"If travelling from out of state, bring a local craft beer with you to give as a thank you"
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This chat with Mark Cole, President of the East End Army, coming out of Bethlehem Steel, is a bit of a departure from your usual APB fayre. Rather than talking to club owners, I thought I might set my sights on those hardy souls who support lower league football in the States. And in that case, where better to start than the home of soccer in the US, the place where it all started (I’m saying this like it was a plan. As you will see when you read on, this is absolute blind luck!) If you like what Mark has to say, give him a follow @eastendarmysg, and keep an eye on the Steel themselves @bsteelfc
First off, can you tell me a bit about yourself, Bethlehem, and how you became a soccer fan in the first place?
Well, I always played soccer growing up. I didn't really start following until MLS came to Philly. I've grown up in Red Hill, PA, a small town located basically midway between Philadelphia and Bethlehem. I went to college in Bethlehem and fell in love with the area. When I heard Bethlehem was getting a USL team, it was a no-brainer that I'd support the club. Bethlehem is a great city, rich in history. The people there are deeply rooted in the steel company that used to exist there, and many of the former steel workers still live in the area.
Right. I actually spent some time at a school in Lancaster County so I have a rudimentary knowledge of the area. Is there much understanding of how big the game is in the wider community? Like, when you tell folk you are a soccer fan is it becoming more acceptable?
People seem to be accepting soccer more and more in our country. The success of our Women's national team has led to more and more kids playing, and as concussion worries grow, young males are leaning more and more toward soccer rather than American football. As far as Bethlehem goes, the Lehigh Valley is a great market for minor league sports. Both the Phillies and Flyers have their minor league teams in the Lehigh Valley, and both do very well in terms of attendance.
From afar, it has always seemed like the US views the game as something for women and kids & elite men have appeared to the exception. I guess MLS is changing that. Slowly!
It's taking a while, but slowly the sport is taking off. String together a few more runs in some major tournaments (World Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup) and the men's team will garner further support.
To an outsider, Bethlehem seems an odd choice for a franchise, lower league or otherwise. Do you have any insight into what the thinking was behind the idea?
Bethlehem Steel FC, the original club, was the first professional soccer team in the United States. There is still a rich soccer history in the Lehigh Valley, so to have Steel FC be reborn, it's a name people recognize and get excited about.
And that's my Britishness, not knowing the full history behind the Steel name. I apologize! How conscious are you, as fans, of the history of the club?
Those from the Lehigh Valley are very aware of the history of the club, it seems. The Union had a 3rd kit a few years ago that was modeled after BSFC, so many Union fans also took the initiative to gain knowledge about the clubs history.
That's pretty cool, and a nice touch. So the two teams live side by side, then? Not so much rivals as big / little brother?
Meh. Pretty much. They train together, and it's common for some of the younger Union players to be loaned to Steel FC to get some minutes.
“M'eh”? So you're not subscribing to that?
We, as fans (most of us at least) try to separate the clubs as much as possible. It's a mixed sports market in the Lehigh Valley, split between New York and Philly. We are trying to have the club recognized apart from just their Union connection. I've had season tickets to the Union for 5 years or so...if they ever allow BSFC to play in the US Open Cup, my loyalties lie in Bethlehem. And it won't be one of those "I don't care who wins, I just want to see a good game" situations either. I'll be pissed if Steel loses.
I get that. My team back home is Tranmere, and many of the fan base would say Liverpool or Everton are their first team. When we beat Everton in the FA cup some years back (we're rubbish now), it was one of the finest moments of my life. The Open Cup is an odd beast, speaking of it and the FA Cup. Why aren't Steel allowed in?
Conflict of interest between them and the Union. People in charge worried the Union would make the Steel throw the game so the MLS team could win. Many MLS teams have a "B team" in USL, so it's to avoid collusion or some bullshit. The fans aren't happy about it, that's for sure. BSFC won the USOC 5 times in their past...to not be allowed to play is nonsense.
Yeah, that's pretty cheap from the suits. Not like they couldn't just keep you guys apart like they do in the Champions League. So let's talk about you as a fan. What's your match day routine? Do you have any lucky socks, for example?
Nah. Me and the guys meet up for breakfast at one of our favorite spots in Bethlehem. Then we usually like to get to the parking lot around noon to start tailgating. We get pretty rowdy in the parking lot, and march into the stadium about a half hour before the game. Usually have a couple beers with breakfast to lube up the vocal chords.
Give the joint a plug! We're looking for sponsors ;) I've noticed the march to the game is big for US fans, it's not something I've seen in the UK. Where did that tradition come from?
McCarthy's Red Stag Pub. And honestly I have no idea where it came from. Maybe it's just one of our ways of making the supporters culture our own.
I do like it, I have to say. Does it not produce a bottleneck at the gates though?
It does, sometimes, but it doesn't seem to bother anyone. We don't really experience it in Bethlehem, due to our size, but I've experienced it with the American Outlaws. It's just something that's expected and accepted.
It'd annoy me! And, post Hillsborough, worry me to be fair. Anyway, once you're inside, how do things evolve? Do you ever get any away fans to interact with? Or is it just you guys enjoying yourselves?
In the lower divisions, away support isn't as prominent. The closer teams usually have a few die-hard fans follow them. USL supporter culture is usually pretty friendly. You get away supporters at the home tailgates and such. Seems pretty popular, if travelling from out of state, to bring a local craft beer with you to give as a thank you for welcoming them.
That is absolutely reflected in lower league soccer back in England. And was one of the things that turned me away from the big leagues. There's some sort of unspoken kinship in doing this, right? So if anyone reading this is tempted by a weekend away in Bethlehem, could you say anything to convince them? Where's good to go in town?
