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Why Philly is a soccer town and the US Open Cup is proof

Over the past five seasons, Philadelphia Union has made it to three US Open Cup finals. Despite falling — after, in both cases, playing to a draw in regulation time — in their first two, this remains an exceptional record in the oldest American soccer tournament for such a young club. Only six MLS clubs have made more finals appearances than the Union, and all have been in existence far longer than Philly’s nine seasons.

For those familiar with the history of soccer in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, this recent Open Cup success comes as little surprise. When the US Football Association was formed in 1913 (the forerunner of the current US Soccer Federation (USSF)), many of the key leaders were drawn from Philadelphia-area soccer. And after an all-Brooklyn final opened the competition, local club Bethlehem Steel quickly asserted itself as the first powerhouse club in the United States, winning the next two competitions. Ironically, and in another nod to the strength of the game in Philadelphia Robert Millar, who has previously starred for Philly club Disston AA, scored the goal for eventual champions Brooklyn Field Club that knocked Steel out of that first Open Cup. Millar would go on to coach the US National Team at the first World Cup in 1930.

This early dominance — five of the first 15 US Open Cup trophies would reside in Bethlehem — reflected not just the on-field talent, but also the behind-the-scenes organizational strength of soccer in Philadelphia. The Allied American Foot Ball Association, which played a key role in founding the USSF, was based in Philadelphia and put on the Allied Amateur Cup. As soccer historian Ed Farnsworth writes, “The league was an emerging model for the sustained and efficient development of the game.”

Bethlehem Steel played a major role in the growth of the sport in the Philadelphia region. Steel magnate Charles Schwab invested heavily in the club and the Bethlehem Steel Company built what is now the oldest soccer stadium in the United States. Steel Field, on Elizabeth Avenue in Bethlehem, now plays host to Moravian College’s American football matches.

But in the past, it was the home of the first American soccer dynasty.

More than just an Open Cup power

Importantly, Steel did not pop into existence in response to the creation of the National Challenge Cup (the initial name of the current US Open Cup). Prior to the USFA, the American Football Association held a competition that brought in teams from the Northeastern United States for an annual showdown. In 1897, the 12th year of the AFA Cup, the John A. Manz club brought the trophy back to Philadelphia for the first time. Steel collected its first cup in 1914, foreshadowing a breathless run of championships throughout the 1910s.

A US Open Cup followed in 1915, and then Steel did the double, collecting both the AFA and USOC titles in 1916, a feat they — quite incredibly — repeated in 1918 and 1919.

In all, Bethlehem Steel won a surreal ten titles in the 1910s before re-emerging in the mid-1920s to claim the final AFA Cup in 1924 and avenge a 1920 Open Cup final defeat to St. Louis’ Ben Millers club in 1926 when they captured their fifth and final championship.

Bethlehem Steel’s influence on the US Open Cup cannot be overstated. The investment in the club — including its own branding that built on but was eventually separate from Bethlehem Steel Company’s own brand — raised the bar for competitors. The company actively recruited workers that could enhance the quality of the soccer team, and in players like Archie Stark and Tommy Fleming, they fielded some of the top talents in America at the time.

In fact, Fleming may have scored the first ever US Open Cup goal. Steel’s opening match of the tournament was played on November 1, 1913, and Fleming’s 16th minute penalty kick opened the scoring that day. The other match played on the same date featured New Bedford Whalers and Farr Alpaca, but the timing of the goals scored in that game has been lost to history.

Overall, fifteen members of Bethlehem Steel are now in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, a testament to both the club and the region’s dedication to the sport in its early years. Before being reborn in 2015 as Philadelphia Union’s USL affiliate, Steel’s final match came in April of 1930, with Hall of Famer Archie Stark scoring the club’s last goal.

Philadelphia and the Open Cup after Steel

After Bethlehem Steel knocked off Ben Millers 7-2 in 1926, a decade passed before another Philadelphia-area team claimed the US Open Cup title. But in 1936, the Philadelphia German Americans foreshadowed the city’s return to prominence when they became the first amateur club to lift the USOC trophy.

Led by Elmer Schroeder, the first American-born president of the US Soccer Federation and manager of the 1934 US World Cup team, the German Americans were an outgrowth of the Philadelphia German Rifle Club. Schroeder took five members of the club to the 1934 World Cup, and when they returned, the American soccer world was unprepared for their swift rise to become cup champions.

But winning the cup was no easy feat. The opponent for the final, St. Louis Shamrocks, featured four 1934 World Cup players including the man dubbed the “Babe Ruth of American Soccer.”

In two matches played a week apart, the German Americans drew 2-2 with the Shamrocks in St. Louis before becoming the first Philly-area club to capture a US Open Cup title in the city with a 3-0 victory at their grounds at Eighth Street and Tabor Road. George Nemchik’s 25th minute winner secured the win, Nemchik struck again after the half to put the nail the Shamrocks’ coffin.

Fourteen years later, the Ukrainian Nationals returned the US Open Cup to Philadelphia with an epic win over Los Angeles Kickers. The 5-3 showdown went to double overtime and, as detailed by National Soccer Hall of Fame historian Roger Allaway and by the Union on Episode 2 of our Pitchside Podcast, the Ukrainian Nationals overcame a one-goal deficit three times before finally lifting the cup.

The Kickers would have their revenge in 1964 when they knocked off the Nationals in the final, but by then the Philadelphia club had already collected the 1961 and 1963 US Open Cup titles — both over different clubs from Los Angeles — and would soon grab a fourth in 1966 over a fourth LA-based outfit.

Prior to Philadelphia Union’s 2014 USOC finals appearance, the Philadelphia United German-Hungarians, runners-up in 1993, were the last Philly-area club to reach the last match of the competition.

Now, as Philadelphia Union prepare to play their third final in five seasons, fans can reflect on the outsized impact the Philadelphia region has made on this competition.

On September 26th in Houston, the Union will wear warm-ups inspired by the designs sported by Bethlehem Steel during their glorious heyday. But when the first whistle blows, Philly native Jim Curtin, Philadelphia-area products Auston Trusty, Keegan Rosenberry, and all the rest of the Union’s 2018 roster, will be carrying on a tradition that reaches beyond the Steel to the German Americans and the Ukrainian Nationals.

This is a soccer town, and the Union want to bring the US Open Cup home to Philadelphia.

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