There was no Major League Soccer in 1965. No NASL or USL either. But there was the German-American Soccer League, a stew of ethnic clubs clustered in and around New York City’s five boroughs. Teams played in God-forsaken corners of the city, under bridges in Brooklyn and up in the Bronx, on the ragged edges between salvage yards and dockyards, manufacturing plants and airports. And it was the best soccer in America.
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“These were the most exciting games back then,” said Dr. Joe Machnik, familiar to American soccer fans of today as Fox Sports’ resident rules analyst. But back in the day this native of Greenpoint, Brooklyn had a front-row seat to all the action as back-up goalkeeper for 1965 Open Cup champions New York Ukrainians. “You had great rivalries. The quality was high. We had some great players.”
One of those greats was Walter Schmotolocha. Whether you called him Woldoymyr or Walter, Walt or Junio – his nickname in the team – the diminutive midfielder was one of the best American players of his time. “He was the pride and joy of the Ukrainian-American community,” recalled Machnik with a smile.
The rough edges
“The fields were a disgrace,” said Schmotolocha from his home in Kerhonkson, a tiny hamlet in the Hudson River Valley with a large Ukrainian population. His voice is a mish-mash of old-time New York, Eastern Europe and proud 76-year-old granddad. “Nothing but glass bottles and trash out there. There were rocks everywhere. It was always muddy when it rained. You had no idea where the ball was going to bounce, so you had to be ready. I used to call it, ‘running the obstacle course!’”
All the teams played on fields like these. The Metropolitan Oval was built in 1925, two years after the league’s birth. Other teams played at the Throggs Neck Oval in the Bronx. “I remember one that was really bad,” chuckled Schmotolocha, a collegiate All-American at the Pratt Institute who was born and raised in Manhattan’s East Village, then crowded with Ukrainian immigrants. “It was next to a manufacturing plant in Ridgewood in Brooklyn and there was nothing but trash and stones and busted bottles.”
These fields were home to the shining lights of the day: the likes of New York Hungaria, loaded with pros who fled the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The New York Greek Americans, who most referred to simply as The Greeks, played on these fields too, and so did S.C. Eintracht and many, many more.
“They were the great equalizer,” Machnik said of those rough fields, built for football and often very narrow. The Ukrainians’ home pitch was out on the northwest corner of Queens, across Flushing Bay from LaGuardia airport. The club rented land in College Point and renamed it Ukrainians Sports Field. “There were salvage yards on both sides,” remembered Schmotolocha. And Machnik’s memories are the same: “There was no grass – not a blade. It was an industrial area with abandoned cars everywhere.”
Open Cup – A coveted prize
“Open Cup games were always extra special; they had extra weight behind them with the rivalries and pressure,” said Machnik. The German-American league regularly produced the champions of the Open Cup, which was touted by the New York Times in those years as “the most coveted prize in American Soccer.”
The pressure was doubled on the New York Ukrainians because their sister club, Ukrainian Nationals of Philadelphia, had a stranglehold on the Cup. They won it three times between 1959 to 1963. And the road to the 1965 final was anything but smooth for the New Yorkers. There were 131 participants at the start and they had to beat a raft of local rivals before booking a date with Hansa Chicago – another ethnic side and champions of the West – in a two-legged final. “We beat Elizabeth (of New Jersey) and The Greeks, and I don’t remember who else because I was just a player,” said Schmotolocha, who also won the Open Cup in 1972 with S.C. Elizabeth after putting in two years of military service down south in Georgia. “I showed up at the field and played the team in front of me. Didn’t matter who, or what stage, it was just a soccer game for me.”
Schmotolocha’s performances weren’t always restricted to the rocky ovals of Gotham. In March of 1965, he earned a pair of caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team. “It was silent after the American anthem played at the LA Coliseum, but after the Mexican anthem, the place went wild!” the playmaker, with a vicious long-distance shot, remembered of that qualifier for the 1966 World Cup. He scored a free-kick on the day in a 2-2 draw and then traveled to the just-built Estadio Azteca in Mexico City for the return fixture. “I was looking around, knowing I was in California, but I had to ask myself: What country am I in right now?”
