’s! Don’t forget the Hot Dog King! 😀

    • Yocco’s is good, but that’s totally an Allentown thing. 😉 In Bethlehem, I go for Callahan’s on the South Side, and Potts on the North Side.

      • Being originally from Central PA (Carlisle; now in Spring City) Yocco’s was “Lehigh Valley” all the way for this outsider 😉 Regardless, i’m looking forward to this all taking shape 🙂

    • Yocco’s might be the most disgusting food on the planet.

  3. James Lockerbie says:

    Good stuff. I am from South Jersey and it’s amazing how each community has it’s own definition of what “South Jersey” means to them. So this is a very informative article on how the Valley may react to this awesome announcement.

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