Lehigh Valley Professional Soccer: Mistaken Identities and Waterfront Stadiums

Another guest post from our friend Anon Y. Mouse:

​The Franklin County Stadium obviously oriented more towards baseball dominates the background in this photo of the American Soccer League playoff game between the visiting Pennsylvania Stoners and the host Columbus Magic on September 9th, 1979 ... (photo courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com)

​The Franklin County Stadium scoreboard obviously oriented more towards baseball dominates the background in this photo of the American Soccer League playoff game between the visiting Pennsylvania Stoners and the host Columbus Magic on September 9th, 1979 … (photo courtesy of http://www.nasljerseys.com)


Considering the fact that this particular blog began its life following minor league baseball, it is definitely a story that needs to stand alone.


Bob Ehrlich, the Liberty High School and Penn State University product who spent three seasons in the American Soccer League as a midfielder for the Pennsylvania Stoners tells a most humorous tale about the team’s first-ever trip to the state capital of Ohio in late April of 1979.
The Pennsylvania Stoners were just minding their own business in the locker room at Franklin County Stadium (later renamed and known as Cooper Stadium to fans of the first-year Lehigh Valley IronPigs back in 2008) and preparing to play the host Columbus Magic in what was only the second-ever ASL match of the visitors’ very short history. Suddenly, a crew of caterers arrived on the scene and delivered an elaborate array of food. Surely, the Stoners players, the majority of whom had never played professionally before this ’79 season had begun, must have thought that this was, indeed, the life!
It had all been a big misunderstanding, however.
The Magic, one of the ASL’s three expansion teams in the spring of 1979, were sharing Franklin County Stadium that year with the Columbus Clippers, who just so happened to be the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees, the two-time defending World Series champion at this point in time. The Clippers, who had been the top farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1977 and 1978, were only just beginning a 28-year affiliation with the Yankees that would eventually end in 2006. The most noteworthy player for the Columbus Clippers back in 1979 was starting pitcher Dave Righetti although, when the Stoners came to play the Magic for the very first time on April 22nd of that year, the tenth overall player chosen at the 1977 Major League Draft (by the Texas Rangers) had yet to be promoted from the Yankees’ AA affiliate based in West Haven, Connecticut.
(The Columbus Clippers, of course, later became the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians and moved to newly-constructed Huntington Park at the start of the 2009 season.)
As it was, the catering staff at Franklin County Stadium had experienced a simple case of mistaken identity. “They thought we were a minor league baseball team,” Ehrlich recalls fondly. Once the caterers figured out who the Pennsylvania Stoners really were, the red carpet treatment was was brought to a summary conclusion, Ehrlich also remembers.
Although things are much different in Major League Soccer and the lower level circuits nowadays, playing in baseball stadiums was just a fact of life back in the late 1970s for several teams in the North American Soccer League and even for a few teams in the lower profile American Soccer League, as well.
Ehrlich also has an entertaining story about warming up for a match against the New York United at Shea Stadium, which was, of course, the home of the New York Mets. A soccer ball rolled under a section of the stands and Ehrlich went to retrieve it but a New York City police officer stationed there strongly counseled the young Pennsylvania Stoners midfielder to let the matter be. After seeing what he describes as an enormous pair of eyeballs under the bleachers, Ehrlich immediately decided to heed the cop’s advice.
The Pennsylvania Stoners played their home games at what was then known as the Allentown School District Stadium, which was primarily used as a gridiron football field and had a distinct crown in the center (for drainage purposes). With grandstands on the south side of the facility back in those days, ASD Stadium (now known as J. Birney Crum) could hold a little more than 20,000 spectators so even when the Stoners their best crowds (the team record for any single game was 8,300 fans) the arena was never more than half full. On the other hand, the 1980 ASL champion Pennsylvania Stoners never had the opportunity to stage its matches at Coca-Cola Park (which now has an official capacity for 10,178 spectators) and, if so, the optics would have been a lot different.
Now it is known that the Philadelphia Union of MLS will have a United Soccer League farm club based in Bethlehem that will begin playing at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium in the spring of 2016. While the Union have been averaging something in the neighborhood of 18,000 fans per MLS game the past five years, it remains unknown exactly how many spectators a USL club can expect attract to Goodman Stadium, which has an official capacity of 16,000. In the long run, this new USL team might actually be happier with something along the lines of what the AAA IronPigs have got — a smaller, purpose-built stadium located in the immediate vicinity of the Lehigh River.
Thanks again Mr Mouse,  for another look back at the history of minor league soccer in the Lehigh Valley.  
See you out on the pitch,

Categories: Kram's Korner - From the Club Level, Union Affiliate Soccer


1 reply

  1. I’m not sure if the term “minor league” really applies the Pennsylvania Stoners — but a label of “Second Division” is often assigned to the American Soccer League of the late 1970s/early 1980s by historical analysts and appropriately so.

    When I hear the term ‘minor league team’, my initial instinct is to connect any given minor league team to a ‘major league parent’ organization. Of course, the ASL’s Pennsylvania Stoners had no ‘parent’ club in the rival North American Soccer League (or any other professional league anywhere in the world, for that matter). If anything, it was the Stoners who operated their own “farm club” in the form of Ross Bike, which was actually an amateur team in the local Lehigh Valley Senior League.

    There is absolutely no question that the wealthier NASL clubs were considerably more “major league” than their ASL counterparts. By the late 1970s/early 1980s, almost all NASL clubs were playing their home matches in “major league” facilities — for example, the New York Cosmos played at Giants Stadium (with its capacity for 80,242 specators) — whereas almost all ASL clubs did not. More importantly, NASL clubs simply had much larger operating budgets to work with and, thus, could afford to sign far more expensive players such as World Cup stars Pele of Brazil, Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Johan Cruyff of Holland.

    As we shall see as we continue with the historical review of the Pennsylvania Stoners already in progress here at this blog, though, the fact is that the American Soccer League actually had its very own World Cup stars, too — yes, even ones who had played with the mighty and most skillful Brazilians.

    Furthermore, ASL clubs routinely squared off against NASL clubs in competitive exhibition matches and more than held their own. The Pennsylvania Stoners took the field against the all powerful New York Cosmos “about three or four times, all at Giants Stadium” in former Liberty High School and Penn State University midfielder Bob Ehrlich’s three seasons with the club (1979-1981). During the Stoners’ championship season of 1980, ASL clubs won four of the six exhibition games played against NASL opposition.


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