If you’re good enough, you’re Ukrainian enough
The Ukrainian team of 1965 wasn’t all Ukrainian. None of the teams were homogeneous. Machnik wasn’t Ukrainian and neither was Peter Smethurst or his brother Derick, a South African who played for Chelsea. The late Gordon Bradley, the team’s player-coach in 1965, was born in England and went on to coach the U.S. National Team and star-studded NASL glamor-boys NY Cosmos. But the vast majority of the ’65 side grew up together, from sandlot ball through the club’s youth systems, and by the time they reached the Open Cup final they were the best team in America.
The first leg finished 1-1 at home in Queens. “We had the edge,” recalled Schmotolocha, who went on to start a shipping business after his soccer days. Hansa’s star forward Willy Roy, who played for nearly a decade in the U.S. National Team and later coached the NASL’s Chicago Sting, scored the goal for the visitors. “It wasn’t too hot and there were some clouds. We were just feeling each other out and we missed a few good chances, but we knew the result was a good one for us. They weren’t much trouble.”
When they got to Chicago seven days later, and out on Hansa’s Hanson Park Stadium, it was a different story altogether. “We took them apart at their place. They had this nice little stadium, almost brand-new, and about 5,000 people were out to watch us,” said Schmotolocha, who scored in the 4-1 rout. “The field was flat, really nice and clean, so we didn’t have to run the obstacle course! We moved the ball, controlled it. It didn’t fly away from us. And we destroyed them.”
Chicago’s victory shindig
Machnik missed the final because of a job he couldn’t get out of. “That was too bad for him,” said Schmotolocha, telling of the victory party that followed the trophy ceremony.
“There was a Ukrainian guy, a doctor in Chicago, and he took us all out to the best restaurant in the city. I remember it right now. It was like Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. There were four tiers and those half-moon booths you see in the movies. And it was some party,” Schmotolocha said. He could have just as easily been talking about the whole 1965 Cup run, or the entirety of his youth, and those days out in the Ovals that he remembers so fondly.
“After that, we all flew back to our lives. Those were our 15 minutes of fame,” he said in his old man’s voice. “But boy was it fun.”
There are plenty of fine soccer fields in and around Philadelphia for those with the dough to rent them. But Junior Lone Star FC, 2017 U.S. Open Cup debutantes, train in the dim shadows. “Sometimes you show up and the lights aren’t even on,” said captain and striker Anthony Allison. Fatoma Turay, the team’s midfield schemer, agreed: “You leave important stuff, don’t want to miss training, you get there and it’s dark.”
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The club trains every day that weather and circumstance allow in a public park on a gritty corner of Philly. Founded in 2001 by West African immigrants, most of them refugees from war-ravaged Liberia, the club took its name from the Liberian national team known as the Lone Stars. Adversity is nothing new to Junior Lone Star’s players, their coaches, or the supporters who call the rougher edges of Southwest Philadelphia home.
When the lights don’t come on, the players move a little closer to the basketball court that’s always lit. When there’s someone on the rock-hard dirt soccer field, surrounded by tattered fencing, they compromise. They share. “We take half the field and they take half,” said coach and founder Bobby Ali. And when it rains, and the dirt turns to slurry, Junior Lone Star play in the mud. “We improvise,” said club president Paul Konneh III.
“Southwest Philly is a typical black neighborhood with problems,” said Turay, who hails from Sierra Leone and came to America in his early teens. The neighborhood, on the banks of the Schuylkill River below Baltimore Ave, has long been a haven for West African refugees and immigrants. It’s also plagued by crime, with above-average robbery, drug and murder stats. “When we look around at some of the teams we play against, they have everything. They have luxuries. But us, we got bumps and ruts and you have to take three touches just to get the ball under control.”
