Analysis / Local

Is the end of pro soccer in the Lehigh Valley at hand?

Photo: Rob Simmons

We could be watching the end of professional soccer in the Lehigh Valley, just as it has begun paying dividends at American soccer’s highest levels.

Bethlehem Steel FC will play this season at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa., more than 70 miles from its namesake city, after being forced to vacate Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem because it lacks floodlights, a new stadium requirement for USL.

The unsettled situation comes at a time when the Steel’s value to parent club Philadelphia Union on the field is higher than ever. Steel alumni Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie have locked down starting jobs with the Union and were called up to the senior U.S. national team in January, while another former Steel player, Cory Burke, scored double digit goals for the Union last season.

Parent club Philadelphia Union is exploring long-term alternatives for returning to the Lehigh Valley, but none has emerged yet.

It’s not overstating the issue to question whether the stadium situation will prove fatal to professional soccer in the Lehigh Valley.

Lehigh Valley fans aren’t going to Chester

If you think many Lehigh Valley fans will trek down to Chester for a USL club, think again.

In 2018, the Steel’s parent club, Philadelphia Union, set a record low mark for attendance for the second straight year while playing at Talen. While the Steel’s most loyal supporters may make the trip, let’s be realistic: If they’re not going for an MLS club, they’re not going for a USL club in the same stadium.

Outsiders must understand: The Lehigh Valley is not the same as the Pennsylvania suburbs of Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, and Chester counties, which all feed heavily into Philadelphia.

In contrast, the Lehigh Valley is largely self-contained, with three cities of its own centered on Allentown and Bethlehem, and is the the third largest metropolitan area in Pennsylvania. There is plenty to do in the region without ever going to Philadelphia. (When I lived in Bethlehem, I went to Philly at most once a year.)

It’s an ideal minor league market, with a significant population of sports fans living more than an hour from the nearest major league stadium in any sport. There’s a reason minor league baseball, hockey and soccer clubs have set up shop there over the last decade. Last year, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs baseball team averaged 8,511 fans per game, while the Lehigh Valley Phantoms hockey team drew 7,875 fans.

The unique appeal of Bethlehem Steel FC lies in its heritage, proximity and the ease of attending a game for Lehigh Valley residents. Not only is it named after the famed 1920s company team, Goodman Stadium is located on Bethlehem’s south side, not far from the old Bethlehem Steel plant that defined the city’s identity for more than a century.

Attendance in Bethlehem: Not bad, could be better

Attendance at Steel games has been decent, coming in at 2,347 per game last year. That ranks just No. 25 of 33 USL clubs, but it’s also third among the nine clubs affiliated with MLS teams.

However, attendance dropped from 3,052 the year in 2017, the fourth largest decrease in the USL.

That likely owes itself in part to the stadium situation. Goodman is a decent place for a sporting event, but at 16,000 capacity, it’s too big for minor league soccer in the region. A smaller, more soccer-friendly alternative would help the fan experience.

Equally significant, Steel fans know the club is not going to contend for a USL title. The Union treat the team primarily as a finishing school and shop window for the parent club, which is to the detriment of the Steel’s viability among fans.

The club’s current model results in a lack of player continuity on the field, which hurts not only the quality of play but also likely the connection between fans and the players. Steel captain James Chambers has become a popular player not merely because of his solid play and character, but also because he’s literally the only Bethlehem player who the team keeps long enough for fans to develop any sort of connection to him.

Attendance in Chester – Likely to be anemic

The Steel’s attendance in Chester is likely to be anemic this year, when you consider the factors in play, particularly including this one:

No MLS clubs’ USL affiliates draw good attendance when playing in the same stadium as the parent club.

Five USL clubs played in the same stadiums as their MLS affiliates last year. All drew fewer fans per game than Bethlehem.

