The Union have rebranded their minor-league USL team from Bethlehem Steel to Union II, after failing to find a suitable venue in the Lehigh Valley for playing games.
It’s an unfortunate end to a three-year run in which the Union revived one of the most-famous soccer team names in American history. The original Bethlehem Steel team existed from 1907 to 1930, winning nine league championships and a record five U.S. Open Cups. The record was tied by Maccabi Los Angeles in 1981.
The Union launched the modern-day Bethlehem Steel in 2016, playing in the second-division USL Championship at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium. It was a suitable venue in many ways — especially its grass playing surface — but did not meet USL stadium standards because it lacks floodlights. Lehigh refused to pay for them. After the 2018 season, the USL put its foot down and forced the Union to make a decision.
Neither of the other notable venues in the Lehigh Valley worked. Lafayette’s Fisher Stadium and Moravian’s Rocco Calvo Field — home of the original Bethlehem Steel — have artificial turf with permanent gridiron lines. So, the Union brought the team to Talen Energy Stadium this year. There were objections from fans in Bethlehem, but there weren’t enough of them to make a difference.
In 2017, there were hints that the Union was looking to build a soccer-specific stadium in the Lehigh Valley. But that never came to fruition. And the stadium likely wouldn’t have gotten much use. Steel trained in Chester during the week, going to Bethlehem for games.
“For the past several years, we have diligently explored numerous stadium options in the Lehigh Valley," Union chief business officer Tim McDermott said in a statement. "Unfortunately, there still is not a viable stadium solution that will meet the current stadium requirements for the USL Championship. We will continue to make every effort possible to bring the Union brand to the region.”
The minor-league team was never meant to stand as a separate entity. It was designed to be a place where Union academy prospects could get playing time in the professional ranks, and on that count, the team has been an unquestioned success. Every academy player who has reached MLS played for Steel along the way and was made ready for the big time because of it.
Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said, “Positioning our USL club as a proving ground for the high-potential talents within our club allows them to learn from interacting with our first team and challenging themselves against excellent USL competition.”
Union majority owner Jay Sugarman told Pro Soccer USA on Wednesday that the USL team must be used for “development first and commercial considerations second.”
The big question now is what happens to the Bethlehem Steel name. It has significant value because of its history. Major League Soccer owns the trademark.