Bethlehem Steel, the Union's minor-league USL affiliate, will move next season's games to Talen Energy Stadium after the USL office barred the team from playing at Lehigh's Goodman Stadium due to a lack of floodlights there.
The move was announced Monday by Union chief business officer Tim McDermott, in a press release issued by the team. It came as a surprise, but the timing of the announcement was more surprising than the move itself.
Goodman Stadium has lacked floodlights ever since it opened in 1988, and that's been a thorn in Bethlehem Steel's side since they launched in 2016. While it's not a problem for a FCS football team whose handful of home games each year are all on Saturday afternoons, USL teams play 17 home games per season, and the Eastern Conference stretches to Tampa, Cincinnati and Toronto. It would help leaguewide logistics for Bethlehem to be able to play on Saturday nights.
"We have been informed by the USL that Lehigh University's Goodman Stadium no longer meets the minimum requirements set forth by the league due to a lack of stadium lighting," McDermott's statement said. "Upon hearing the decision that we could not return to Goodman, we visited and analyzed multiple other potential venues with the aim of keeping Steel FC in the Lehigh Valley, but there was no solution that met all the league requirements that could be ready in time for the 2019 season, including field size, capacity, and lighting, among others."
Goodman Stadium's field size isn't an issue, nor is its natural grass surface and 16,000-seat capacity — well above the USL's minimum requirement of 5,000. But there isn't another venue near Bethlehem that fits the bill. Lafayette's 13,000-seat Fisher Stadium and Moravian's Rocco Calvo Field — the original home of the old Bethlehem Steel team in the early 1900s — both have artificial surfaces with painted-on gridiron lines.
So it made sense to bring the USL team down to Chester, even if it means the Bethlehem moniker will be out of place for a while. Steel train in Chester during the week anyway, using the Union's training facilities adjacent to Talen Energy Stadium.
The Union said last year that they'd like to get a soccer-specific stadium built in the Lehigh Valley, but there hasn't been any progress on it since then. McDermott said in Monday's statement that the team is negotiating with the USL to play two games in 2019 in Bethlehem next year, at a venue to be determined.
"We will continue to look for a long-term solution in the Lehigh Valley," McDermott said. "We are also keeping the team name as Bethlehem Steel FC with the same logos because we are viewing this situation as temporary — we hope we can return to the Lehigh Valley as soon as possible with an approved stadium solution."
The Union will offer free tickets to Steel games in Chester for this year's Bethlehem season ticket holders, and will include admission to all Steel games in the cost of Union season tickets. That should help Steel draw fans to games which often features top Union prospects getting their first pro minutes. Now the pipeline will be easier to watch in person.
It might also help boost Steel's relatively low attendance figures. The team averaged 2,498 fans per game in 2016, its inaugural season; 3,054 fans per game in 2017; and 2,376 fans per game this year.
Along with the venue change news, McDermott announced that Steel will stay in the USL's second-division league instead of moving to the USL's new third-division league that is launching next year. Affiliates of FC Dallas, Orlando City and Toronto FC will be in the third tier; the last two of those formerly played in the second tier. Harrisburg-based Penn FC is also moving down to the third tier, though they're taking next year off as they look for a better venue.
The USL has branded its second-division league as The Championship and its third-tier league as League One. It's an attempt to mimic English soccer's similar naming convention, though over here it has caused confusion.