A historian’s view on the new Bethlehem Steel FC

Photo: Courtesy Bethlehem Steel FC

Roger Allaway, the National Soccer Hall of Fame historian, former president of the Society For American Soccer History, and author of Corner Offices & Corner Kicks, the history of the original Bethlehem Steel FC (and New York Cosmos), shares his thoughts on the Union naming their new USL team after the legendary Bethlehem team.

This year’s developments concerning a new Bethlehem Steel soccer team have delighted me. Whether this is primarily because of my background as an historian of American soccer or because Bethelehem is a much easier drive for me than Chester, I’m not certain. Possibly both.

I have seen comments online that have contended that a hallowed name like Bethlehem Steel shouldn’t be sullied by being used for a third-division team like this new one. I feel a rather personal interest in that name, since I have studied and written about the old Bethlehem Steel soccer team as much as anyone, and I don’t feel the same way as those commenters. I am very happy to see the Bethlehem Steel name honored in this way. That feeling could change, but I don’t think it will.

Why would it change? I would be horrified if evidence were to appear that this team was pretending to be the same team as the old one whose famous name it carries (something that at least one other American pro soccer team with a retro name is doing), but I don’t anticipate that. I think it is very telling that the new team’s crest includes the year that it will begin play in the USL, not the year that the old Bethlehem Steel team began play (and I don’t think they can retire Archie Stark’s number, since I don’t think he wore one).

I am a fan of retro team names. Of course I voted for Bethlehem Steel in the poll that chose this name. In 2008, I voted for Seattle Sounders (fortunately, that poll didn’t have a question asking how far from Seattle you lived). And in the poll that chose the Union’s name, I resisted Steve Holroyd’s urging that I vote for Philadelphia Atoms, and instead voted for Philadelphia Nationals (although I knew that name didn’t have a prayer, and that even if it won, Major League Baseball would shoot it down).

I suppose that if I were going to look at this from a historical purist’s point of view, I would be disappointed that the team isn’t going to be playing at Steel Field, but I’m also a realist. Steel Field, with its artificial turf and its 400-meter track, is less than ideal for soccer these days. Besides, the old Bethlehem Steel team did play some games at an earlier Lehigh University football stadium, Taylor Stadium, including the 1915 U.S. Open Cup final and the 1916 American Football Association Cup final.

Some items on the bright side for this Bethlehem Steel team, from my viewpoint, come from the fact that studying American soccer history isn’t just a matter of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. The researcher becomes acquainted with the downside, as well. So I’m confident that this Bethlehem Steel team won’t be playing in front of the same sort of crowds as the old one, which was known for its dismal attendance at home games (due at least in part to the fact that it was difficult for steelworkers to attend games on Saturday, which is when the team played). And I know that it won’t be facing the same sort of weather as the old one, which played many games on frozen fields or in sleet storms.

I have a few quibbles concerning some of the items surrounding this team, but they don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to my overall positive feelings about the team. One thing that has bothered me was the statement in an article on the Union website that many consider Bethlehem Steel to have been the first American soccer team. I know of only one person who has said that. Most American soccer historians are well aware that the first American soccer teams predate the 1907 start of the Bethlehem Steel team by about 40 years. Then there is the snake on the new team’s crest, which is curled around the beam in the crest in a way that makes it look like a capital letter “I” rather than the end of a long beam.

(Here, it’s time for a brief history lecture: The “Grey beam” or “Bethlehem beam,” which is featured in the corporation’s famous logo and the new team’s logo, is not really an I-beam. In 1906, Bethlehem Steel purchased the patent for making a beam developed by a Minnesota engineer named Henry Grey. The Grey beam had longer lips, or flanges, giving its end more the shape of an H lying on its side than an I. Those longer flanges made it much stronger than a normal I-beam for building to great heights, and the Grey beam was a significant factor the the corporation’s success.)

