CHESTER, Pa. — Saturday marks the first time the Philadelphia Union and USL Championship affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC will play on the same field on the same day.
The Union kick off the doubleheader at Talen Energy Stadium against the Montreal Impact at 1 p.m. ET, before the Steel face Indy Eleven at 4 p.m.
While the transition from Major League Soccer to second-tier USL Championship should appear seamless to those in attendance, there will be plenty of moving parts behind the scenes, and it’s something the organization has been preparing for months.
“From the moment that we found out it was approved and we were doing it, we’ve been working on it since then,” Union manager of gameday operations and special events Bridget Waldron told Pro Soccer USA. “Talking to teams, the league and team admins from both Steel and the Union, making sure what the teams are comfortable with, when do they want people walking through the hallways and things like that.”
Once the MLS and USL schedules were released, the staff of both clubs tried to figure out if a doubleheader was possible. Saturday was the first date that could work with the Union — who typically play home games at night — kicking off early in the afternoon.
“The second we got the MLS schedule, we started evaluating what games we can do this,” Bethlehem Steel director of business operations Tim Seidler told Pro Soccer USA. “We actually had the USL schedule before the MLS schedule so it was a little bit weird there. Our goal was always to try to do a few times this season.
“Having the Union game lead into the Steel game allows fans the opportunity to stay over, and most of the Union matches were later, so it dictated what he had available. That’s why we haven’t done it sooner. We were looking for an earlier kickoff time.”
The first step in putting together the plan for Saturday was reaching out to all four teams and understanding their needs.
“Just like we want the guests to have a really good experience, we want the teams in the building to have a good experience too,” Waldron said. “Managing those expectations, we’ve been doing that since we found out.”
During the process of preparing for Saturday, the Union operations team reached out to the New York Red Bulls, who hosted a similar event in the past.
“We talked to Red Bulls operations people a few times just to see how they use their rooms, how they move people in and out of the spaces,” Waldron said. “We communicated with them and asked them any questions as they came up about stadium policies as well. We have certain cutoff times for Union games that change because of the match right after. That’s the main team we went to. We just went right to them and asked for their advice on a few things.”
The most hectic part of Saturday’s schedule will come between the end of the MLS match and start of the USL game.
Directly after the Union’s game, there is a promotion for kids 14 and under to parade around the field. Once that ends, the USL warmups will start, and shortly after, the second game will kick off.
Although there are plenty of things happening in a tight window, the 4 p.m. kickoff is ideal because it doesn’t leave fans lingering around Talen Energy Stadium too long without anything to do.
“We have some activities post game with our Kids Day activation, so it gives us about 10 minutes to get everyone out and get USL on,” Waldron said. “We’re lucky that USL teams typically don’t come out as soon as warmups start. We have a little bit of an extra buffer. We’ve given ourselves enough of a window where we can get everything done that we need to get done, but then also don’t have so much time in between games that people get impatient. I think we timed that out really well.”
Saturday’s doubleheader is a single-admission event and fans will be allowed to leave the stadium in between games. All of the doubleheader policies can be found on the Union’s website.
The behind-the-scenes crew has also been in touch with the Talen Energy Stadium grounds crew to make sure the field, which has come under criticism early in the season, is able to hold up through 180 minutes of soccer.
“It’s been an ongoing conversation because we’ve changed over the field this year in preparation for the two teams,” Seidler said. “With it warming up, it seems like the field is definitely improving and ready to handle two games. It’s been on our radar. It’s been something that we’re monitoring, and hopefully it’s something that doesn’t affect the game too much in a negative way if it ends up being a bit rainy that morning.”
As for the games, there is hope fans will build more of a connection with some of the Steel players after watching a few Union players, such as Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson, who have already succeeded on the club’s “Pathway to the Pros.”
“I’m thrilled and really excited for it,” Seidler said. “I knew from the second Steel announced they were coming down here that we were going to give Union season-ticket holders access to all of our games. This has been the game our fan services team has heard [about] from fans the most, that they are excited to stay over and watch and they are excited for Steel to be down here.”
There is one more doubleheader scheduled for Oct. 6, and if all goes well Saturday, it could happen more frequently in 2020 — no matter what happens with the Steel’s location.
“For this season, it was something we wanted to try and take advantage of,” Seidler said. “Even if we do move to the Lehigh Valley, or another area, we’re always able to play one, two games outside of our normal venue. If this ends up being a really popular game and everybody sticks around, it is something we could potentially look at regardless of where our home stadium is next year.”