Philadelphia Union II

A look at the Bethlehem Steel rebranding as Union II

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

It happened.

A month and a half ago the Union organization announced that the Bethlehem Steel would rebrand as the Union II. Now that everyone got their initial reactions and U2 memes out of their system, let’s take a closer look at the rebrand and what it means for the club.

Luckily, Union sporting director Ernst Tanner and chief business officer Tim McDermott wrote all their thoughts about the club and its rebrand down during a Twitter Q&A on December 13th, making my job much easier. Here’s the entire Q&A thread.

So why the name change? In a way, it was actually a long time coming. McDermott said that for the past two years the organization explored all stadium possibilities in the Lehigh Valley, including Lehigh University, Lafayette, the Iron Pigs, Moravian, the original Bethlehem Steel site, large high school fields, and everything in between. None of them met the league’s requirements.

The process began in 2018 after the season ended, and the organization hoped to have the Steel play in the Bethlehem area, but had to move the team to Chester while the search continued. After a full season at Talen Energy Stadium and no USL league-friendly stadiums found in Lehigh Valley, it became obvious that the club couldn’t keep the Bethlehem name while playing over an hour away from Bethlehem.

This meant the club lost a name that was so unique to the area, a name that had meaning in Lehigh Valley. Of course, this was the biggest issue for fans. The Bethlehem Steel were forced to give up a brand with historic significance for a brand that really emphasizes who they are — the Union’s second team.

“We evaluated over 30 different ideas for the rebrand. But when we spoke to our coaching staff, one of the things they felt was important was that the pride players feel wearing the Union badge be part of the rebrand. They felt very strongly that the more we can have a similar name and logo to the first team, the more we can create that feeling of a pathway to the first team. They felt that was extremely important in things like talking to academy players about signing professional contracts.” – Tim McDermott

Honestly, the branding shouldn’t surprise anyone, the club’s purpose has always been clearly explained. No, the name isn’t special or even interesting, but it speaks to the club being part of the Union franchise. Since his very first day on the job, Tanner has made it abundantly clear that the USL club is a stepping stone for young players to join the Union.

“It is one further step to make clear that there is one pathway for our boys and it also stands for our strategy as we move to the future and develop more MLS-level players.” – Ernst Tanner

Even McDermott is saying the same things as Tanner, claiming that the club’s philosophy is based on youth development, and that the organization is one of the best at it. McDermott continued to echo Tanner by saying that the organization wants the Union II playing at Talen Energy Stadium, on an MLS field to learn it and accelerate their development and learning curve. He followed it up by saying that the field conditions have vastly improved and is less of a concern this year as the field improves. However, the organization is always open to moving a few Union II matches to save the pitch again this year.

When discussing offseason plans for the Union II, Tanner stated that the focus is on Academy players. Younger players in the Academy are getting the chance to be promoted to Union II and eventually the Union, The club might bring in older, outside players for two positions that need to be filled (especially after the departure of James Chambers), but the focus is Homegrown and Academy development.

“I think we have a good, prosperous team and we should be even younger this upcoming season.” – Ernst Tanner

Anthony Fontana and Brenden Aaronson are prime examples of this youth development model’s success. Year after year, the club has been trending younger and more than a few players have signed first team contracts. Jack de Vries, Cole Turner, Nathan Harriel, Olivier Mbaizo, and Matt Real were all playing for the Steel last season, have some form of contract and are active in the Union’s pre-season training camp now. There are still plenty of names on the Union II’s roster from last year, and there’s practically a guarantee that we’ll see some new names from the Academy this season on the Union II.

Despite Tanner’s optimism and push for youth development, the trending younger, trending better idea fell flat for the Steel last season. Facing more than a few issues, the Steel had one of their worst seasons in club history. Attendance will once again be a concern for the Union II this year, as McDermott only said that once again Union season ticket holders will get to go to Union II matches for free. He then went on to discuss developing their young players by giving them the chance to play on a professional field. Seems like the organization isn’t too concerned with ticket sales for the Union II or improving attendance after last season’s abysmal average. This just proves that the Union II is there to develop players like a farm team, not generate revenue or even have real fans.

Sorry, Bethlehem Steel fans, Tanner and McDermott have spoken and it’s time to embrace the Philadelphia Union franchise.


  1. poorly handled at the organizational level, with no real identity now, losing an entire fanbase (albeit small) in the Lehigh Valley which they didn’t invest in growing, and the awkward transition to TES. I’ve attended minor league sports in LV—as recent as a Phantoms game a couple weeks ago—and the teams have an identity, a passionate fanbase and make it fun, while still communicating it’s the pipeline to the majors. i look at union 2 like i do NYRB 2: they exist.

  2. Gruncle Bob says:

    It seems to me that their decisions have dictated by circumstances. I’ll take their word they tried to find a stadium to keep them in B’hem. When that didn’t work their options were extremely limited.

  3. I am sorry for soccer fans in the Lehigh Valley, but this is a sensible move. The team has been a farm team, and having them around will facilitate a number of things. Among them, I bet it will lead to more attendance at their matches. I could easily see heading down to a stadium I am already very familiar with (and like) to see U2 on a nice day if I need my soccer fix.

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