Turay remembers his first touches of a soccer ball. They came thousands of miles away on the streets of Koidu in eastern Sierra Leone. “I must have been only six and I was sitting on the ground watching my older brothers play and they needed an extra.” He jumped up and joined in, paying close attention to the commands of the older boys. “They insisted that when I got the ball I pass it on to someone else – ‘just keep it moving’ they said. I’ve been doing that ever since and it’s why I’m a playmaker now!”
On the field, off the streets
Even in a land of opportunity like America, opportunities are relative. “When I first came to Philadelphia, there was nothing for the African kids who were here, and they would get into all sorts of crazy stuff in the streets,” said coach Ali, a Liberian immigrant and former goalkeeper. He calls Junior Lone Star “his whole heart,” and sounds worn-down from the thankless work, from caring too much and knowing the deck is stacked. “Someone needed to give these kids a chance, to keep them in school. Soccer was a way to do it.”
Nothing is handed to Junior Lone Star, which started with eleven players at the turn of the century. In the time since, they have emerged as one of the top amateur teams in the city, the region beyond, and now, even the nation. In 2016, one of Junior Lone Star’s young sons, Ghana-born Derrick Jones, signed a professional contract with local Major League Soccer outfit Philadelphia Union.
Family is a word you hear a lot around the club. And perseverance, doing what you have to do, comes naturally to the players. “We don’t make excuses,” said Turay, pivot and passer in a team that likes to attack. “We do what we have to do. We don’t cry because we’re from Southwest and don’t have everything. We deal with it. We can compete with anyone because we’re good and we know where we come from.”
For Allison, who starred for the Wilmington University Wildcats before professional stints in Puerto Rico and Sweden, Junior Lone Star is much more than a club. “I grew up in this,” he said of his first club, now with three teams and over 70 players. “This is family. It’s not just a team you play for; it’s who we are. We helped build it. We have fun and look out for each other here in Southwest. And we’re all Lone Star.”
“The younger kids look up to us,” said Turay about the next generation breaking into the first team, some of them still in high school and refusing the offers from local clubs with more money and reliable lighting. “We’re older brothers to them. We look out for them. A big part of this is keeping these kids off the street.”
Away days “like heaven”
Junior Lone Star will reach a milestone in May when they travel to coastal New Jersey to take on the Ocean City Nor’easters in the First Round of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. The Nor’easters have been strong in recent years, upsetting five full-professional sides at the home field they call the Beach House. But the young men from Southwest Philadelphia are used to playing against touted teams in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). And they’re ready. “We’re not afraid of anyone,” said Turay. Allison agreed: “We love playing away. It’s like heaven for us. We play better.”
For the young ones in the side who look for guidance from Turay and Allison, and coach Ali, with his sad eyes and big heart, it’s a chance for something bigger. Something beyond the problems of the neighborhood: The dream of professional soccer. “For us old guys it’s just another chance to play,” said Turay, not exactly elderly at 31. “But for the kids, it’s a chance to grow and learn. Maybe get seen by someone. They’ll play against more mature players and test themselves. They’ll see what’s out there.”
For President Konneh, a tireless advocate of this indomitable club, there’s a clear point on the horizon. “There’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t go to the Fourth Round of the Cup and get to play an MLS team, maybe Philadelphia Union!”
Until the big day this May in Jersey, or even a fantasy match-up against the biggest team in the land, the young men from Philly will keep training and playing. In the mud or in the dark, however they need to. “It might not be perfect, but it’s home, and we make it work,” said Allison, a glimmer in his voice, knowing the spirit of Junior Lone Star shines brighter than any floodlight.Read more
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The Rochester Rhinos began life in 1996, the same year MLS was founded as the pinnacle of the American soccer pyramid. With a squad of seasoned professionals, most of whom played upwards of 80 games a year – both outdoor and indoor – the second-division Rhinos seemed like prime contenders for a place in the fledgling top-flight. The city had soccer in its veins and a rich history going back even before the Lancers of the old NASL. Hordes of fans, often hovering around the 15,000-mark, steamed through the turnstiles every weekend at the tiny Frontier Field.