  • Portland Timbers 2: 2,015
  • LA Galaxy II: 1,048
  • Swope Park Rangers (Kansas City affiliate): 881
  • New York Red Bulls II: 812
  • Toronto FC II: 810

The 2018 figures are even more revealing once you realize that Swope Park and NYRB played each other in the 2016 title game and are routinely among the USL’s best teams.

To further underline the point, Seattle Sounders 2 averaged just 1,097 fans per game in 2017. Upon moving to nearby Tacoma, their attendance tripled to 3,370 fans per game. (In contrast, Real Monarchs saw their attendance drop from 2,577 to 1,731 upon moving out of Salt Lake to nearby Herriman, but let’s note that Tacoma has more in common demographically with the Lehigh Valley.)

Meanwhile, Atlanta United 2 drew 2,592 fans per game while playing in a minor league baseball stadium outside Atlanta, about the same as the Union.

Bottom line: Most USL teams affiliated with MLS draw more fans when playing in typical minor league markets. When they play in the parent club’s stadium, attendance is usually abysmal.

Alternatives

There are a few possible long-term stadium alternatives in the Lehigh Valley, with varying prospects for success.

  • A new South Bethlehem stadium. The ideal situation would probably be a new minor league park in South Bethlehem near the SteelStacks arts complex and Sands Casino. However, a new stadium costs money, and there could be environmental remediation costs in play on the site of the old steel plant. While the city government can offer tax incentives, don’t expect taxpayers to foot the bill for a stadium. A partnership with Sands that includes naming rights could draw external investment, though not likely the full construction costs. Few would bet on the Union building a minor league stadium right now, given their ownership’s well-documented frugal nature.
  • Coca-Cola Park, Allentown. Several USL clubs play in minor league baseball stadiums. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs have a viable baseball stadium and are among the most valuable minor league teams in North America. However, anyone who’s seen a match played on NYCFC’s barely regulation field knows the negative impact a baseball stadium’s contours can have on soccer, so the structural dimensions of the field are a key variable to address.
  • Fisher Stadium, Easton. Lafayette College in Easton is home to the 13,132-seat Fisher Stadium, which has field lighting. Its turf playing surface isn’t optimal, but its biggest drawback may be location. Easton is at the Lehigh Valley’s eastern edge and away from the population center of Allentown and Bethlehem, which share a border at the valley’s center.
  • Other local universities. The original Bethlehem Steel FC played at Steel Field on Bethlehem’s north side, which is still used by Moravian College. Unfortunately, capacity on the turf field is less than half the 5,000-seat minimum capacity for USL stadiums under the league’s new standards. Muhlenberg College’s Scotty Wood Stadium in Allentown has lighting but only seats 3,000 fans, while nearby Cedar Crest College and DeSales University have nothing close. After that, you’re looking at high school football stadiums, which are unlikely to meet USL standards.
  • The Union pay for lights at Goodman Stadium. The Union could partner with Lehigh and pay for floodlights at the stadium. However, given the fact that Goodman isn’t an ideal long-term option due being too large for minor league soccer, the Union are likely looking at other opportunities before dumping money into this one.
Getting value

Any pro soccer team must be financially viable to continue existence. This is particularly the case for the Union, who are firmly nestled in MLS’s financial third tier. It doesn’t matter how many players the Steel send to MLS and the U.S. national team. If the team doesn’t draw enough paying fans, it will go the way of the USL affiliates of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact: It will fold.

The Steel may not have had the most impressive attendance in USL in the Lehigh Valley, but it’s a viable club that plays a hugely important role for the Union. Loans to externally controlled USL clubs are an optional replacement for MLS-contracted players, but the Union lack the control over that as well as the option to blood their academy players in USL play.

At this point, they need a competitive USL club within reasonable proximity to compete in modern MLS. The Lehigh Valley is the ideal market. The Union got these things right. Now, they just have to adapt to a changing USL.

23 Comments

  1. Interesting column, Dan. I can’t tell who needs who more: Does the Lehigh Valley need Steel more than Steel needs the Lehigh Valley?

