Days of Philadelphia Professional Soccer
Although the Philadelphia Germans had managed a second-place finish in 1940-41, and had won the ASL’s Lewis Cup (an “internal” cup series, like the League Cup in England), they were not known as one of the league’s most successful clubs. Now, with hostilities in Europe reaching a fever pitch, the team’s very nickname had become extremely unfashionable. In keeping with the patriotic fervor sweeping the nation, the Germans became the Philadelphia Americans. Meanwhile, the Passon Philllies club changed its name to Philadelphia Nationals. As fate would have it, these two teams would dominate the professional soccer landscape for the next fifteen years.
During that period, the A’s (as the Americans were sometimes called) and Nats split the ASL crown between them 11 times. The Americans won the first crown in 1941-42, going 12-5-2 in the process. Despite finishing in third the following year, the Americans managed to win the Lewis Cup. The A’s won their second title in 1943-44, led by league-leading scorer Dean Nanoski’s 22 goals. The Americans again won the championship in 1946-47 and 1947-48. Joe “Lefty” Mervine, a superb left back, won the ASL MVP award in 1946-47 while leading the Americans to their third crown.
Initially, the Nationals were the weak sisters in the city, much like the baseball Phillies, who were forced to play in the shadow of the American League’s A’s during the latter club’s championship years. The Nats finished next-to-last in 1941-42, and repeated that standing in 1942-43. The next year, though, the club had climbed to third place, and had formed a heated rivalry with the cross-town Americans.
The Nationals had slipped again in 1945-46, a year that saw both Philadelphia teams finish near the cellar. Moreover, the Nats did not fare much better the following two seasons.
However, the Nationals were in the process of building a very special team. Coach Jimmy Mills, along with the Fairhill Club of Philadelphia, the long-time sponsors of the Nats, had brought on board the best players in the area. Incredibly, at a time when the sport was totally dominated by foreign players (as, indeed, soccer in the U.S. would be for years to come), the Nationals put together an all-American lineup, consisting almost entirely of players born and raised in the U.S.
By 1948-49, the Nats’ roster included players such as Eddie McIlveney (a Scot and the only non-citizen on the roster), Benny McLaughlin, Tommy Oliver, and a brilliant midfielder from Kensington named Walt Bahr. Bahr was the runner-up in league MVP voting in 1948, and looked set to blossom into a superstar around whom the team could build a winner. The team’s superiority was iced when five players signed on from the defunct Baltimore Americans franchise.
Early in the 1948-49 season, however, it looked like more of the same for the Nationals, who were quickly mired in last place. In mid-October of 1948, however, the Nationals embarked on a thirteen game winning streak, catapulting them from worst-to-first.
The Nationals first title came, incredibly enough, on the basis of a corner kick. A three-way tie for first necessitated a playoff between the Nationals, New York Americans, and Brooklyn Hispano. Philadelphia received a bye based on goal differential, and ultimately faced New York in the final, played in New York. The two teams played to a 3-3 tie over ninety minutes before both teams had to leave the field to make way for a match between Belfast Celtic and another visiting international club. After that match, the New York and the Nats again took the field, with neither side scoring. The game was called a draw, with Philadelphia being awarded the title by virtue of a corner kick difference of one.
The Nats also took the ASL’s Lewis Cup that year, and just missed completing a rare soccer “triple crown” by losing in the U.S. Open Cup final to Morgan S.C. of Pittsburgh. After winning the first leg of the two-game final 1-0, the Nats fell apart in the second match, going down 4-2 and losing on aggregate goals.
Still, the Nationals had announced their arrival. Bahr again finished second in MVP voting, with fellow Nats McLaughlin and Oliver following right behind him. Oliver was the league’s second leading scorer, with 16 goals.
The Nationals repeated as champions in 1949-50, going 12-3-1 to easily win the crown. Philadelphia even managed to make itself felt on the international scene that year: Bahr and Eddie McIlveney were on the field for the U.S. National Team in the 1950 World Cup, and both played a part in the U.S.’s stunning upset of England in that tournament. Bahr, in fact, assisted on the game’s only goal. Both characters were featured prominently in the film The Game Of Their Lives, now marketed on DVD as The Miracle Match.
The Nationals made it three in a row in 1950-51, and added another Lewis Cup title to their trophy case. Nationals forward Nick Kropfelder led the ASL in scoring that season with 17 goals.
Meanwhile, there was still another team in the city. Although the A’s had been little more than bystanders during the Nationals’ great run, the Americans returned as league champions in 1951-52, winning the title by one point over their cross-town rivals. The Nationals redeemed themselves somewhat by winning another Lewis Cup, however. Once again, though, the Nationals found themselves as U.S. Open Cup runners-up, again losing a two-game series on total goals after winning the first match.
The Nationals returned with a vengeance in 1952-53, going 10-2-2 to easily win the regular season title. However, in the Lewis Cup tournament, the Nationals lost the Cup to Newark Portuguese, losing the first match 3-0 and falling just short on aggregate goals after rallying to take the second game, 3-1.
The glory days for Philadelphia soccer would suffer a severe blow, however. Plagued by dwindling finances, the Philadelphia Nationals folded four games into the 1953-54 campaign. Incredibly, the Philadelphia Americans were about to do the same. However, local trucking magnate Tony Uhrik purchased the club. Renaming them Uhrik Truckers, the team would finish in the basement in 1954.
Perhaps the trauma of nearly folding caused the team to play so poorly in 1953-54. In any event, the club picked up several ex-Nationals stars, strengthening the club considerably, and, coached by the indomitable Jimmy Mills, the Truckers rebounded to win the 1954-55 ASL title by one point over Brooklyn Hispano. Trucker Jack Ferris led the league in scoring with 20 goals, and was named the league’s MVP.
The Truckers won a second ASL title the following season, routing Elizabeth (NJ) Falcons in the final, 5-1. The Philadelphia club just missed a “three-peat” the following year, as the Truckers finished in second to New York Hakoah. Truckers star Jack Oliver won the MVP award, however.
By 1957-58, the Truckers had slipped considerably, finishing in the middle of the pack. As a last hurrah, the team rebounded to win a Lewis Cup title that season. The Truckers would continue until the 1963-64 season before folding, never again challenging for an ASL title.
Still, Philadelphia’s glory days were far from over, as a new team from the city entered the ASL in 1957-58 and promptly took the soccer world by storm.