Philadelphia During the “Golden Age of American Soccer”: 1921-1932
By 1920, there were several top semi-professional soccer leagues in the United States. The National Association Foot Ball League featured Bethlehem Steel, Robins Dry Dock, Todd Shipyard, and other powerhouses. The Southern New England Soccer League included Fall River, and the J&P Coats team of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In St. Louis, the Major Soccer League included a number of top clubs. However, these top clubs were often forced to carry poor, ragtag minor league teams in their ranks who often disrupted schedules when they would cancel fixtures or, in many cases, simply fold midseason.
Wanting to establish a solid major league, most of the country’s top teams formed the American Soccer League in 1921. Although St. Louis declined to participate (as among other things, the league played by a set of rules significantly different than those in force on the East Coast), the ASL included Fall River United, J&P Coats, New York F.C. (formerly Robins Dry Dock), and Todd Shipyards. Also included was a “new” franchise, Philadelphia F.C. (interestingly, the “F” stood for “field,” not “football”).
This Philadelphia club was not new at all, however. Instead, it was the powerful Bethlehem Steel club, playing under the Philadelphia aegis. For all of its success, and despite the fact that it often attracted record crowds on the road, the Bethlehem club often played before sparse audiences at home. Hoping to tap into a major market, owners Edgar and W. Luther Lewis decided to disband the Bethlehem Steel team and then re-sign most of the top players to the ASL Philadelphia club. Regardless of the motives behind the moves, it was an exciting time for Philadelphia soccer. Levi Wilcox, soccer beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, breathlessly wrote “[w]ith the Bethlehem machine having disbanded, all of its players will sport the Philadelphia colors. Several players who have recently arrived from across the pond [i.e., from England and Scotland] have also been signed. These, together with the raft of star players signed by the Philadelphia F.C., should give the Lewis’ the opportunity of forming an aggregation that will make soccer history in this city.”
In all fairness to Wilcox, there was some reason to be excited. Bethlehem had gone 11-0-1 to win the 1920-21 NAFBL title, and returned with most of that club intact. Among the new Philadelphia stars were Harold Brittan, who had signed from Chelsea, as well as established stars John Ferguson, Dougie Campbell, and Tommy Fleming.
On September 10, 1921, Philadelphia F.C. played its first exhibition match at Disston Ball Park, located at State Road and Unruh Street. “Phillies Open Soccer Season With Victory” read the headlines after the professionals defeated an All-Philadelphia team, 5-0. Optimism ran high. “From what we have been able to ascertain regarding the Philadelphia F.C.,” wrote Levi Wilcox, “it is our firm opinion that it will prove one of the strongest elevens in the league. With the management having the pick of the great Bethlehem machine of last year together with the new importations, on paper the locals loom up as probable champions.”
Quickly dubbed by the local press “Phillies,” Philadelphia F.C. fulfilled all expectations, opening the season 10-0-2 before losing its first match on January 2, 1922. Philadelphia won the crown in 1921-22, finishing five points ahead of New York F.C. by virtue of a 17-3-4 record. In 24 games, the Phillies scored 72 goals (best in the league), while rookie goalkeeper Findlay Kerr headed up a defense which allowed only 36 goals (second best in the league behind New York). Brittan was the ASL’s leading scorer, netting 24 in only 17 games, with Tommy Fleming finishing third in the league with 15 markers. The Phillies played their home matches at the Northeast High Field at 29th and Cambria Streets. To give one an idea of how times have changed, reserved seats could be purchased for $.85, with general admission tickets going for $.35
Soon after the season, though, the Phillies were broken up. Management, having lost money and disappointed by the lack of support from Philadelphians, sold off several top players to make ends meet. Tommy Fleming and John Ferguson were sold to J&P Coats, and Harold Brittan was sent to the Fall River Marksmen. Ultimately, the team decided to return to Bethlehem, and would continue playing as Bethlehem Steel until its demise in 1930.
