As the Philadelphia Union get set to host a second straight Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final on Wednesday, they do so with the thought of “unfinished business” in their minds. After falling at home in extra time to Seattle Sounders FC in the 2014 Final, the mantra has been used by Union head coach Jim Curtin throughout the team’s run this year.
And while the Union will hope to lift the club’s first-ever trophy on Wednesday night against Sporting Kansas City (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2/WatchESPN/UDN), what comes with it is the opportunity to write their name among Pennsylvania’s incredibly rich soccer history.
Pennsylvania’s 14 U.S. Open Cup championships are the third most of any state in the competition’s 102-year history, behind only New York (26) and California (15).
The tournament’s dominant team with four wins during the 1960s, the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals were the last club from Pennsylvania to win the competition in 1966. Before them, Sonny Yacopec and Tom Craddock helped the Hammarville Hurricanes to championships in 1952 and 1956. Single wins from Pittsburgh clubs Morgan Strasser (1949) and Gallatin (1942) were preceded by Philadelphia German-American's victory in the 1936 Final.
Before all of them came Bethlehem Steel FC, whose five U.S. Open Cup titles remain tied for the tournament’s all-time record.
Bethlehem Steel circa 1917 in the midst of its most dominant period as the United States' first professional soccer dynasty.
Founded in 1907, American steel magnate Charles Schwab made the club professional in 1914 and a year later they won their first National Challenge Cup title, as Robert Millar – the future head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 1930 FIFA World Cup – scored the first goal in a 3-1 win against the previous year’s runner-up, Brooklyn Celtic. The next year, Tommy Flemming’s 78th minute penalty made the club the first to repeat in the tournament as they defeated Fall River Rovers 1-0.
That final was the first of three played between Bethlehem Steel and Fall River Rovers, with the Massachusetts club getting revenge by the same score line in 1917. After a 2-2 draw in the 1918 Final, two goals from Harry Ratican helped Bethlehem Steel to a 3-0 win in the competition’s first-ever Final replay.
After George McKelvey’s 60th minute strike, Ratican scored the icing goal in Bethlehem Steel’s 2-0 Final win against Paterson F.C. of New Jersey in 1919, helping the club to an historic fourth National Challenge Cup title in five years.
Having become the first U.S. player to score four goals in a game in the Men’s National Team’s 6-1 defeat of Canada six months earlier, Archie Stark scored a hat trick in the club’s 7-2 thumping of Ben Millers of St. Louis, as Bethlehem Steel clinched its fifth and final National Challenge Cup in 1926.
While the Philadelphia Union are only in their sixth season of Major League Soccer play, the club made tying itself to the state’s rich soccer history, most notably Bethlehem Steel FC, a priority from day one.
“From the beginning when we started the club and did a lot of research on the region, what popped out was a lot of Bethlehem Steel history,” said Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. “They were one of the most successful teams in that time period, winning five U.S. Open Cup titles and playing in front of big crowds in the Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem Steel was the technology at the time in a booming era and so there was a lot of history, not just that bled over to the Philadelphia area, but one hour away in Bethlehem and Allentown.”
The past two seasons, the Union’s third kit was a black strip, paying tribute to the club as they wore it throughout their run to the 2014 U.S. Open Cup Final.
The Union donned their third kid in honor of Bethlehem Steel in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup Final.
“To this day, there is still Bethlehem Steel merchandise that gets sold on the streets and in the stores there,” continued Sakiewicz. “The history is long and so we just felt as being the modern era, it was our honor and obligation to lift that history so that this new generation of soccer fans will enjoy it. I think they have. If the jersey we did is any indication, they certainly have because we don’t have any left.”
Beyond just making a jersey, the club took another step to connect itself to one of American soccer’s historic hotbeds last month, announcing the launch of its own USL team to play at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The team’s name and colors will be determined via a fan vote, but there’s little doubt about what the popular choice might be.
“We looked at a bunch of markets, both inside our area as well as other markets outside of Pennsylvania. We just kept coming back to the Lehigh Valley because of the history, but also because of the demographics – it’s a market of almost one million people. It’s very young, with a lot of millennials and it’s vibrant and growing.
“More than anything, our driving motivation was to create a competitive environment for the players that are developing on that team. Part of learning to be a great pro is not having stage fright and if you’re playing in front of 100 people, that’s not a good environment. We want to pack that stadium, put a lot of people in that building and create a dynamic environment for those young players to play each and every home game.”
Looking to the more present future, Sakiewicz says he’s proud of what head coach Jim Curtin has accomplished in following through on the team’s goal to return to the U.S. Open Cup Final this year.
“He’s done a great job. He takes a lot of pride in the Open Cup as we all do,” said the Union CEO. “As an organization we believe in that tournament, we believe in that trophy and most importantly the reward for winning that trophy is significant with the berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Jim’s done a phenomenal job, particularly this year in getting back to the final after playing a man down in two games and going to penalties twice. I think he’s done a spectacular job managing through a number of different circumstances this year and we’re really proud of him and the guys.”
With four matches remaining in the MLS Regular Season, the Union face a tough mathematical road to the MLS Cup playoffs, making a win in Wednesday’s final a high note not just for this season, but in the club’s history.
“Lifting the U.S. Open Cup trophy would be amazing,” said Sakiewicz. “Any first trophy for any club is always the most important trophy. That would be significant, but to do it in our home ground, here in Philadelphia, would be the icing on the cake.”