“So long, farewell
Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight”
-Oscar Hammerstein II
Fans of the Bethlehem Steel Football Club had feared the day for a while now. Yesterday was that day. It was announced that the team with the Lehigh Valley moniker will play their games next season at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, PA, home of the parent club, Philadelphia Union. The Lehigh Valley home, Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University, was deemed “unfit” for USL league soccer last year. The Steel were able to get a waiver from the league to remain in place as they searched for another location. Alas, the search was fruitless, and the Union had no other option but to move the games to the stadium they control–right on the site where they all train anyway.
Nobody likes Goodman Stadium. I’ve been complaining about it since the Steel arrived in the valley in 2016. But it was our stadium, and it still meant North American division II professional soccer 25 minutes from my house. Many times, division I MLS players could be seen there, too, getting their work in to stay in game shape. Union academy products who were ready to join the ranks of the professionals were able to get playing time during these games as well.
The USL has rules and regulations when it comes to what kind of stadium they want their product featured in. The issue with Goodman wasn’t the uncomfortable seating area, the lack of quality concessions, the three mile hike to the parking lot, the empty east side, or the lack of a video scoreboard or quality sound system. No, the problem was the lights. There are none. Lehigh’s other athletic fields to the west of Goodman all have lights, but not Goodman. And, Lehigh isn’t going to add them any time soon. Wasn’t there anything good about Goodman?
I thought they did a great job keeping the natural turf field in good condition. From my seat, anyway, the playing surface always looked top notch–even during Lehigh football season. And, they were able to mow down the gridiron lines if the schedule permitted during football season, to make the soccer game look as good as possible. And, the parking lot may be a nice walk from the stadium, but parking was free and there was plenty of room to tailgate and hang out. This created a festive atmosphere for the pre-game and lead to a nicely lubricated fan base ready to cheer on the team.
The local organization did do an outstanding job trying to rise above the limitations of Goodman and the fact that the players lived and trained in Chester. They had clinics at schools and community appearances. They held soccer clinics and tournaments. They got involved with the local soccer clubs. I do believe the attendance at games could have been so much better if they had a more comfortable facility which could also host night games. But they did the best they could with what they had to work with.
What happens now?
Well, while the Steel FC play their 2019 games in Chester, the Union will continue to try to find a facility in the Lehigh Valley that can meet all of their needs. It’s not just the lights–the stadium in question needs to be of a certain size, and have the appropriate locker room facilities and press box. There might be other requirements as well. There are teams that play in baseball stadiums, but it is just such an ugly way to showcase soccer and I don’t want them ripping into my gorgeous field over at Coca Cola Park, either. I’m a fan of both teams, I just don’t want them in the same stadium.
There has been the mention that the organization will attempt to get a waiver to play two games next season somewhere in the Lehigh Valley. If that is indeed the case, wherever that may be, might lead us towards where they’ll try to get the appropriate changes in place to qualify to bring the team back in 2020. It is for this reason–but much to the consternation of the local fan base–that the USL side will continue under the Bethlehem Steel FC branding in 2019.
It really felt like a punch in the gut last night when the news broke. I had dropped my season ticket plan for this past season, but ironically made it to more games than I had in the previous two. I spent evenings on recent weekends watching the team come from behind to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs, on a turf field with gridiron lines and then the following week lose to Louisville in a baseball stadium with the dirt still in place. The Steel/Union haven’t found an answer in a year and a half, and neither have I. But it seems like other teams are able to get buy with much less-than-perfect situations than lack of lights.
See you….when and if the Steel return,