There's loads to do in Bethlehem. Lots of breweries and great restaurants. Not to mention the old steel mill is still here, and it's quite the site to see
I guess I should also ask if you get the chance to travel away much. Do any of the East End Army follow the team "over land and sea"? Thinking of it, where did the name come from for your SG?
The original stadium where the club played was East End Field. Figured it was a good way to pay tribute to the history of the club. There's a group of us who traveled last year to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. We are looking to get a larger group to travel to those same games, and more this year. Currently we are working with the Steel army, the SG for Pittsburgh, to create a supporters sponsored trophy known as the Steel City Derby, as both Bethlehem and Pittsburgh are steel cities.
Yeah, my rudimentary knowledge of the area says Harrisburg must be your local rivals?
Not only location, but Harrisburg used to be the affiliate team for the Union, so there's also that leading into the rivalry.
That can only be healthy for the scene in PA generally though, right? Away travel is the big thing that will hold US soccer back, IMO. How do you guys deal with road games?
Honestly, if you look at MLS, there's usually decent away support. And we just carpool. Figure out 2 or 3 guys to drive and pile into cars to head out. Usually meet at a bar close to the stadium or just drink in the parking lot.
Away days are absolutely the best. Who doesn't love a road trip? So what would you say defines the East End Army?
We are just a bunch of folks who love Bethlehem, beer, and the beautiful game. We are a passionate bunch, and while we may not be the biggest SG in the country, we make the most of our situation.
What sort of relationship do you guys have with the club itself? I know some SG's can be quite antagonistic, others work very closely
Umm... No comment. Let's just say, it's friendly enough.
'nuff said!! Why did you feel the need to organize yourselves into a coherent body? It was one of the first differences I noticed in US supporting culture.
In terms of what? I must be mistaken in how I thought supporters were organized in Europe?
Well, just in my experience in England, we're not, really! There's usually an official supporters club, run by / aligned to the club. But after that, it's usually just a rag tag bunch of mates drinking together. Creating a "brand" (apologies) was more along the lines of what the hooligan firms of the 70's and 80's did. That, or I just wasn't invited to join! And the official supporters clubs do little more than organize coaches to away games, and provide a conduit to the club. Here, they seem to be a lot more community-based. When I see clubs down the leagues having numerous SG's, it's both odd and impressive
Yeah. We are technically the official SG, while there's one other unofficial group that we have been working closely with leading into this year. Starts as 2 groups having a common goal, but different ways to obtain that goal.
And that common goal would be what?
Support the club. Create an atmosphere in the stadium that shows fans a good time while supporting our boys on the pitch.
It wasn't a trick question! I would hope that is every SG's goal. Right, here goes... promotion and relegation... as a fan, where do you stand?
Honestly, both promotion and relegation and our current system have their pros and cons. While I think the supporters in the US are open to a pro/rel situation, I don’t know if corporate America is. It'd be hard to get sponsors and owners to dump money into a lower division team. I've always been an advocate, especially as of late with all the D2/D3 nonsense going on, to try out pro/rel in the lower divisions to see how it goes. If the NASL sticks around, I'd like to see a pro/rel situation exist between USL and NASL.
You think that's the "easiest" solution as things stand? Who takes top division status in that scenario?
NASL would due to all of the MLS B teams in USL. As of now NASL only has 8 teams for this season, so they'd have to take a few USL teams up anyway. The leagues would have to be renamed (USL1 and USL2 or something like that)
So then Steel would drop down to D3 again (assuming they aren't switched of course) You're ok with that?
Division means nothing. Whatever league they play in, I'll love the club
That was going to be my next question! Does divisional status mean anything to fans? You're champs, or you're not, right?
Yup. Would I love to see them in a top division? Of course. That means they are winning games. But overall, I just want to see the club succeed.
Ok, we're winding down now, promise! Where would you like to see the EEA at in five years?
I just want supporter culture in Bethlehem to grow overall. My original vision was this huge group at every game, but I've switched. I just want passionate fans to join and support the club. Whether we have 50 or 500 members, it's all about having fun and supporting the club.
So "quality over quantity," then? It's up to the club to build the quantity, I guess! And what does the club look like in the same time period?
Exactly. And I want the club competing for the USL Cup, while really coming into their own as a brand. They've struggled so far IMO to separate themselves from being a Union 2 team, so I'd like them to push their own identity a little bit further.
Do you think the EEA can assist in that regard? Community outreach, etc. Or would you rather pay your money at the gate, and let professionals worry about it? (I've done both, and the latter is way more fun!)
We've been in talks about getting out into the community more this year. It's just a matter of how that shapes up.
I look forward to hearing about plans for world domination. Let's wrap this up. It's been a fascinating conversation for me, at least. Let's wind down with a couple of generic questions about soccer and you. Do you have a favorite non-US team? How did you come to adopt them?
My favorite foreign club is the mighty Gunners. A friend of mine got me to like them.
Do you listen to or read any soccer-specific podcasts / blogs?
I listen to a lot of the stuff on Sirius XMFC and read a few US based blogs/podcasts.
And if someone in the area is wanting to watch some live soccer, why should they come to watch the Steel rather than the Union or the Islanders?
Why Steel over the Union? You get to see future Union players get their start in the pro game. Steel over Harrisburg? Simple. Harrisburg is shit. And they should come because it's the local team. The reason I love BSFC is because it's so embedded in the history and culture of the city. if people really want to see soccer growing in this country, they need to support it at the roots.
Simple, and to the point. I couldn't agree more! Bit by bit we're going to get the message out there. Thank you so much for this, bud. It's been a pleasure.
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