Bethlehem Steel FC invited 2018 season ticket holders for a meet & greet with coaches and players and a new kit unveiling Tuesday night. A post with photos from Tuesday night’s event will follow shortly.
BETHLEHEM, PA. – Following a semi-crowded drive up the blue route and PA turnpike, you will arrive in Bethlehem – the history rich town over 275 years old whose glory days of steel manufacturing have come and gone leaving behind ancient relics of a prosperous past.
A crowd of roughly 80 season ticket holders gathered inside Fowler Blast Furnace Room up on the second floor inside the ArtsQuest Center to collect their tickets and meet the team. The Blast Furnace room proved to be the perfect space with three walls made entirely of glass allowing for a wonderful view of the historic Blast Furnaces just across the street as a backdrop.
The 2018 Bethlehem Steel USL professional soccer team sat in a neat row facing the small gathering of fans as the iconic and rusty remnants of Bethlehem’s past stood in the backdrop.
Bethlehem forged through steel industry
The city of Bethlehem, PA relied heavily upon its burgeoning steel industry in the late 1860s as new wealth and economic activity began to invade the city at the turn of the 19th century.
The Bethlehem Iron Company, later to be renamed Bethlehem Steel, began gaining notoriety for their efforts in railroad construction. The first steel blast furnace was constructed in 1861 and began operation in 1863. The company slowly grew thanks to the need for railroad construction, rebuilding in the south, and expansion out west which all required steel.
Following the Civil War, the US government realized a need to not only downsize their Navy but also improve their ships and ordinances as well. An overhaul of sorts was needed throughout the US Navy and its equipments. What better material to bolster shipyards than steel?
In steps Bethlehem Iron Company and an English company known as the Whitworth Company. An American Lieutenant was sent across the pond on a fact-finding mission to seek business partnerships. The end result proved to solidify the town of Bethlehem’s rise to national acclaim when a contract was officially signed and declared official in 1886 where else but Philadelphia. Later that spring, US Congress passed a naval appropriations bill authorizing construction off several vessels in addition to revitalizing two Civil-War era monitor warships. Bethlehem Iron Company secured both the forging and contracts from the US government in 1887 and the town boomed.
In just a five-year span, Bethlehem constructed the first US heavy-forging plant and rose to international fame in 1893 when the Chicago World’s Fair took place. The world’s first Ferris Wheel was introduced then and needed enough steel to assemble a 140-foot tower to support an all-steel wheel, altogether making a 260+ foot structure. The iron made in Bethlehem Iron’s blast furnaces was responsible for the world’s largest single piece of cast iron ever produced at that point in time.
Throughout the 1900’s Bethlehem Iron Company became Bethlehem Steel and the company remained relevant due to both World War I and II where they became a major supplier of armor and ordinances for US Armed Forces. During the 1930’s, Bethlehem produced vast steel sections for the infamous Golden Gate Bridge. But as the century pushed on, the American steel industry slowly declined with each passing decade. International competition produced steel at lower costs and Bethlehem Steel was forced to give up their coal mining side industry in the 1990’s, well because coal, that’s why.
Now, nothing but ancient and rusty remnants remain in South Bethlehem. Steel Stacks has since arisen thanks to ArtsQuest and other local non-profit and businesses in addition to a 10 acres campus that has since been repurposed as a community gathering place from its historic purpose as the Bethlehem Steel home plant. On that campus sits the outdoor Levitt music pavilion and the ArtsQuest Center which is where Bethlehem’s newest and hottest attraction gathered for what hopes to be an inspiring 2018 USL season for the town.
Busy day for Steel FC players
The first thing you need to know when discussing the Steel FC roster is the constant change among its members. Being a USL affiliate to the MLS’ Philadelphia Union, Steel FC coaches are constantly left out of the loop regarding which players will be available from the Union’s reserves until game day on most occasions. But despite the matchday 18 showcasing players from three distinct groupings: Union reserves, Steel FC contracted players, Union Academy teenagers, Bethlehem have 12 players under-contract with a 13th to be announced as soon as the league approves of his contract. All 13 were present Tuesday night.
