The Lehigh Valley has professional hockey and baseball teams but no soccer.
That could change this fall.
A Lehigh Valley executive is launching Allentown United Football Club, a semi-professional soccer team that is gearing up for its first season this September.
“I saw a great need here,” said Emmanuel Ntow-Mensah, 26, the club’s founder. “I figured, if I see the need, let me fill the need. I got in touch with the right people.”
One is Paul Hodges, co-founder and CEO of Soltech Solutions, a Bethlehem-based company that makes specialized lighting for indoor plants.
“Soccer has always been my passion,” Hodges said.
Hodges has been helping Ntow-Mensah and is a co-founder of the team’s nonprofit fiscal sponsor, Humanitarian Social Innovations, a South Bethlehem organization that is bringing in donations for Allentown United FC while it works to become a nonprofit in its own right.
Hodges is on the board of HSI and that’s how he was introduced to Ntow-Mensah, who works in the wealth management operations department at Guardian Life Insurance in Hanover Township, Northampton County.
The team has a head coach but is still working to find players, expected to range in age from 17 to 30. Tryouts are scheduled for June 5, 8, 12, and 15 at Lehigh County Sports Fields in South Whitehall Township.
Ntow-Mensah said he has formed partnerships with colleges outside the region to help recruit players. He is waiting to hear back from some local colleges that also could help bring in players.
Once the team forms, it will play games at Cedar Crest College in Allentown as part of the United Premier Soccer League, which has more than 300 teams nationwide and several divisions. The season would run from September to December, to be followed by a spring season from March to July.
The team’s budget for the fall season is $50,000, Ntow-Mensah said. The money would pay for marketing, training, coaching and other needs.
He is looking for corporate sponsorships to help cover the costs.
Ntow-Mensah said there are no fees for players, only a $20 charge to participate in tryouts. The club will also not charge players any equipment fees.
“The thing I liked about it is it’s not a pay-to-play football club,” said Linda Rentschler, CEO of Humanitarian Social Innovations. “Anyone with talent, whether they have money or not, can play. We need things in our community for young people to do. Sports is a very positive outlet.”
Ntow-Mensah said a professional soccer team in the Lehigh Valley also can bring a community together.
More than 75,000 soccer fans gathered at SteelStacks in Bethlehem over several weeks in 2014 to watch the men’s World Cup, hosted by Brazil, demonstrating a strong local interest in the sport.
But when Bethlehem Steel FC, a professional soccer team, relocated from Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus to Chester, it left a void, Hodges said.
“You want to see games locally,” Hodges said. “Here’s a chance to have a local team for local supporters.”
Ntow-Mensah said soccer was a major part of his life growing up in his native Ghana.
When he moved to the U.S. in 2000 at age 7, he continued to play the game and eventually became captain of his high school soccer team in Maplewood, New Jersey.
He attended Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and played for a year as captain of the school’s soccer team. He then started coaching at Parkland Area Soccer Club, a local club. He now lives in Upper Macungie Township
His goal for Allentown United FC is to propel its players to the next level, but he also wants to make sure the team stays focused on giving back to the community.
Ntow-Mensah said he collected sporting goods for the Boys & Girls Club of Allentown, for example, and donated them to the organization.
A few people are helping him establish the soccer team, including his older brother, Daniel; his sister, Nancy Asamoah; and a co-worker, Al Beltre. Many others have reached out to volunteer their time, he added.
Ntow-Mensah and his volunteers hosted a tournament in March that drew six teams with eight to 10 players each. Many family members and friends came to watch, Ntow-Mensah said. Then, on May 26, the organization hosted a second tournament that drew 12 teams and 120 players, including many from out-of-state. The teams played seven on seven, he said.