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100 Moments: New York Hakoah's One Year Wonder

Eighty-four years after its triumph, the New York Hakoah team that won the National Challenge Cup in 1929 has become little more than a name on a list. There is not much there to suggest what an impressive collection of European internationals this team was.

New York Hakoah won that tournament, the same one that now is called the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, by shutting out Madison Kennels of St. Louis in both legs of the final. They won by 2-0 in St. Louis on March 31, 1929 and 3-0 in New York on April 7, 1929.

During its six-game run in the 1929 National Challenge Cup, New York Hakoah used a total of 13 diferent players. No fewer than 10 of those 13 had been capped by either Hungary, Austria or Czechoslovakia, all of which were among the best teams in the world in that era.

So who was this team that took the same name as the famous Austrian club that toured the United States in 1926 and ’27, but which was not one of the American Soccer League powerhouses of the day? It was a somewhat makeshift team that played in the Eastern Soccer League, a temporary league in 1928 and ’29 that was born of the Soccer War, a 15-month administrative battle between the United States Football Association and the ASL for control of the sport in the United States.

That battle was the cause of the proliferation of teams with “Hakoah” in their names in New York in 1929 and ’30, all of them named for the Austrian club.

It all started when eight members of the Hakoah Vienna team decided to stay in America after their 12-game tour here in the spring of 1926, signing with ASL teams that were owned by Nate Agar or Maurice Vandeweghe, two of the American organizers of the tour. A major factor in their decisions to stay was that Hakoah Vienna, an all-Jewish team, found on its tour that the anti-Semitism that had infected Europe for centuries (and was to get far worse there in the next two decades) was not as bad in America. Hakoah had been given a great reception on that tour, including crowds of 46,000, 30,000 and 25,000, and that also must have been factor in those decisions. After Hakoah played another 13 games in the United States in 1927, four more Hakoah players stayed in America rather than return to Europe.

However, the Soccer War, which broke out in the summer of 1928, forced those former Vienna Hakoah players to take sides, opting for the USFA side or the ASL side of the dispute.

New York Hakoah, the team that won the National Challenge Cup in 1929, was composed of Jewish players from Central Europe, most of them former Vienna Hakoah players, who took the USFA side. During the 1928-29 season, it played in the Eastern Soccer League, which had been hastily put together by the USFA in the fall of 1928. The idea in forming the ESL was to create a league for three teams that had been suspended by the ASL for refusing that league’s demands that all ASL teams withdraw from the National Challenge Cup. The New York Hakoah team, which hadn’t existed before 1928, was created by building a roster out of Jewish players who were with other clubs.

The National Challenge Cup was the only major honor that New York Hakoah won during that time, despite the presence of those 10 internationals, who earned a combined total of 58 caps for their European countries. Bethlehem Steel won the Eastern Soccer League title in the 1928-29 season by winning both halves of the season, although New York Hakoah did have a good run at beating the Steelworkers in the second half, which would have forced a playoff.

The “Jewish booters,” as they were often referred to in newspapers, fared much better in the National Challenge Cup. They breezed through the early rounds before things got much tougher in the quarterfinals on March 17, 1929 at Starlight Park in the Bronx.

The quarterfinal opponent was Newark Portuguese, a semipro team from New Jersey that wasn’t expected to be a particularly great obstacle for Hakoah, which took the injudicious step of playing a friendly the day before against a touring Hungarian club, Sabarias.

At halftime of the game against Newark Portuguese, Hakoah may have been regretting having played that friendly. The Newark team held a 1-0 lead on a goal in the middle of the first half. Hakoah did control much of the second-half play, however, and it evened the score in the 60th minute, on a hard shot from Siegfried Wortmann after the ball had been headed on to him by Max Gruenwald following a corner. Gruenwald then scored himself 20 minutes later and the issue seemed settled, but Newark scored a tying goal in the 85th minute.

The winning goal came 15 minutes into the overtime. According to the New York Times, “the referee was about to blow his whistle for the change of ends when Wortmann drove home a pass from [Josef] Eisenhoffer.”

The semifinal against the New York Giants at Dexter Park in the Woodhaven section of Queens, near the Brooklyn-Queens border, was another difficult struggle for Hakoah. Dexter Park was a dilapidated former horse-racing track, but it had a good capacity for its time. The crowd of 12,000 on this day didn’t come anywhere near to filling it.

The New York Giants, one of the three teams that had been suspended from the ASL the previous fall, fielded a team that included four future Hall of Famers, Davey Brown, George Moorhouse, Ted Glover and Shamus O’Brien. Like Hakoah, the Giants had had a difficult time getting through the quarterfinals, beating Bethlehem Steel (another of the suspended trio) by 6-3 in a replay after a 2-2 tie.

The Giants were owned by Maurice Vandeweghe and were one of the main American teams that former Hakoah Vienna  players had flocked to after making the decision to stay in America. Hakoah’s lineup that day included six players who had played for the Giants at some time during the previous three years. That Hakoah lineup was Lajos Fischer, Ludwig Grosz, Laszlo Sternberg, Leo Drucker, Rudolph Nickolsberger, Bela Guttmann, Erno Schwarz, Moritz Haeusler, Gruenwald, Wortmann and Eisenhoffer. That’s the same Erno Schwarz who later became one of the leading figures in American soccer as a team owner and league official, and the same Bela Guttmann who later managed several top teams in Europe, including the Benfica powerhouse of the early 1960s.

Unlike the free-scoring game against Newark Portuguese, this one was a tight, defensive battle. Eisenhoffer got the only goal of the game in the 78th minute, and Hakoah headed to the finals. where Madison Kennels was already waiting. The St. Louis team had won its semifinal against Chicago Sparta the same day as Hakoah’s quarterfinal against Newark Portuguese.

The first leg of the final was another game that nearly remained scoreless. The break came in the 80th minute when Eisenhoffer raced into the goalmouth to head home a corner by Nickolsberger. Two minutes later, Wortmann dribbled through the defense on an individual effort to score an insurance goal.

The outcome didn’t seem much in doubt in the second leg, at Dexter Park. Perhaps more uncertain was whether the old stadium was up to the task of handling the crowd of 21,583. “Every seat in the grandstand and bleachers was taken,” said the New York Times, “and extra benches were placed wherever room was found. Points of vantage were found on housetops and even on the adjacent hill. A large force of police was on hand to keep the onlookers in check, as they constantly threatened to surge onto the field. The reserves were kept busy straightening out the sidelines, where the fans unable to get seats were permitted to stand.”

Hakoah didn’t have particular difficulty in the game. Schwarz opened the scoring in the 20th minute after a through ball from Gruenwald, Gruenwald got the second in the 50th minute on a cross from Haeusler, and Haeusler put Eisehoffer’s cross into the net in the 70th minute.

Six months after this game, the Soccer War was settled. New York Hakoah was merged with an ASL team called Brooklyn Hakoah (even though it contained only two former Hakoah Vienna players) to form an ASL squad called Hakoah All-Stars. The ASL folded only a few years later, however, and all those Hakoah teams, including the great Viennese tourists who started it all, soon became a largely forgotten chapter of American soccer history.

The Hakoah name has since been revived when Sport Club Hakoah Bergen County was established in 2009. Team founder Ron Glickman attempted to rebuild the Hakoah Club in the New York suburb of Teaneck, N.J. and the team is still active as a USASA club. For more information on the current Hakoah club go to their club website at