Newsworthy: Bethlehem attendance and the Concacaf Nations Leagues

Feature Screen Capture courtesy USLC Match Center Highlights

Attendance at Bethlehem Steel matches in Chester has been a recent topic of local electronic conversation.

Since the beginning of the 2017 season, USL – now USLC – seems to have banned the phrase “player development side” from its vocabulary. But there has always been an obvious division in the attendance statistics between those of the independently owned and operated USL sides and those classifiable as player development ones. (For those interested in analyzing the data for themselves, a site called Soccer Stadium Digest pulls the current reported data together in one place, and may have archives.)

When the player development sides’ attendance figures were isolated and compared amongst themslves, Bethlehem was consistently at, or adjacent to, the top of the table. From a business perspective, the organization’s decision to put the wholly-owned Bethlehem Steel affiliate in a separate minor league market was outstanding.

Affiliates playing in their parent clubs home markets were at the table’s bottom without respect to wins and losses. Dead last in 2016 was Red Bulls 2 despite winning the league double. Minor league teams do not compete well with major league ones in major league markets, be it soccer, baseball, ice hockey, basketball, or – if  you consider the NCAA as the NFL’s farm system – football.

In 2019 Bethlehem attendance is no longer first in the player development subcategory, and it’s not even close. SSD reports 585 for the game against Carolina, not the club’s announced 737, and 433 for Memphis last Sunday. The aggregate’s average is exactly one fan more than Swope Park, who are dead last right now for all the USLC teams who have played a home game (not everyone has as it is still early days).

Predictably, intelligently thoughtful comments on this site and elsewhere already call for more marketing, the seeding of the marketplace with extensive free tickets, and so forth.

But consider the implications of actively developing fan support for Bethlehem in Chester. Such market development would directly contradict the organization’s oft-repeated goal of returning Bethlehem permanently to the Lehigh Valley. It would look like trying to build a permanent fan base elsewhere and might undercut efforts to convince third-party stadium operators in the ABE area that Keystone Sports and Entertainment are serious about returning.

Concacaf Nations Leagues A, B, & C

A second under-the-radar topic has been receiving even less attention than minor league attendance in Chester. Concacaf has been remaking itself generally, and creating its own Nations Leagues system in particular.

The confederation is “lifting” its own face because of the multiple prominent black eyes it received during recent revelations of pervasive FIFA corruption. The federation’s new head, President Victor Montagliani of Canada, is leading a thoroughgoing refurbishment, and the new Concacaf Nations League is a significant component thereunto.

The final Nations Leagues formative acts concluded Sunday night at the end of the last game of the final round of Concacaf Nations League Qualifying. (The qualifiers also served to choose the final 10 of the 16 teams for the upcoming 2019 Gold Cup.)

The confederation granted automatic League A qualification to the six participants in the hexagonal round of qualifying for Russia 2018, so the United States Men’s National Team has been exempted from any of the qualifying games. With no national team activity local soccer fans have had little reason to take notice. Only certifiable soccer nuts with too much time on their hands – and writers trying to anticipate how the clubs they cover will address future international call-ups – have been paying attention.

League A for 2019-2020

The inattentiveness will change in September when the USMNT starts playing in League A of the Concacaf Nations League against 11 other top regional sides. In League A there will be four groups of three drawn from three pots at 10 PM (ET) today in Las Vegas.  (How to watch the draw live is at the very end of the linked article.)

  • Pot One: Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, and Honduras
  • Pot Two: Panama, Canada, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago
  • Pot Three: Martinique, Cuba, Curacao, and Bermuda

League A group phase competition will consist of home-and-away series against the group’s other two teams. The four group champions will compete in single-elimination semifinals and a final (see below). The four last place finishers with be relegated to League B and replaced by the top four from that league.

Noteworthy for Union and Steel fans, among the top-ranked League B sides for 2019-2020 is Jamaica with Andre Blake, Cory Burke and Jamoi Topey among the serious call-up candidates.

These are the known parameters governing the match schedules of all three leagues: A, B, and C.

Group PhaseMatch Day 12 - 10 September 2019
Group PhaseMatch Day 22 - 10 September 2019
Group PhaseMatch Day 37 - 15 October 2019
Group PhaseMatch Day 47 - 15 October 2019
Group PhaseMatch Day 511 - 19 November 2019
Group PhaseMatch Day 611 - 19 November 2019
Championship PhaseSemi-Finals & Final 23 - 31 March 2020

Earnie Stewart, Gregg Berghalter, and company will still need to schedule important, challenging friendlies against appropriate European, South American, African and Asian sides.

But in the interval before the next round of world cup qualification, they will now have matches against tough regional rivals that culminate in relegation or championships, games in which  to win or be humiliated.

To recycle a Brendan Burke chestnut, “Pressure creates diamonds.”


  1. Thanks, Tim. Sad to see such low attendance for the Steel home matches, but not surprising at all based on your previous article and analysis.
    I’m going to try to get up to a few Steel games with my kids once the weather is nicer. Cheaper tickets + free parking = more affordable for a family than the Union games.

  2. Also going to try a couple games. Usually get undone by family obligations. But we will see. Really hope the Steel returns to its home. The fans in the Valley deserve to be rewarded for their loyalty!

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    I think it goes without saying but if there is any way to schedule Steel games before or after a Union game… it would be ideal. Obviously this is a big ask and probably impossible, but if they are going to be in Chester, this would be a way to expose the team to the current fan base and increase attendance. It’s damn near impossible to ask fans to go to a Saturday night game and then come back down on Sunday, even if the tickets are free. It’s just not gonna happen. Hopefully they go back to Bethlehem so the fans up there can continue to enjoy them the way they did before they left.

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