Newcomers to Steel FC Prosper Chiluya (LB), Brandon Allen (F), and Omar Holness (M) all sat next to each other among the rest of the team in a neat row facing the season ticket holders for what would be an autograph session followed by an open mic Q&A.
But the autograph session and questions were not the only thing on the players’ agenda that day. Earlier that afternoon, the team arrived at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium for headshots with the team’s new kit. Following the photo shoot, the team transported by Steel FC’s marketing crew throughout the city of Bethlehem snapping pictures in the club’s new merchandise.
The day concluded at Steel Stacks as a final rendezvous for Steel FC fans and staff alike.
Meet & greet with Steel FC’s faithful
There was a food spread. An impressive one at that (funnel cake fries are incredible). There were TV crews. There were photographers. There were family members. There were friends. But most importantly, there was a true sense of community.
The communal atmosphere remained apparent all throughout the event long after the official question and answer session ceased. Fans mingled openly with players and staff. Season ticket holders do actually invest time in getting to know the players after all.
Santi Moar and James Chambers are two fan favorites. Both possess a tremendously friendly personality which fans tend to gravitate toward. Moar may be a bit more expressive than Chambers who can be the exact definition of serious at times.
Moar entered the room to noticeable glances. Why? Was it because he was robbed of the 2017 USL Rookie of the Year Award? No. It was his hair. Bleach blonde to be exact. A markedly different look than he sported his first season with Bethlehem which was more brown than blonde. Coaches, fans, and players all took turns making jokes at Moar’s expense but it was all in good fun.
New year, new hair. That’s what Moar explained after the meet and greet. He mentioned feeling the need to freshen things up. What better way than to shock others with a hairstyle shift?
Coach Brendan Burke is a true pro
In addition to the food and incredible access to players, fans were able to enjoy seeing a side of Steel FC players and staff most rarely get to see: them being simply themselves.
Perhaps the best example of this occurred when Head Coach Brendan Burke took over the mic to kick-off the meet and greet event. Burke stood behind each player as he briefly introduced them to the crowd. But instead of simply stating the player’s name, position, and a few words about them, Burke took the time to educate those who came to show support for his club as they enter their third season as a team.
Burke provided insight to the type of person each player is while highlighting their on-field accomplishments and attributes. A certain father-son dynamic remained apparent when Burke spoke about returning players Moar, Chambers, Chris Nanco, and Matt Mahoney as if they have known each other for years. And he spoke about his newest additions with a sense of optimism which hinted at what Burke thinks his squad is capable of.
Top of the Eastern conference would be the ideal goal but a more realistic goal would be a successful campaign ending in a second consecutive playoff appearance.
Burke showed his professionalism when a fan asked about the starting center back positions. Any other coach in Burke’s shoes could have simply stated he does not know those types of things given the roster make-up with the first team reserves and moved on to the next question. But what followed was a thorough explanation of how Steel FC’s matchday 18 is selected. Burke felt not only the importance but the need to discuss the thought process behind who suits up and who doesn’t on matchdays.
The connection between the Union and Steel FC makes a head coaching gig with Bethlehem a tough one indeed. Whoever fails to earn first team minutes most likely will need to utilize the USL games to bolster their fitness and skills. The constant shuffling leaves coaches and fans both questioning who to expect on the field.
In regards to the center back position, Burke mentioned a crowded first team center back grouping could leave Josh Yaro and perhaps even Richie Marquez earning a lot of starts and minutes with Steel FC in 2018.
Steel FC roster sits at 12 (13 unofficially)
So who is the 13th player? Drew Skundrich, former captain of three-time national champion Stanford Cardinal. But more on that when it becomes official.
The USL season kicks off this weekend. Steel FC play host to Eastern conference rival Richmond Kickers at 2PM at Goodman Stadium on the beautiful campus of Lehigh University. The Union’s match Saturday afternoon will be very revealing in terms of which players appear for Bethlehem Sunday. Whoever does not make the matchday 18 or fails to see the pitch is likely to make an appearance in Lehigh.
Be sure to come back to Philly Sports Network for more Union content. Follow our writers on Twitter:
Peace out Union fans!