The passion that created Philadelphia Union came from a community that has loved soccer for well over a century. While Union fans have only been DOOPing for 11 years, the region’s connection to the beautiful game is one of the oldest and most storied in the entire country. The first American-born president of the US Soccer Federation, Elmer Schroeder, played at the University of Pennsylvania and managed the 1934 US World Cup squad. More recently, the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals won four US Open Cups during the 1960s. And between Schroeder and the Ukrainian Nationals, Bethlehem Football Club, which would become Bethlehem Steel FC, became one of the most storied sides in American club soccer history.
Started in 1907 north of Philadelphia, Bethlehem Football Club played recreationally against other sides in the region. Soccer seemed destined to be a local niche activity until the onset of World War I created global upheaval.
As demand for steel rose due to the war, Bethlehem saw European immigrants flock to the town to work at Bethlehem Steel, a mill that employed nearly half the local residents. The immigrants brought stories from the war, and a love for the game they played whenever the guns went silent.
Bethlehem Steel adopted the local soccer club as part of its athletic program in 1911, forming Bethlehem Steel FC. The club built America's first soccer specific stadium, which is now the football field at Moravian College. With talent flooding in and a top-class venue in which to compete, Bethlehem Steel FC began its rise to the top of American soccer.
Beginning in the mid-1910s and continuing into the 1920s, Bethlehem Steel FC was a colossus of the US Soccer landscape. Five US Open Cups, still a record today (tied with Maccabi Los Angeles), and six American Cups testify to the size and quality of the club. However, the Great Depression hit the club hard, and it folded in 1930, four years after its last US Open Cup title.
Philadelphia Union revived Bethlehem Steel FC's memory during the 2014 season, bringing back the black and red kit as the club's secondary jersey. Much like the original Steel FC had U.S. Open Cup success, the Union too found success with the special top and it instantly became a fan favorite for matches in the competition. Wearing the Steel FC kit, the club fought its way like their predecessors and made it to the USOC Final.
The following year, Philadelphia Union revived Bethlehem Steel FC in October 2015. After a fan vote that included the online community and local fans, it was clear that Bethlehem Steel FC’s legacy remained strong Southeast Pennsylvania. The club joined USL’s top division and played home matches at Goodman Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University.
The new Bethlehem Steel FC logo and colors pulled elements from the Union’s identity and complemented the rich history and soccer success in the area. The color scheme included the Union’s blue and gold along with the red worn by the teams that towered over soccer in the early days of the 20th Century.
The team logo is an elongated version of the original Bethlehem Steel Soccer Club crest, a historic ball to reflect the soccer’s storied local history and rivets to symbolize the joining of the two clubs. The focal point of the logo is a snake coiled around the iconic Bethlehem steel beam to demonstrate the blending of the Union and Bethlehem Steel FC.
The new Steel FC began their inaugural season with a 1-0 victory on March 25, 2016 at FC Montreal. Playing in the second tier of U.S. Soccer, the club held two priorities above all others: Fight for the playoffs and provide the final proving ground for academy players on the path to MLS soccer. The Union were seeking a ‘path to the pros’ for young prospects, and Steel FC was the ultimate test for those on the verge of achieving their soccer dreams. In 2017, second-year Head Coach Brendan Burke took a hungry young squad to the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history, falling to eventual champion Louisville City FC. The following season Steel FC had its strongest season to date with 14 wins and 50 points, winning its first postseason match on October 20, 2018 on the road against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
During the 2018 season, once more Philadelphia made a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup and ahead of the Open Cup Final in Houston announced the squad would wear special warm up tops inspired by the history of Bethlehem Steel FC. The USOC warmup top was a nod to the Steel's success in the tournament. The top featured a diamond logo that was inspired by historical photos of the original club with the Union's snake inside the diamond along with the Bethlehem Steel FC's logo from 1916.
In November 2018, USL informed the Union that Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium no longer met the minimum requirements set forth by the league, citing a lack of stadium lighting as the primary strike against the location. Steel FC was forced to move home matches from the Lehigh Valley to Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. for the 2019 USL Championship season.
While the Union look for opportunities to bring Steel FC back to competitive play in the future, the club also looks to build on the incredible historical links between soccer and Southeast Pennsylvania that Bethlehem Steel represents. No other region in American can claim more passion, success, and love for soccer, and the fans at Union matches prove it again each and every time they show up.