Standing in the Shadow of History: Bethlehem Steel FC

Bethlehem, PA (August 20th, 2015) – To hear Nick Sakiewicz tell it, the move to bring professional soccer back to the tiny Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem represents an extraordinary opportunity. ” In the end, we’ve chosen an extraordinarily great soccer community in the Lehigh Valley that is underserved for professional soccer. Combining our club’s culture with this amazing soccer community and the spectacular venue that Goodman Stadium provides will create an incredible environment for the growing fan base in the Lehigh Valley. By adding a USL team we ensure that our players will compete at the highest level under MLS. It’s of the utmost importance that at every level of the Union organization we challenge our players with competition in the top professional environments,” he said at the Philadelphia Union’s press conference announcing the newest MLS affiliate.  The yet unnamed club will compete in the USL, the USSF 3rd division.

But, this is far from the first professional soccer club to call the town it’s home.  In fact, Bethlehem was the home to arguably the most winning club in American soccer history. A From 1907 until 1930, Bethlehem Steel Football Club amassed trophies and accolades as they competed for the US Open Cup and, eventually, in the long defunct American Soccer League. They won the Open Cup, a tournament that the Philadelphia Union will look to win this year, in 1915, 1916, 1918, 1919, and 1926. At the time the competition was known as the National Cup, the trophy itself was donated by Sir Thomas DeWar in 1914 in an effort to help promote the beautiful game in the United States.

All of this information is readily available via a quick Google search.  To get to the bottom of the story, and what happened to Bethlehem soccer, Last Word Soccer Club reached out to Stephen J. Holroyd, a known soccer historian in the area. Bethlehem Steel was one of the biggest industrial companies of the early to mid 1900s, and it seemed to be a matching set, with the soccer club they sponsored being incredibly successful.  However, the club was not always a professional club.  When asked about the transition, Holroyd stated that the transition happened rather organically. “The Bethlehem Football Club (no “Steel” yet) formed about 1907, evolving out of pickup games played among the workers in the mill, which, in turn, grew into competition with the only one other team in the Lehigh Valley–in Allentown–and they would play against each other every Saturday. In 1907, the team started facing stiffer competition from outside the area.  In 1911-12, Bethlehem FC joined the Eastern Pennsylvania League–not a top circuit, as it included none of the top Philadelphia teams,  Bethlehem won the league quite easily.  The side later entered the Allied Amateur Cup, losing in the final,” he stated.

Holroyd continued, “The team moved to better leagues in stiffer cup competitions, and continued to dominate as an amateur side.  Of course, this did not stop the team from recruiting top Scottish players by offering them jobs as factory workers…but they were not paid as footballers.  This became more frequent as the success of the team resulted in “real” steelworkers having to be away from the plant for weeks at a time.  It was easier to import ringers and give them a cushy job. By the 1915-16 season, Charles Schwab (Steel’s owner) had taken notice.  He donated $25,000 to the team, which was rechristened Bethlehem Steel FC.  The team started playing in the open pro leagues in Philadelphia and northern NJ, and (as “Philadelphia FC”) joined the ASL in 1921.”

That last piece of information is the most telling of all, and explains some of Sakiewicz’ determination and drive to pay homage to Bethlehem’s soccer roots.  In 2014, the Union went as far as to unveil a third jersey to give a nod to the past.

Bethlehem Steel FC’s exploits even led them overseas, on a tour of Scandinavia to play a series of friendlies in 1919.  However, despite being a highly successful American side, the impression was not always what was intended. Holroyd explains, “By 1919, BSFC had won three straight National Association Foot Ball League crowns, and both the American Cup and Open Cup on a few occasions.  The club was looking for bigger fish to fry. Scandanavia seemed like a good place to tour, as a US XI had toured Norway and Sweden three years earlier.  Six guest players were added (including NYFC’s Archie Stark), and off they went. The Swedes, in particular, thought BSFC were a Scottish team. That was not a surprise, given who made up the roster).”

Even though the club was winning, that success rarely translated into attendance.  “Ironically, the stands in Bethlehem were rarely full; the side drew much better on the road than at home.  This was one reason why when, in 1921, the biggest clubs on the northeast coast decided to form a truly major league soccer organization (the ASL), Bethlehem originally relocated to Philadelphia in the hope of drawing much bigger crowds.  Alas, they did not–and returned to Bethlehem for 1922-23,” Holroyd told LWSC.

The ASL, however, did collapse, and took it’s clubs with it.  As Holroyd tells it, two events contributed to the league’s extinction. “First, in the fall of 1928, the American “Soccer War” began.  The bottom line of the “war” was that most of the big ASL clubs chaffed at having to follow USSF strictures–in particular, having to participate in the U.S. Open Cup.  The Cup was a huge revenue generator for the USSF, and it was not keen on giving its biggest drawing sides a pass. However, Cup ties often interfered with the ASL’s regular schedule, ” Holroyd explained.

Holroyd continued, “In any event, in 1928 the ASL said its clubs would not participate in the Cup.  However, Bethlehem Steel, Newark Skeeters and New York Giants entered anyway.  The ASL threw those clubs out of the league, and the USSF suspended the ASL.  Bethlehem, Newark and New York–along with some other top non-ASL sides–formed a rival league…which, at one point, Fall River jumped to join.  It was an expensive mess, and everyone lost a lot of money.  The “war” was over by the summer of 1929.”

Then came the stock market crash of 1929. “As the presence of clubs called “Bethlehem Steel” and “J&P Coats” can attest (along with prior clubs like “Fleisher Yarn,” “Todd Shipyards,” etc.), professional football in the U.S. was decades ahead of its time in the sense that it relied heavily on corporate sponsorships.  With the Great Depression’s arrival, a company soccer team became a luxury no one could afford.  In Bethlehem Steel’s case, the club (again–never well-supported at home) had never been a money making proposition anyway–folding the club was an easy decision.  J&P Coats dropped its sponsorship–the club limped on as Pawtucket Rangers for a few years,” Holroyd said.

Now, with the rebirth of the club under the flag of the Union, Major League Soccer, and United Soccer League, the Bethlehem based club will stand in the shadow of this giant of history. To hear Holroyd say it, the new club could fill a hole that has existed in that small town’s consciousness for nearly 80 years, despite the lack of local recognition. “Bethlehem Steel were really prophets without honor in their own city.  Philadelphia had a burgeoning semi-pro scene prior to Bethlehem Steel’s birth, so it’s not like Steel was a “big bang.”  While I’m sure there was some local pride over the various Cup victories and such–and the team received good coverage in the Bethlehem papers–it was just not that big a deal at the time. That said, I think the return of a team to the area now is huge.  After many, many false starts, professional soccer has finally returned to the U.S. in a big way.  As Bethlehem the city itself rebounds from years of economic struggles to the point where it now has a larger population than it did during the steel factory’s heyday, the arrival of a professional sports team is huge–and the fact that it is a soccer team is even more poignant, given the city’s history with the sport.  I think the USL team will be a huge success.”

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