Philadelphia did not go unrepresented in the ASL for long, however. In 1922-23 a new club, again called Philadelphia F.C., entered the league. This club was its predecessor’s polar opposite, however, finishing dead last in 1922-23, next-to-last in 1923-24, last in 1924-25, next-to-last in 1925-26, and last in 1926-27. Truly an awful side, Philadelphia F.C. featured some colorful characters. In 1923-24, for example, the Philadelphians picked up Sammy Rudolph, a talented forward with the city’s Wolfenden Shore club. Rudolph promptly scored 5 goals in six games, and then quit. Rudolph returned two years later, scored a goal in his only game, and quit again.
Two teams in the ASL represented Philadelphia in 1924-25, when Fleischer Yarn joined the league. Fleischer had won the United States Amateur Cup the previous spring, and hopes were high that Philadelphia would again have a contender for the league championship. The Yarnmen proved to be a disappointment, however, finishing 10th in the 12 team league. Forward Andy Straden acquitted himself well, however, scoring 20 goals. After the season, the team returned to the amateur ranks. Straden, for his part, joined the Shawsheen Indians before finishing his ASL career with the New York (soccer) Giants.
Philadelphia’s most disappointing year in the ASL was in 1927-28. After years of futility, Fred McGuinness, a wealthy businessman, purchased the club. Signing several top Irish players, the team was renamed Philadelphia Celtic. However, the team promptly limped out of the gate, going 2-7-1 before being suspended by the league for financial problems.
A new Philadelphia F.C. entered the ASL in 1928-29, joining in October after Bethlehem Steel, Newark Skeeters and the New York Giants were all kicked out of the league as part of the “Soccer War” between the ASL and the USFA. In a nutshell, the “war” was over who controlled the game in the U.S., the ASL or the United States Soccer Federation, and was prompted by the USSF’s requirement that ASL teams participate in the U.S. Open Cup. When Bethlehem, Newark, and the Giants sided with the USSF and entered the Cup, the league promptly expelled them. Joining midway through the first half of the season, the new Philadelphia team quickly picked up where its predecessors had left off, and began losing. Although the league had switched to a split-season format by that year, Philadelphia still managed to post the worst record in the circuit, only winning 9 of its 36 matches.
Philadelphia managed to accomplish this in spite of fielding a fairly talented side. Freddie Wall scored 19 goals in 23 games to finish among the league leaders. Philadelphians had real cause for excitement, however, from the play of an exciting young player named Bert Patenaude. Born in Fall River, MA, Patenaude signed with Philadelphia prior to the season, and scored 6 goals in his first eight games. Needing cash to meet expenses, however, Philadelphia sold him to the Fall River Marksmen prior to the second half of the ASL calendar. Patenaude would go on to be one of the league’s top all-time goal scorers, and it is claimed that he scored the first hat-trick ever in World Cup play while representing the U.S. National Team in 1930.
Philadelphia was again without a team in 1929. However, in mid-September, the Bridgeport (Pennsylvania) Bears ASL franchise moved to Philadelphia, forming yet another Philadelphia F.C. franchise. Although Freddie Wall returned to score 4 goals in four games, the team continued to uphold Philadelphia tradition by holding last place at the time the league suspended play.
This is not to say the ASL folded. Rather, as a result of peace being declared in the “Soccer War,” Bethlehem Steel and the New York Giants rejoined the league, now renamed the Atlantic Coast League. The City of Brotherly Love was spared another last place finish, however, by virtue of the fact that Philadelphia F.C. was not asked to join.
The once-powerful ASL was on its last legs, anyway. The “Soccer War” had taken its toll, as had the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929. Although professional soccer was years ahead of its time by relying heavily on corporate sponsors like Bethlehem Steel, J&P Coats and the like, the Depression resulted in most of these sponsors pulling out of the league. In spite of featuring many stars, both domestic and foreign, and having drawn crowds of 10,000 for some matches, the ASL simply could not compete with baseball and college football for the American sporting dollar. By 1933, the original ASL had folded. With it ended the Golden Age of American professional soccer.