“It was like, ‘look what we’re doing here!’” said Scott Schweitzer, Rochester defender from 1998 to 2003. “We thought we should be in MLS. We’re sold out every week. We had more fans coming out than a lot of the MLS teams did.”
Can’t join ‘em? Beat ‘em
But economic factors, calculators, accountants and spreadsheets conspired to keep the Rhinos and their legions of fans from the big-time. When the 1999 Open Cup rolled around, they had a new and potent slogan. It was printed on stickers, t-shirts and banners, and chanted in the stands: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em!
“It was our rallying cry,” said Onstad, the Canadian legend who went on to a long and distinguished career in MLS. “We were a bunch of misfits. We worked harder for each other than any team I’ve ever played on and everyone had something to prove. A lot of the guys felt like they should be in MLS, but that call never came.”
Schweitzer was one of those swaggering misfits, perhaps chief among them. He was 11 the first time he kicked a soccer ball around inner city New Jersey and he remembers being tagged a “commie” for his quick interest in the game. “I didn’t care,” he recalled. “I knew the first day I played that I was going to be a pro. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it.”
The Rhinos went on a run for the ages in the 1999 Open Cup, slaying four straight MLS sides. “We always thought we had a chance no matter who we were playing,” said Schweitzer, who credits soccer for seeing him through a rough childhood. He speaks of the city of Rochester with the kind of affection reserved for a family member. “I understood the city and the city understood me,” he said, remembering living downtown in an old brick building and seeing his own face, 50 feet up over the highway, plastered on a billboard.
“We were big on being boisterous,” said Schweitzer. “Maybe cocky is a better word. But we wanted to show people something, show them what we could do and what soccer in Rochester was all about.”
The Rhinos played their first two games against MLS opposition at their tiny Frontier Field, an improvised home designed for baseball. “OK, so the field was 69 yards wide and maybe 110 long – so you do that math,” said Ercoli. Onstad remembers the pitch too, with an attention to detail befitting a goalkeeper. “The dirt infield ran right through the middle of the pitch. And somehow, the field always seemed to be slanted!”
The Rhinos beat Bob Bradley’s Chicago Fire at home with what can politely be described as a “physical” approach. Rochester committed nearly 50 fouls in the game and did a similar number in their next: A 2-1 golden-goal win over 1997 Open Cup champs Dallas Burn. After the game, Dallas’ star striker Jason Kreis wasn’t interested in playing diplomat when he said Rochester would “get their butts beat on a real field.”
The trash talk and the sour grapes of their beaten opponents didn’t bother Ercoli and co. In fact, it was just the kind of motivation the jilted Rhinos needed to swell that chip on their shoulder. Their semi-final was on the road, on a real pitch, against a Columbus Crew side led by stars like Brian McBride and Thomas Dooley. The heavens intervened.
“We played down in Virginia on the edge of a hurricane,” said Onstad, recalling the first game away from their wild fans and compact home. “It was like no wind I’d ever seen,” added Ercoli, who instructed captain Tommy Tanner to go against it in the first half. “He looked at me like I was crazy! We’re talking 50 mile-per-hour winds here!”
The first half ended goalless and “we celebrated like we just won the Cup!” said Onstad. But in the second, the game broke open. Big striker Darren Tilley leveled for the Rhinos after a sensational free-kick by Robert Warzycha. When the Crew went up again with 12 minutes to go, the Rhinos’ charge looked over. But two goals in the last four minutes, with a little help from the wind at their backs, sent the men from Rochester through to the final. “We were the kind of team that always found a way to win,” Ercoli said. “And in the end, the Crew petered out while we rode the wind, and a little bit of luck.”
Team of destiny
That game in the blustery gales, on the ragged edges of a tropical storm, was the moment when a reality hit home in the team. “I started to have this feeling,” said Onstad. “Ok, we’re going to do this.” Ercoli’s gut told him the same. “We went to Columbus, Ohio for the final with the attitude of: This is destiny.”
The final was at the brand-new Crew Stadium against the Colorado Rapids. And with their own team gone, the Columbus fans adopted the traveling underdogs. They joined the chorus led by busloads of traveling supporters that rolled in from Rochester. “They were there to greet us in Ohio when we got off the bus,” Schweitzer recalled. “They had their banners – if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em and all that. You didn’t want to let these people down.”
