Bethlehem to score a professional soccer team owned by Philadelphia Union – Allentown Morning Call
The Lehigh Valley is about to score a hat trick.
In addition to landing the IronPigs baseball and Phantoms hockey teams, the Valley is about to become home of a third top minor league team. This one would play soccer.
The new team would be owned and operated by the Philadelphia Union and would play next year on Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus in Bethlehem. The Union plays in Chester, Delaware County, in Major League Soccer. The new team would play in the United Soccer League.
The announcement is expected to be made Wednesday in a joint news conference involving Philadelphia Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz, Lehigh President John Simon and USL CEO and Managing Partner Alec Papadakis.
Officials at the Philadelphia Union declined to comment Monday. But news of the announcement has been wending its way through local soccer circles for weeks, and a philly.com blog, The Goalkeeper, first reported it Monday morning.
The Philadelphia Union already is affiliated with another top minor league team, in Harrisburg, called the City Islanders. The big club has telegraphed in recent years that it was eyeing another in the state, perhaps in Bethlehem.
Two years ago, Philadelphia Union players donned white, black and red “third” jerseys in homage to the legendary Bethlehem Steel F.C. team of the early 20th century.
“You know my love affair with Bethlehem Steel and the jersey, and I’m very proud we were able to revive that history. We’re studying that market closely, absolutely,” Sakiewicz told MLS.com this summer. “There’s a lot of great soccer fans in the Lehigh Valley, and they certainly deserve a team.”
SteelStacks’ soccer “viewing parties” certainly helped seal the deal. Last year, 52,000 soccer fans were on hand for jumbo screen viewings of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, making it one of the more successful festivals ArtsQuest put on that year. At times ESPN cut into its national coverage to show the Bethlehem crowd.
This year, 8,500 fans traveled to SteelStacks to watch the American women’s team win the World Cup.
And participation is increasing. The Lehigh Valley United, a youth soccer league with 1,200 members, has grown from five teams when it began in 2007 to 35 teams today.
“We’re into the third generation of soccer in the Lehigh Valley,” said Greg Ramos, executive director of Lehigh Valley United. “We have people that not only grew up with soccer but who are passing on their love of the sport to their kids.”
Perhaps the best-known soccer team in the Valley was fielded by Bethlehem Steel. With stars like Archie Stark, the Bethlehem Steel F.C. team in 1915-16 won five National Challenge Cups, now known as the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest soccer competition in the nation.
The region is now home to the Lehigh Valley United Sonic, which plays in Whitehall High School Stadium in the Premier Development League. The Lehigh Valley Steam played for a season 15 years ago. Before that, the Pennsylvania Stoners of Allentown played from 1979-83 in the American Soccer League, and was reformed in 2007 for a couple of seasons in the National Premier Soccer League.
“They were all independent teams,” said Michael Stershic, executive director of Discover Lehigh Valley. “Now, we’re talking about one affiliated with Major League Soccer, and that raises it to a higher level.”
The United Soccer League includes a dozen teams, like the Harrisburg Islanders, that have partnered with Major League Soccer. Those types of affiliations provide playing time for injured major league players, but don’t give the major league team as much power in picking coaches and tailoring programs to fit the needs of the major league team.
In the last two years, major league teams have started to create their own teams in the United Soccer League. The LA Galaxy II became the first in the league to be owned and operated by a major league club. The one in Bethlehem would be the ninth in the now 24-team league.
Stershic said it’s unclear as to how much of an economic driver a Philadelphia Union team would be. Discover Lehigh Valley did a study that showed surrounding minor league baseball teams drew under 3 percent of their attendance from outside the area. The IronPigs, he said, tracked slightly higher at 5-8 percent out of the area, he said.
Stershic attributed the turnout to the quality of the Allentown stadium and proximity to other teams — rival fans are willing to travel.
Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., said he views minor league sports more as community builders than economic generators, though the teams can boost the local economy slightly.
“It does two main things for the Lehigh Valley. It gives people a sense of pride of place. We will never have major league teams here, but people respond really well to embracing minor league teams as their own,” Cunningham said. “It also really helps to market the region. It’s amazing how many people outside this market now know the region because of the Phantoms and the IronPigs.”
Joking that soccer has been “the hottest new sport for 30 years,” Cunningham said the presence of a Philadelphia Union-affiliated team can only deepen the Lehigh Valley’s commitment to the game.
With a team in place, Cunningham said the next step would be to persuade the Philadelphia Union team to build a soccer stadium in the Lehigh Valley.
FIVE THINGS ABOUT PRO SOCCER IN VALLEY
The new team would be a top minor-league club owned and operated by the Philadelphia Union, a Major League Soccer team that plays in Chester, Delaware County. So, it would be the soccer equivalent of the IronPigs or the Phantoms.
The team would play in the United Soccer League. Two other USL teams play in Pennsylvania: the Harrisburg City Islanders and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
USL teams play about 30 games in a season, stretching from late March to mid-September. There are 24 teams in the league.
Locally the new team would play at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium.
Philadelphia Union officials plan a news conference Wednesday.
Copyright © 2015, The Morning Call
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