Updated Friday, August 19 after the official press conference.
The Union are taking a major step in growing their player development structure by launching their own team in the lower-division United Soccer League.
Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz joined Lehigh University president John Simon and USL CEO Alec Papadakis on Wednesday to make the official announcement at Lehigh's Goodman Stadium, which will be the team's new home.
The team, which has yet to be named (more on that in a moment), will take the field in 2016. It will train during the week at the same facilities used by the Union's first team and academy - PPL Park in Chester and YSC Sports in Wayne - then head up the Northeast Extension on game days.
As the high school/development academy at YSC starts to produce real prospects, those players need a place to play before taking the step up to the MLS level. The USL is meant to do just that, and the Union's ownership of a team will allow for much more flexibility in scouting and player development.
Eight MLS clubs currently own and operate their own USL teams: Los Angeles, Montréal, the New York Red Bulls, Portland, Real Salt Lake, Seattle, Toronto and and Vancouver.
Officially, the Union will be No, 9, but they won't be the only ones joining the fray in 2016. Houston will jointly operate a team with an ownership group in Edinburg, near the Texas-Mexico border. There have also been many reports that Orlando and Dallas will launch owned-and-operated USL clubs next year. Papadakis said Wednesday that he expects two MLS clubs to add USL teams, but he didn't name which ones.
Sakiewicz and his Union colleagues have wanted for a while to launch a USL team that the MLS club owns and operates. In recent years, they have partnered with the Harrisburg City Islanders. That relationship has been fruitful, but limited compared to what MLS clubs have done with USL teams that they own and operate. Now the Union and City Islanders are going their separate ways.
The Union have been looking at Bethlehem as a potential USL team destination for a while. Last month, Sakiewicz told MLS' website that the team saw it as way of connecting with the Lehigh Valley's rich soccer history and big soccer fan base.
A few previous connections proved successful: the wildly popular black-and-white third jerseys that resembled the old Bethlehem Steel kits, and sponsorship of World Cup parties at the Steel Stacks park in each of the last two summers.
There's a very real possibility that the Bethlehem Steel brand will be brought back to life again with the USL team. Multiple sources confirmed to me that the Union have secured the trademark rights for Bethlehem Steel, and that the name will be a finalist in the fan vote that will make the final decision. Everyone I've talked to - including many fans on Twitter - believes Bethlehem Steel will win the vote in a landslide.