And they didn’t. A goal mid-way through the second-half from Doug Miller and a late one from Yari Allnutt saw the unfancied Rhinos win out 2-0. “I don’t remember having to do that much work on the day either,” said Onstad. “What I remember most is the pride at the end, being there with this great team of crazy guys, holding the trophy.”
“Maybe someday another non-MLS team will do it again, but it’s not easy,” said Ercoli, now Chief Soccer Officer of the Rochester Rhinos who play, to this day, in the second tier. “It was an amazing thing,” added Schweitzer. But the last word went to Onstad, who fought his MLS coaches when they wanted to rest him for Open Cup games. “I’d insist they put me in for the Cup.” said the man who went on to win three MLS titles. Twice he was named MLS’ goalkeeper of the year, but he never got his hands on the Open Cup again. “It always mattered to me.”Read more
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“It’s not just the numbers,” said Andrew Bresee, an avowed Chattahooligan just like El Conductor, who dresses in super-hero mask and train conductor uniform, harking back to the city’s roots as a railway hub. Like many in Chattanooga, Bresee is a cheerleader for his hometown. “You’ve got food trucks around the stadium. There’s good beer. You can’t beat the vibe here.”
In the stands and on the pitch
“Tailgating starts four or five hours before kick-off,” said Eliot, who’s also head coach at the University of West Florida. He returns from Pensacola to his hometown during the summer to take the reins of this seven-year-old amateur side, comprised mainly of former and current Division Two and NAIA collegiate players. “The fans are amazing,” said Luke Winter, the club’s English-born top-scorer and current coach at his alma mater Tennessee Wesleyan University. “The banners they have on game-day and the effort they put in, the costumes -- it’s fantastic. People want to be a part of what we’re doing here.”
Coach Eliot is eager to point out that it’s not just the drums and fun in the stands bringing people to the stadium. “We’re putting some good stuff on the field,” insisted the coach who’s overseen five straight NPSL Southeast Division titles. “Maybe at first they came to cheer for Chattanooga the city, which is just the way people are around here,” added Eliot, who played in the preliminary rounds of the Open Cup back in the early 90s with the now defunct Mobile Revelers. “But it’s the soccer that keeps them coming. We have to hold up our end. It’s on us to play the right way.”
The Open Cup has a special place in the hearts of FC Chattanooga players and fans. They open their 2017 account on the road against Charlotte Eagles, unable to use their sizable home-field advantage until the second round, should they reach it. “In the Open Cup, it’s us against the world,” said Bresee, who sells beer to area supermarkets and helps organize the local chapter of the American Outlaws. He caught the soccer bug as an exchange student in Florence, Italy and never quite recovered. “It’s our team and our town and a way for us to show our pride and measure ourselves against what’s out there.”
So far Chattanooga FC have measured up just fine, reaching the third round of the Open Cup three years straight. In 2015 they were seconds away from the fourth round, and a date with MLS’ New York Red Bulls, only for a last-gasp extra-time loss to the Atlanta Silverbacks to crush their dreams. Last year, they went out in the same round by one thin goal to Harrisburg City Islanders.
“Growing up in England I know all about the excitement and passion the FA Cup brings out,” said Winter, now 26, who came to Tennessee from Norwich and has no reason to return. “We want to keep being matched against the big teams and have big Cup days. There’s nothing like it.”Read more
In a few months, Revere Beach will be packed with lazy sunbathers and day-trippers. The smell of fried clams and Bianchi’s Pizza will hang thick in the salty air. But in the freezing rain of late March, only the brave and the crazy are out. And Boston City FC, running hard on the wet sand in their socks, are a little bit of both.
“Training on the beach is the best thing you can do for your body,” Palhinha, head coach and president of the two-year NPSL club, told ussoccer.com from under the hood of a puffy coat, shivering away the chill. “It’s even better than Copacabana Beach here, because of the incline in the sand!”
