Union plan to keep Bethlehem Steel, not change USL affiliate to Rochester - at least for now

On Tuesday night, Sports Illustrated reported on chatter that the Union might close its United Soccer League team, Bethlehem Steel, and create an affiliation with the independent Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos. The report surfaced as many MLS teams contemplate folding owned-and-operated minor league teams to comply with new USL operating standards, especially regarding stadium sizes.

But it doesn’t seem that Bethlehem Steel is going anywhere. A source told the Inquirer and Daily News that the Union plan to keep Steel in place next year. Steel’s supporters club, the East End Army, posted a statement  that someone in Steel’s front office had told the fan group that “next season the club will remain in Bethlehem.”

That doesn’t mean the Union haven’t thought about doing things differently.

The team acknowledged on Wednesday that it has considered alternative homes for Steel. That includes  having “spoken to multiple teams in MLS and the USL on different options,” according to the team statement.

“As in any business, we evaluate options as they arise,” the statement said.

The Union’s preference is to get a soccer-specific stadium built in the Lehigh Valley. Steel has played its first two seasons at Lehigh University’s 16,000-seat Goodman Stadium. The team averaged 3,052 fans per game this year in 16 home contests, up from 2,573 last year.

Goodman Stadium far exceeds the USL minimum capacity of 5,000 seats, so that’s not a problem. But it’s a bit spartan in amenities. A soccer-specific venue would also give the Union full control over Steel’s schedule when soccer and college football overlap.

“We love being in the Lehigh Valley and the environment it creates for our player development,” the statement said. “Our priority is to create a first-class experience for our players and fans, and part of that process includes identifying soccer-specific stadium options in the Lehigh Valley, which would allow us to remain in the region for years to come.”

The statement concluded: “We stay committed to our goal of a long-term future in the Lehigh Valley.”