Philadelphia Union bring professional soccer back to history-rich area with owned and operated USL team

During the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Philadelphia Union paid homage to one of the greatest American soccer teams ever – Bethlehem Steel FC – by wearing jerseys in their honor for some games, including all of their US Open Cup contests last year.

Now, they’re taking the connection one step further and bringing professional soccer back to Bethlehem 85 years after the Steel folded with five Open Cup championships in their trophy case.

And you can be sure that city’s rich soccer history in the early part of the 20th century was a big determining factor in the Union’s plan to launch a new USL team to the region, which they announced at a formal press conference Wednesday at Lehigh University.

“The region is already steeped in soccer tradition,” Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said. “We hope to continue the legacy of championship soccer left by the Bethlehem Steel.”

While the Union-operated USL team, the 27th franchise of the ever-growing league, will certainly pay tribute to the Steel teams of old, it has yet to be decided if the name will as well.

Sakiewicz said fans can vote on the team name on an online poll from Sept. 8 through Sept. 30, and “after that, we’ll roll out the team name, colors, brand and all of that” ahead of the 2016 season opener in March.

One thing that is for certain is that the yet-to-be-named expansion team will play its games at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium but train in Chester to forge a true partnership with the Union and fill what had been a void in the franchise’s player development structure.

“[Union head coach Jim Curtin] has been very supportive of this effort,” Sakiewicz said. “And I know he really appreciates the opportunity and will be deeply involved in developing the rosters and working with the coaches here.”

Before the creation of the USL team, the Union had partnered with the Harrisburg City Islanders to find a place for some of their deeper reserves to get playing time. But in conjunction with Wednesday’s announcement, it was also revealed that the two clubs will dissolve that partnership.

Now, they are rivals.

“It as an alignment of the Philadelphia Union and City Islanders back in 2010 that drove the ideas for both leagues to align and for much of the subsequent growth and success of what you see today between MLS and USL,” Sakiewicz said. “It will now be very exciting for [Harrisburg owner Eric Pettis] and I and the rest of us the play each other as rivals up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And we’re going to include the Pittsburgh Riverhounds too in what is sure to be a great three-team interstate rivalry.”

Sakiewicz has a good feeling that fans of the Lehigh Valley will embrace these new rivalries after seeing how passionate they were during World Cup viewing parties at the Bethlehem SteelStacks the last two summers.

But he also knows that they’ll have to reward those fans – which includes a vibrant Latino population – by putting a good product on the field that will “compete to win the league title every season” while also being an open and inclusive club.

“As the area’s new professional team, we will invest heavily in the local community,” Sakiewicz said. “Our players and staff will engage with fans, be involved with the youth soccer community and strive to make everyone proud of their new professional soccer team.

“This is going to be one hell of a ride,” he added. “And we hope you all join us, whether it’s fans or corporate partners or community partners. This team will be your team.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.

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