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Official Review by Joe Rogers, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
It was 1930 and The Great Depression was beginning to cripple America and doing the same to arguably one of the most successful soccer organizations in US history. Bethlehem Steel had thrived during World War I, producing warships, guns and munitions, armor, and ordnance for the Allied forces affording them the luxury of employing some of the greatest soccer players in the world, thus forging dominance on the pitch as well as in the steel industry. However, with the effects of the Depression beginning to rear its ugly head, and with growing hostility among soccer’s governing bodies and leagues, the Steel, America’s most popular football team to date, walked off the pitch for the final time in defeat on April 28, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York in front of a reported 3,000 fans. Well, there is your history lesson, albeit a quite short one.
Now, fast forward to 2016, and the Bethlehem Steel FC, one of the United Soccer League’s (the third tier amongst American professional soccer leagues) newest members can be seen in action at Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Goodman, a 16,000 seat stadium which opened in 1988, is also home to the Mountain Hawk’s football team which plays in the Patriot League.
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As with a lot of smaller venues there are not a lot of options, but that's not to say that you can't find what you are looking for. There are a few concession stands throughout Goodman Stadium that offer your normal stadium fare such as hot dogs, soft pretzels and soft drinks and beer. 1865 House of Pi is a wood burning brick oven pizza restaurant on wheels steps from the entrance that cooks up a small pizza perfectly in only 90 seconds featuring only local ingredients and is very popular. Everything seems to be reasonably priced, but lines tend to get lengthy with the lack of options, so do not wait until half-time unless you enjoy having your patience tested.
Only Goodman Stadium's West End is utilized for Steel games with hopes of generating enough popularity in the future to incorporate the East End. This aspect, although practical in sense, seems odd to the average sports fan accustomed to having an entire stadium is use. The fans are located directly behind both team's benches and could be heard throughout the game offering their advice to the opposing team's coaches and players, which at times was quite amusing. Diminutive bands with accompanying bag pipes and drums can be heard throughout the game, as well as an amateur singer or two, incorporating a Steel player's name into Ricky Nelson's "You Are My Sunshine" and other past hits.
The stadium is nestled in a scenic rural valley amongst rolling hills and the South Mountain serving as a picturesque backdrop, Goodman is just a Bubba Watson long drive from the famed Saucon Valley Golf Club which boasts two of its three courses as Top 100 courses in the US. Hopefully you are fortunate to have some local connections, as this beautiful course is private. Bethlehem Brew Works on Main Street in Bethlehem offers a great atmosphere, menu and craft beer selection for your enjoyment prior to, or following the game and is located only minutes away. Braveheart Highland Pub located in nearby Hellerton is another option for fine food and conversation. Between Bethlehem and bordering Allentown the options are plenty for bars, restaurants and things to do.
The demise of the Bethlehem Steel's original football club is slowly approaching a centennial; however, there is a renewed enthusiasm for this new version which was evident prior to the club even stepping on to the pitch for its inaugural game. The East End Army, a passionate group with upwards of 500 paid members, and the only official Steel fan club named in honor of the original team's home (East End Field) takes a stand in support in their very own designated section, The Forge. Prior to each home game, the group hosts a tailgate in a specific area of the parking lot for their members where their vocal cords are properly lubricated for the upcoming battle. They are a very vocal group so proper lubrication is essential as they can be heard chanting, singing and heckling for the game's entirety.
Goodman Stadium is located on the Goodman Campus of Lehigh University and is very easily accessible and just minutes off of Interstate 78 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There are plenty of parking spaces available to accommodate your tailgate party and the lots are equipped with portable toilets should you be in need. The stadium is just an hour's drive from Philadelphia and roughly a half hour more from Scranton, Harrisburg, Lancaster and New York City.
As with any expansion team, and especially one on a minor league level, it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to win over enough fans to keep the franchise afloat. The Bethlehem organization seems to be definitely headed in the right direction here and will hopefully avoid the same fate as their predecessors. Their attendance is continually growing as the season goes and word spreads. Tickets are very reasonably priced at $13 - $20 in advance, slightly higher on game day and an entire full-season (16 games) ticket package for a reserved seat can be had for less than $200. On occasion the club trots out players on loan from their parent affiliate, the Philadelphia Union, thus adding to the ROI.
There are not a lot of extras to mention. There is a Steel merchandise store located immediately upon entering the concourse to the stadium and the lines were at first glance surprisingly rather long at times. After looking things over a bit, I could see why as the apparel was quite sharp in appearance due to the Steel's beautiful logo. The logo's artist did an amazing job of incorporating a mix of the team's connections and its history with the Bethlehem Steel's I-beam mark and the Union's badge, along with the snake from the Union emblem which is wrapped around an I-beam with rivets around the edge of the six-sided design. The color scheme includes the Union's blue and gold, with the addition of red from the Bethlehem Steel logo and obviously is appealing to the fans.
Soccer in the Lehigh Valley is very rich in tradition and it is evident that this organization has injected a new enthusiasm regarding it. It seems as though everything is in place for this version of the Steel FC to avoid the unfortunate fate of their footballing forefathers.
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