    It seems to me like The Lehigh Valley would be better off with an independent USL team. The Union clearly can’t afford to even buy a proper left back for their first team, so I think funding even some floodlights elsewhere is a non-starter.

    Also, it might be time for the clubs to create a more closed second team circuit and pull them out of the USL. I get that the USL might offer a higher standard of competition, but why subject your second team to USL stadium rules, etc? Red Bull draw is pathetic, but they’re a strong team. I don’t know. It’s a puzzle.

    • This is a good point. Being connected to a organization unwilling or unable to pay for some lights, is likely not a recipe for long term success. The LV would be better served by trying to make their own independent team.

    • An independent side is an interesting idea. It would probably fare better, because it would likely result in a more productive team. However, it doesn’t answer the Union’s issues.

      Really, I think a Lehigh Valley club done right is a Union affiliate that also legitimately competes every year. It has more continuity of veteran players while still incorporating young Union and academy players.

  2. Muhlenberg seems the best option. Plus you might get some additional attendance in spring and fall. Get league to waive 5000 minimum capacity. Based on data, the 5000 is unattainable in the next couple years.

    • John O'Donnell says:

      That’s not going to happen as USL just got D2 status and isn’t looking to rock the boat especially with the NASL lawsuit on life support. Moving down to D3 might work for a stadium requirement of 3,500 in USL but I can’t see the Union doing that. The Sixers have a loose relationship with the Union owners in Wilmington where they developed their field house for the Blue Coats and a sports complex.
      This is from the NBA website.

      The Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG), whose assets have a value in excess of $4 billion, including 40 hotels, six million square feet of office and retail space, 10 major residential communities, and multiple entertainment venues, including Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union, will lead the development and construction of the new facility. Meanwhile, the 76ers will leverage its sales and sponsorship expertise to secure unique partnerships for 76ers Fieldhouse, including naming rights partners.

      It make sense to move the team here as it’s closer to Chester and the academy. They could still train with the first team at Chester while expanding their footprint in Delaware.

  3. What would be the pros and cons of Steel dropping to 3rd division status? Would the weaker competition level of D3 be offset by other factors?

    • An excellent and timely question that is very difficult to answer until the D3 league, USL League One, is on display and shows some manifestations of its quality.
      .
      So in the short term my answer is, “Impossible to have any idea yet.”
      .
      TFCII played in USLC last season. Richmond Kickers also played in USLC last season. Orlando City B last played in 2017. North Texas is a start-up of FC Dallas. Penn FC and Rochester Rhinos will join in 2020 if they can find stadiums. The rest are less known to me including at least one or two that are starting from square one. There are some PDL sides that are going pro.
      .
      Really tough to estimate quality yet.
      .

      • Thanks, Tim.
        .
        Putting aside quality as much as possible, what might the other pros and cons be? For example, John O. mentioned above that the seating requirement drops from 5k to 3.5k.

      • Just got back to this, John, sorry.
        .
        Brendan Burke would immediately say quality of the referees.
        .
        Further reverse engineering what he said anticipating the move up to D2 a couple of years ago, the asset value of the rosters would immediately drop, hence the valuation of the club would shrink.
        .
        My vague memory is that stadium size for D3 used to be smaller than 3,500. I have not looked at it in a couple of years.

  4. Scott of Nazareth says:

    J Birney Crum in Allentown has light and can hold 15K, but is a multi purpose turf field…

    Mentioned in Tim’s post yesterday – would love to see something in the Steel Stacks area, but am positive that costs would be prohibitive.

    Goodman is nice, I think attendance #’s would improve with the ability to have later start times. The mid afternoon starts hamstring any efforts to bring in the local youth clubs who’s teams are playing on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

    • Thanks for noting it! The turf hurts, but the capacity makes it an option. It’s been so long since I’ve been out there that I don’t recall if it has lights or not. If you know, please share here. Thanks!

