The Steel Experience: Bethlehem Steel FC’s Rising Soccer Culture

Apr 11, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union fans cheer and wave flags as they set off smoke in celebration of a game against the New York City FC during the first half at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union fans cheer and wave flags as they set off smoke in celebration of a game against the New York City FC during the first half at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The identity of Bethlehem Steel F.C. is one that centers around the bigger picture of their major league affiliate, the Philadelphia Union. But the atmosphere, support, and game day experience is truly one in its own.

My journey up to Bethlehem, PA took me through numerous, scenic backdrops that I don’t normally get the chance to experience as a New Jersey native. Arriving at Goodman Stadium, I was truly unsure of what to expect from a club in its second full year of operation from both a competitive standpoint and in regards to the environment that exists on the campus of Lehigh University.

Bethlehem Steel F.C. is rooted in a rich and proud soccer history that dates all the way back to the early 1900’s; and upon my arrival, it was evident that the fans of their local professional team have seemingly been doing this for a very long time. The insignia was worn loud and proud on every individual I came into contact with and I could immediately sense the level of excitement these fans had for the beginning of the USL season.

Tailgates were plentiful, lively and most importantly, inclusive. I immediately found myself welcomed by the group of supporters known as the “I-Beam Ultras 1907” and picked the brain of their founder and president Andy Knauss. The simple concept of having a professional soccer team in their backyard provided him with the motivation to create and grow a group that wholeheartedly and passionately cheer on Bethlehem Steel like other major supporter groups around the nation including Philly’s very own “Sons of Ben”.

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One member noted that despite that lack of numbers they possess in relation to other major clubs, their spirit and determination as a supporters group is unhindered by that fact: “We’re nowhere near the level of the SoB’s or the European experience in terms of scope or grandeur, but we’ve got a lot of passion and pride invested in the historical contributions of our city and community to the American soccer landscape”.

Themselves along with the “East End Army”, Steel’s other primary group of die-hard fans, each provide a unique pregame experience for their friends, families, and anyone who simply wants to have a good time in the name of professional soccer in Bethlehem, PA. The atmosphere was buzzing, to say the least; music blasting, kids and adults alike kicking balls around, and delicious food grilling for all to enjoy.

(Also, total side note, I was able to indulge myself in bacon wrapped scallops for the first time ever and I’m dropping the hot take that they should be made and served at every single tailgate ever for the rest of time as long as professional sporting tailgates exist.)

Together, the two supporter groups marched loud and proud across the adjacent field leading up to the gates of Goodman Stadium as kickoff approached. Parents and their children braved the windy day to enjoy inflatable games and other soccer related activities within the grounds of the stadium complex.

What truly stood out was how the insignia of Steel F.C. outnumbered those wearing Philadelphia Union related gear on the fans in attendance. These are fans who possess a close devotion to their team no matter what the affiliation may be to a bigger club or where they sit among the landscape of American professional soccer as a whole.

Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The number of supporters who journey out to watch Bethlehem Steel F.C. are low, to say the least. But the passion and activity they put forward from beginning to end of a game certainly makes up for that fact. One Steel F.C. fan possesses the fiery intensity of 20 when a questionable call is made, a quick break begins to build up, or a goal is scored that brings everyone to their feet in jubilation.

To have such a desire to root for a team that’s central purpose is to develop talent brought into the Philadelphia Union organization presents a difficult position for any supporter to fully get behind. Any given Sunday, Bethlehem’s best player could find himself in a different shade of blue and gold helping to better the cause of the father first team.

But these fans are fully invested in standing behind any and every player that bears the crest of Bethlehem over their heart. The betterment of young and rising individuals who come through the Union organization not only receive the platform in which to develop their game, but also the support and appreciation of the locals who journey up to Lehigh University every single game day.

"“It’s about celebrating the team’s history” one East End Army member explained at the game. “The Valley has been a minor league region for years. We’ve all seen teams come and go. I feel the Steel’s history gives us a voice in the game. Having the club in Bethlehem gives us the chance to help grow the game in the region.”"

This atmosphere at Lehigh University will only get better as more and more people become aware of not just the existence of a professional soccer game but the full experience and atmosphere that comes with it. More and more individuals are making their way up to Bethlehem in order to find out for themselves what these Steel supporters and their team are all about.

For many of these fans, it’s not about the glory that comes with being affiliated with a professional organization. Steel supporters, as one fan clearly put it, want to be,

"“a positive and energetic force that recognizes the efforts and passion of our players whether we win, lose, or draw. We want to foster a sense of community and share the pride we feel for the city of Bethlehem; the same city that many of us were born in and that we all call home”."

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They have a player’s back who is willing to push himself in the name of becoming a better player and in turn taking the next step in their journey across the professional landscape of soccer in the United States. They will stand by these athletes through good times and bad as was fully evident in Steel’s home opener on Saturday afternoon. Because to a supporter of Bethlehem Steel F.C. soccer may not be the only thing in their individual lives, but it sure as hell means everything.