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Even without his hood and the extra layers, it’s unlikely Palhinha would be mobbed by fans on the streets of Greater Boston. But in his native Brazil, where he won two Copa Libertadores titles with Sao Paulo in the early 90s, he’s still a star, and hounded for selfies and signatures. An elegant playmaker and passer of uncommon skill, he is considered by many back home, Paulistas especially, a frail genius who paid the price for his slight build and dreamer’s vision. He earned only 16 caps with the national team in a time when the bulkier frames of Dunga and Mauro Silva held sway in the Seleção.
A preseason conditioning session on an empty Revere Beach, dirty winter snow still piled along Route 1A, is a long way from the adoration of more than 70,000 fans at the Morumbi, who chanted Palhinha’s name during his glory days. But when the 49-year-old coach gets to talking about the U.S. Open Cup, in which Boston City will take part for the first time this year, his eyes light up with a kind of mischief. He might as well be talking about the Copa Libertadores. Hell, even the World Cup.
“For us, this Open Cup is our World Cup,” he said through a translator, greeting his young players, mostly amateurs. “Sure, it’s a dream. But we all need to believe this is possible because dreams come true. And to be clear, I’m not talking about getting a few rounds in, I’m talking about winning the whole tournament,” he adds, gesturing to the gray sky and lapping ocean behind him. “There’s a way to do this and it begins here.”
Little teams & big dreams
It’s been almost two decades since a non-MLS team has won the 103-year-old Open Cup, and longer still since an amateur team hoisted the trophy. But Palhinha’s big dreams are contagious, and so is his focus on keeping the ball and playing attacking soccer. “I want, most of all, for my players to love the ball. To enjoy the game. I tell them all the time – ‘you need to sleep with the ball, wake up with the ball, have lunch with the ball.’”
“My classmates always joke with me because I dribble a soccer ball between buildings on my way to classes,” said striker Kevin Herrera (above, second from left). The 20-year-old hails from Lynn, Massachusetts, a few miles up the Parkway.
Herrera gets about as close to his coach’s mantra of living life with the ball as you can. “My stomach churned when I found out we’re playing in the Open Cup,” said Herrera, who keeps an image of the Dewar Cup, the historic trophy that used to be awarded to the Open Cup winner, as screensaver on his laptop. “I want to see it all the time,” said the compact No. 9, a former member of the New England Revolution Academy. “I want to be reminded of it and to keep focused on it.”
Eyes on the horizon
It’s a rough session for the boys in the sand. Palhinha works them hard. He even drags some of the laggers with a rough hand from the back of the pack, craving preseason pain in exchange for future glory. Each of these players, most of them on amateur contracts, has a dream. Alone on the cold sand with only the gulls for company, these players are chasing a taste of the big-time.
Yao Addow is nearly 30 years old, but he still talks about “taking the next step.” You can’t help but root for him. He scored the first goal in City’s history and was sent off later in the game. He has a welcoming smile and wide eyes.
“I’m from Ghana, so this is a little cold to be at the beach for me,” Addow said with a grin. He’s known for giving away game tickets to fans via social media and when he’s injured or suspended he stands with supporters on the bleachers at Brother Gilbert Field behind Malden Catholic High School. “But this is the work we need to do to be ready for the Open Cup.”
The rain never lets up. The boys peel off their soaked clothes at the end and know the worst is behind them until next Saturday when, with luck, it will feel a little more like spring. The bag of soccer balls Palhinha brought along was never untied. It sits against the cement wall of the boardwalk like a promise. Of a new season. An Open Cup debut. A bigger stage.
On April 12, they learned they would visit the PDL's Western Mass Pioneers in the First Round of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The first game in what they hope will be a dream run in the tournament.
They might be crazy, but Boston City FC will be ready. “We’ve got nothing to lose,” said young Herrera who sat on the wall at the end of the session staring out over that same horizon he’s considered since he was a little boy growing up on the shore. “We believe we can beat the big teams. We’re hungry for this and just talking about it gets me excited.”