Large crowd welcomes Steel FC in home opener
It was a blustery and cold afternoon at Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium, but Sunday’s home debut for Bethlehem Steel FC left fans warm inside despite the weather conditions.
A spirited and rowdy crowd of 3,655 fans welcomed back high-caliber professional soccer to the area with open arms, restoring the tradition of the original Bethlehem Steel days, which ended in 1930.
While Sunday’s 2-1 victory by visiting side FC Cincinnati wasn’t what the club was looking for on the field, it certainly proved to be a proper first step for the team’s foothold in the Lehigh Valley.
Mark Cole, founder of the East End Army, Bethlehem Steel FC’s official supporters group, led a vocal group throughout 90 minutes of action, that included chants, bagpipes and drums to help maximize the atmosphere on Goodman Stadium’s lower bowl.
“We had a good showing and it’s exciting to have a team back here in Bethlehem,” said Cole. “It’s kind of an organic thing. This club and our fan base is going to keep growing. We know we’re not going to have the huge crowds that they have at MLS games, but we want to be rowdy and loud and get as many people here as we can.”
Playing in their second game of the season, Steel FC (1-1-0) fell behind 2-0 in the first half after largely having the better opportunities in the first 45, but Andrew Wiedeman got the Ohio counterparts on the board in the 25th minute to slot a shot past Steel FC goalkeeper John McCarthy from 16 yards out.
Nearly 10 minutes later, Cincinnati doubled their advantage when Sean Okoli worked a combination play at the top of the box to get behind the Steel defense and score from six yards out for the lead.
Steel FC finally broke through in the 90th minute when Eric Ayuk scored to cut the deficit in half. The drama continued in the four minutes of stoppage time, as Ryan Richter hit the crossbar shortly after Ayuk’s goal, much to the despair of the home faithful.
Head coach Brendan Burke knew his team had an uphill climb after being down 2-0, but was pleased with the way the club clawed back in the second half in front of the Bethlehem faithful.
“I thought our response was good in the second half, we found the goal eventually, even though it was a little late and then we hit the bar there at the end,” Burke said. “The response was there, but it just wasn’t enough. I thought the crowd and the support were excellent. If we get that type of support going forward I think we’ll be in great shape and we’ll get the results that go along with a nice attendance next time.”
Steel FC will prep for this Sunday’s game against New York Red Bulls II at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, but hope that last Sunday’s affair was a first step for the club taking root in the Lehigh Valley.
The East End Army has over 400 followers on its Facebook page as of this week and Cole stated that they have over 60 paid members in the group with a goal of hitting 100 paid members this season.
For soccer fans, Sunday’s atmosphere may turn the novelty into a consistent showing.
Kevin Cooke of Doylestown is a Philadelphia Union season ticket holder and made the trip for Sunday’s contest, despite the chilly conditions.
After going to Union games in Chester over the years, Cooke was impressed with the surroundings of Goodman Stadium and the potential that comes with the new club.
“Just coming up here and seeing the area, it’s really night and day from going to Union games,” said Cooke. “This is definitely something where you can bring the whole family out and you have all this open space for tailgating. The price is great too and I’ll definitely be back with the family again. I think they have a lot of potential with this club.”
McCarthy, who started 11 games for the Union last season, has played every minute in goal for Steel FC this season and was one of many players and staff that was impressed with the home debut.
“It was great. I didn’t think we’d have nearly as many fans,” said McCarthy of the fan support. “It was a long way to get here [from Chester] and to see that type of crowd, in that type of environment, it was great to play in front of. They cheered for 90 minutes. It wasn’t just the supporters section it was everybody, and I’m grateful for them.”