As a last quibble there is the fact, also mentioned on this site by Ed Farnsworth, that the old Bethlehem Steel soccer team never actually wore the famous Bethlehem Steel logo, which the company didn’t begin using until several years after the soccer team was disbanded in 1930. However, it would be hypocritical of me to complain too loudly about this unfortunate fact, since it hasn’t stopped me in recent years from becoming an avid purchaser of hats and shirts bearing that logo. I probably have more of them than I do shirts with the National Soccer Hall of Fame logo.

I will concede that one reason for my happiness over this Bethlehem team is that I have always been a rather lukewarm Union fan. I’ve been a D.C. United fan since day one of MLS. When the Union were established, I didn’t feel that turning my back on DCU was something I wanted to do. So, I’m delighted to have a team within easy reach (I live in Warminster) that I can root for whole-heartedly.

So, is this the view of a soccer historian about the new Bethlehem Steel team or is it the view of a fan? I’m not sure. All I know is that this historian couldn’t be happier about this team.


  1. Thanks for a nice post. Is anyone upset about the name? Some people thought going with the name Bethlehem Steel might be a less-than-one-hundred-percent-positive move, given all the jobs that were lost not too long ago.

  2. Great piece.
    I was originally torn on this inevitable name choice, as I wasn’t (and still am not) sure how the rest of the Lehigh Valley would respond to it. But whatever. I’m pretty sure I love it. Too much time spent on the South Side. Too much great history there.
    My wife reminded me of this story the other day. We were working as reporters for The Express-Times and sitting in the (now closed) office on Main Street in downtown Bethlehem. Some random guy walked in and explained that he was a college professor from Georgia following the path of famed Depression era photographer Walker Evans across the country, recreating the same photos in the same places. So I took him over to the South Side to create the photo that Evans got there. (I think it was this one.) We then went out to dinner at Bethlehem Brew Works, with all its industrial themes, and the dude camped out in the back yard at my place at Union and Main streets.

    The history there was never quite dead to me.

    • Kinda crazy….that photo… a current grave yard looking beyond into a future grave yard …he had no idea…love the piece….thanks so much for the insight… It’s the reason this sight is so damn good!

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Historians always have a point of view and biases, be they conscious ones or not. It is not possible to separate being a fan from being the historian, just as the umpire cannot separate calling the plate from the fact that his son is pitching in the minds of everyone else watching. (So he was really, really tight with his strike zone to protect his son from the rest of us making accusations of favoritism, even though that was hard on his son.)
    I would have called it Bethlehem Steel FC 2, because it is not the historic Bethlehem Steel FC. Now there will have to be explanatory footnotes everywhere, but ’tis a minor quibble.

    • I’m glad they didn’t go with 2, mostly because several other MLS franchises have USL teams branded the same way (Sounders 2 for example). If we wanted to be picky about the distinction between the old and new club, we should incorporate the year in the name. Bethlehem Steel FC16 or take a page from the 1860 Munich book and place the year first.

      Regardless, great article and I couldn’t agree more. The new club honors the old, not mimics.

  4. Was the name of the club the Bethlehem Steel Football Club or the Bethlehem Steel Soccer Club? There seems to be some disparity in what the name of the club was. Looking at some of the old newspaper clippings from the time it appeared that Soccer Club was the predominant term used in the papers.

    • Roger Allaway says:

      My understanding is that the name was the Bethlehem Football Club from its beginnings in 1907 up through the 1914-15 season, but that it was changed to the Bethlehem Steel Football Club at the beginning of the 1915-16 season, after the corporation began supporting the team financially that year. This information comes from an article in the Bethlehem Globe.

      There were a lot of uses of the word soccer in that era, but I think that to call it predominant is overstating. There were still plenty of uses of football. After all, in 1915, the governing body of the sport in the United States was the United States Football Association and the arguably best league in the country, located in the Middle Atlantic states, was the National Association Foot Ball League.

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