By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jul 30, 2018) US Soccer Players – Large metropolitan areas have typically housed some of this country’s biggest soccer clubs. The New York Cosmos of the 1970s and '80s instantly comes to mind. Since the founding of MLS in 1996, DC United and the LA Galaxy have had dynasty eras. But some of this country's best teams came from small towns. One of those teams, the original Bethlehem Steel Football Club, was based in an eastern Pennsylvania town with a population of about 75,000. It may also be the most successful US club team in the first half of the 20th century.
Plant workers for the Bethlehem Steel Company made up the team. A manufacturing boom in the early 20th century as well as work stemming from developing military materials and ships throughout World War I helped turn the factory into an economic power. The company would help build this country’s most-iconic structures like the Empire State Building and Golden Gate Bridge. The men would work five days a week at the factory and play for the team on weekends.
In all, Bethlehem Steel would go on to capture 22 trophies across various leagues in a span of just 23 years. It remains a rate unmatched by any club, amateur or pro, this country has ever seen. The team joined the American Soccer League in time for the start of the 1922-23 season, a jump in quality that meant national audiences. It would go on to capture the league title in 1927, its only championship as a member of the ASL. The team finished runners-up in both 1924 and ‘25.
Bethlehem Steel, however, didn’t enjoy its biggest success as a member of the ASL. It had dominated nationally a decade earlier as an amateur side, capturing the US Open Cup a staggering five times: 1915, ’16, ’18 and ‘19 and ‘26. The team shares the record for the most US Open Cup titles with Maccabi Los Angeles at five.
The 1926 US Open Cup final, known as the National Challenge Cup at the time, was played on April 11 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY, home of the Dodgers baseball team. The venue, larger than the fields that hosted previous tournament games that year, featured a healthy crowd of 18,000. Bethlehem dominated the match, defeating the Missouri-based Ben Millers by the lopsided score of 7-2. The headline in the next day’s New York Daily News blared: “Age Conquers Youth for US Crown.”
Bethlehem was a team loaded with experience. Striker Archie Stark, one of the ASL’s best players, scored a hat-trick in that final. The game at the time was highlighted by rough play, and the 1926 final was no exception. The Bethlehem Globe-Times reported that the match “was characteristic of cup play, waged with reckless abandon, and regardless of what personal injuries might be sustained. This was strongly evident when during a Ben Miller raid on the Bethlehem goal, the clearing by Bethlehem left four players prostrate on the ground. Two Ben Millers and two Steel Workers were out at the same time. In the melee Whitey McDonald was the most seriously injured, the exact extent of which will not be definitely known until after an X-ray is taken today to determine whether the injury is a dislocation of the right elbow or a fractured bone. McDonald was on the sidelines for five minutes of the game and then returned.”
Stark’s three goals were the highlight of the game. He was one of the country’s most prolific scorers during much of the 1920s and ‘30s. The final was a showcase for his talents. As an aside, Stark only earned two caps for the United States, both against Canada in 1925, but scored five goals. He played for Bethlehem Steel for seven seasons starting in 1924 and scored 210 goals in 10 ASL seasons overall. He was even invited to play on the US team at the 1930 World Cup but declined after he had started his own car business soon after the ASL had collapsed earlier that year.
Bethlehem Steel was put on a winning path thanks to steel baron Charles M. Schwab. A $50,000 investment, which also included the construction of a new field, allowed the team to purchase players and become one of this country’s most-competitive sports franchises. Schwab had made his fortune running Bethlehem Steel, the company that would go on to become the second-largest steel maker in the country. It was the company that bankrolled the nascent team. A New York Times article from August 2, 1914, chronicled how Schwab was set to “raid” other teams to build a competitive roster. In addition, the company built the country’s first soccer facility. It’s a venue that’s in use to this day by Moravian College’s football team.
The results were quick to come in the US Open Cup less than a year later. The team conquered its first US Open Cup title won on May 3, 1915. The 3-1 victory over Brooklyn Celtic would be the start of a dynasty. The victory at Lehigh University was the culmination of Schwab’s dream. The US Open Cup that season had featured 82 teams and Bethlehem could proudly claim to be the best among them. Led by striker Bob Millar, Bethlehem Steel was recognized as one of this country’s soccer epicenters along with Fall River, Massachusetts, and St. Louis. Millar played in those same two US game against Canada in 1925 alongside Stark. Millar even assisted on a Stark goal in the US’s 6-1 victory in the second game between the two countries. Millar would go on to coach the US to the semifinals of the 1930 World Cup. Millar and Stark are both inducted into the US National Soccer Hall of Fame. They are two of a total of 15 players with connections to Bethlehem Steel that are enshrined there.
The demise of the ASL in 1930 and the financial problems stemming from the Great Depression, as well as the “soccer war” between leagues, resulted in the demise of Bethlehem Steel. The team name, following a fan ballot, returned in 2015 as a USL franchise owned and operated by the Philadelphia Union.
The team’s past has been meticulously chronicled in recent years by Dan Morrison, a Presbyterian minister who runs a website featuring old newspaper clips and photos at bethlehemsteelsoccer.org. Soccer historian Roger Allaway tells the story of the original American Soccer League in his 1998 book Corner Offices & Corner Kicks. Bethlehem Steel’s story lives on.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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