  5. Unrelated: Anyone see the Taylor Twellman tweet today?!
    .
    “Hearing the @PhilaUnion are in final discussions with Marco Fabian from @eintracht_eng and @Bundesliga_EN. Great signing and opportunity for both sides. #MLS”

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    Point of Parliamentary Procedure. I would like to state for the record your honorable honor I’ve been on the record from jump about this. It makes no sense. The only positive IMO is Lehigh Valley using the reemergence of Steel to find funders to go their own way. USL is a viable and growing thing(y).
    .
    I say this because someone once called me duplicitous here and that I alway seem to echo someone else’s point, when its often mine being echoed. I know. I’m an ass. But my ass is 12 feet in the air. So there.
    .
    Thank you sir. May I have another.

  7. Curious if anyone knows what attendance figures are like for II teams in the Bundesliga and La Liga? Do they have the same issues that USL and MLS are going through? I don’t really have knowledge on this and would be interested in learning more

    • La Liga 2 is all over the place… Top club avgs 20,000 a match. Bottom club avgs a bit more than 1,000. Not much different than USL.

      I binged Sunderland til I Die last week and was struck by how empty the stands we’re in a lot of those Championship matches.

  8. Seems like an easy fix, but couldn’t/shouldn’t they just drop to USL League One? I mean, is there really a benefit from them being in USL-C except for the fact that it’s a slightly higher level of competition? I mean, they’ll still be playing full-time, the team could stay in Bethlehem, and it would be much easier to justify playing academy players, in fact they could sign a bunch of them to play full-time if the team was in a lower division. Just my thoughts. I’ll go to games at Talen because it’s closer, but the opponent isn’t a deciding factor for me.

    • You have lost focus on their goal, which is to prepare individuals for MLS.
      .
      Every time I watch anUnion game Saturday night and a Steel one Sunday afternoon, the firs thing I notice is that the pace of play is slower. And that was with the Union playing possession, not high pressure all over the field.
      .
      D3 will likely be slower than D2. That’s not the better teaching environment.

    • The big thing is level of competition. Even with their current model, while the Steel may not be competing for a title, they are making the playoffs. Burke does a fantastic job, but it also shows the talent is there even with the turnover. If you want to forge that diamond, you need more pressure, basically.

  9. Emmanuel Ntow-Mensah says:

    I’m excited to announce that there will be a new Semi-Pro Soccer Club coming to Allentown, Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley area.

    My inspiration for this project stems from my experience playing with locals of the Lehigh Valley Pennsylvania area and also volunteering with the local youth club, Parkland Soccer. There’s so much talent in the Lehigh Valley. Many who do not get a chance to play in college simply stop playing or rely on finding pickup games to get their fill of soccer. I want the 13 year olds I coach and other young players to have something to look forward to, something to work towards. The clubs vision is to recognize and cultivate top talent in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas and encourage players to stick with soccer. Sports are an integral part in keeping the youth in our community out of harm and out of trouble. Soccer, also known as the beautiful game, has the power to unify and bring together an entire community.

    The club will field a men’s team (ages 17-28) that will compete in the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). We are targeting our inaugural season for Fall 2019(September-December). We will run tryouts 3 months before season kicks off. We have future plans to establish a youth academy in the upcoming years. And hopefully grow to an extent where we can become a USL Club. We plan to be very competitive! Players will have the chance to showcase their talents on a national stage and attract colleges, or even professional clubs. We were recently featured on local news station WFMZ-TV.

    Spread the word, follow our social media pages: Instagram: @allentownunited, like us on Facebook: Allentown United Football Club. This will allow us to attract sponsors for the club as we build some solid local support. Find our contact info on the page and shoot us a message if you would like to be involved or know anyone who would. Together, you can all do your part to support local soccer in the Lehigh Valley. This is The People’s Club. Thank you.

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