Goodbye to the romance of Steel FC

Today, Philadelphia Union FC announced a name change for its USL Championship affiliate from Bethlehem Steel FC to Philadelphia Union II.

Bethlehem Steel FC are dead, long live Bethlehem Steel FC. After a 2019 year that saw a new home, a change in ideas and at the end, a retirement ushered out with a whimper, Bethlehem Steel FC are now Philadelphia Union 2. Sorry, Philadelphia Union II. Instead of giving off a rant about how the (inevitable) rebrand and pivot from an MLS 1.5 to Union Academy U-23 team that plays professional soccer make me feel bad or what have you, let’s talk about 2018.

Amidst fights about lights and constant press box chatter of not being able to get a waiver from USL about the lights *again*, Bethlehem Steel FC were firing on all cylinders. New boys like Stanford and LA Galaxy cast-off Drew Skundrich, Wisconsin workhorse Mike Catalano, and Cal Baptist assassin Aidan Apodaca hit the ground running. Acquisitions from inside USL were on show. Omar Holness (oft-injured) was a fighter, Toronto FC II’s metronome Brandon Aubrey was insanely consistent. Brandon Allen came down from Red Bulls II. There was honest to goodness hype about the little team in Christmas City. They returned guys like Derrick Jones and John McCarthy and Santi Moar and Chris Nanco and AJ Paterson. Pieces that are either back in MLS or currently causing problems for teams elsewhere. When you look at the historic organizations that get MLS 2 sides right, this was the Union’s version of it. They’d finish on 50 points, with 14 wins and a ridiculous 8-3-2 record down the stretch. All of those are probably untouchable now. Sixth place in the East was theirs and with it, a postseason meeting with in-state Pittsburgh.

August 12th saw a 1-2 defeat to the Riverhounds with Nico Brett providing twice for the Hounds. Early September was the return fixture on the Mon and Bethlehem didn’t show up. Shelled 4-1, Bethlehem were ticked off at both the field and the apparent lack of heart for a pretty big fixture.

All those factors added to a playoff bout at Highmark that felt like (and still feels like) an instant classic. Pittsburgh got the first. Steel went Nanco-Moar-Faris (imagine) to tie it. Hugh Roberts of Steel 2017 fame naturally got the second goal (and massive narrative points) for Pittsburgh. James Chambers scored for my biased money one of the best goals the USL Championship playoffs will ever see to tie it. Then, the worst penalty shootout of all time happened but in the end Bethlehem won. And dear reader, that was validation. Validation to why on Earth the Bethlehem Steel existed.

Bethlehem Steel played at Lehigh University. Pretty much every game would be on Sunday at 5 or 3pm, depending on when it got dark, and it felt like your mom and dad ran it. There were maybe a dozen club staff members, add a dozen for Lehigh stadium ops. Dave Leno and Matt Kassel would be in the gantry above us until that was too expensive so they stopped sending them. The communications guy was also the Twitter and Opta rep. Occasionally, you’d see Tommy Wilson or Earnie Stewart or Jay Cooney pop up to avoid people in general and watch their long term investments. The locker room was tiny. The interview backdrop was shoddily held up by a metal easel thing. Without fail, you’d play the “how do you want to leave this week” game while you’re doing interviews. Inviting guys to either walk behind you or crouch below the camera. It felt campy and warm and like home. It was people starting out in the industry and in professional soccer, being and acting and talking like people starting in soccer. It felt like guys missing games for prom because it was guys missing games for prom.

Those guys starting out are now becoming big names. Brendan Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty, Anthony Fontana, John McCarthy, Santi Moar, Drew Skundrich, Cory Burke, and the list goes on. Literal boys to men. Men to internationals. None of this happens without the lauded “bridge” between Academy and first team. That bridge is now burned.

Ernst Tanner knows what he’s doing. He has a vision, he executes it, so far it works. The offseason of 2018 was the first flash of what Philadelphia Union II now is. Shipping out those mid-20’s low-risk one-year rehab projects. Bringing in young kids from Haiti and Jamaica and shipping up a full back from Costa Rica. All undeniably talented players. All with various levels of (technically known as) the ability to care.

So, what will 2020 hold for Philadelphia Union II? Well, probably what 2018 held for Toronto FC II and Orlando City B and what 2016 held for FC Montreal.

There’s always a desire to change, especially in sports. There’s no issue with that. Changing so much while retaining so little from your successes, however, is where problems start.