When what’s now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup kicked off on Saturday, November 1, 1913, there were few indications it would go on to become the most enduring team sporting competition in the country.
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The Philadelphia Enquirer treated the opener as just another game. “Disston No Match for Bethlehem” headlined the lopsided 7-0 victory that sent Bethlehem FC into the Second Round of the tournament. The story, on the fourth page of Sports, was placed below “Hibernians Easily Beat Wissinoning,” “Penalty Goal Beats Boys’ Club,” and several other game stories/standings of the Allied American FA First, Second and Third divisions, plus the American Cup, Northeast Soccer League, Pennsylvania League, Philadelphia Junior League, United League and assorted exhibition matches.
(Bethlehem Steel went on to become a feared name in American soccer - here in 1930)
Soccer activity on that day stretched from Bethlehem, 60 miles north of Philadelphia, to several miles south of the City of Brotherly Love. “Phila. Electrics Hand One Over On The Hibernians,” was datelined Chester, Pa. – where, nearly 105 years later, a U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal will be contested as the Philadelphia Union play host to Orlando City SC in the Quarterfinals of the 2018 edition of the competition. The Electrics, an amateur team, would go on to win the 1913-14 American League of Association Football Clubs title with a 14-0-0 record (61-3 goal differential), according to The Year in American Soccer – 1914.
Early Open Cup Hiccups
Crowded schedules (plus Blue Laws prohibiting Sunday competitions) complicated the start of the U.S. Open Cup. Seven Philadelphia-area teams entered the initial U.S. Open Cup – then called the National Challenge Cup – second only to New York City (14 teams) in participation. New York and Philadelphia provided more than half the entries (287 clubs were invited, 40 accepted) in the initial installment of the tournament. Competition began on schedule in Pennsylvania, with the exception of Tacony FC forfeiting against Kensington FC, choosing instead to play against Trenton Hibernians in an American Cup match.
“There is something radically wrong in the arrangements when a team is scheduled to play two important cup games in one afternoon,” the Philadelphia Inquirer noted.
The plethora of games likely sharpened the competitive edge of the Philadelphia teams, but might have worked against them as they shoehorned dates for the initial U.S. Open Cup. The Allied League alone included 35 teams playing in three divisions – how the divisions were determined is not known, according to National Soccer Hall of Fame historian Roger Allaway. Philadelphia was likely surpassed only by New York for number of soccer clubs in the U.S.
(Bethlehem Steel won the Open Cup five times in their history)
“Philadelphia back then, and for many years afterwards, was a very heavily industrial city,” Allaway said. “All sorts of factories sponsored teams.”
Bethlehem FC got off to a strong start in the Cup, a sign that the Steelworkers could become the tournament’s first dominant team. Disston AA, which had been considered Philadelphia’s best team in the early part of the century, were truly no match for Bethlehem in 1913. Bethlehem’s Tommy Fleming, a future Hall of Famer, opened the scoring against Disston with a 16th-minute penalty kick, which might have been the first goal in U.S. Open Cup history. One other game was played on opening day – November 1, 1913 – the New Bedford Whalers upsetting Farr Alpaca, 3-1, in New Bedford, Mass. No times have been listed for kickoffs, and the times of the goals are missing in the New Bedford-Fall Alpaca game.
Fleming displayed a deadly left foot, converting 34 of 35 penalty kicks from 1912-16. He grew up in Scotland, moving to Quincy, Mass., where he played for Fore River Shipyard starting at age 17 in 1907. Bethlehem Steel Works took over the Fore River Shipyard in 1913, and Fleming’s name first appeared in the Bethlehem lineup during the 1912-13 season. Fleming, who returned to Scotland to play for Morton before his Bethlehem stint, is described as having a “cannon ball … shot,” by the South Bethlehem Globe.
After Fleming converted a penalty kick, 30-yard free kick, and the decider after a 40-yard run in a 3-2 extra-time win over Braddock in a Second Round U.S. Open Cup match at Forbes Field, the December 12, 1913 edition of the Pittsburgh Post noted: “The star of the contest was Fleming, without whom the visitors would have been a beaten lot.”
Bethlehem Steel Dominance
In the 1913-14 season, Bethlehem won the Allied American league (13-0-0, 68-8 goal differential), Allied Amateur Cup, plus the American Cup. The numbers alone indicate Bethlehem’s dominance. But the team was facing a potential turning point as they prepared for a Third Round Open Cup match at Brooklyn Field Club, according to the South Bethlehem Globe’s Tuesday, January 20, 1914 editions. The Steelworkers had played to a 1-1 draw with West Hudson in an American Cup semifinal at Harrison, N.J., on January 12, 1914. They were in second place, a point behind West Philadelphia FC (but with three games in hand) in the Allied League.
“The team will go into strict training this week, starting today. All the members and Committee will report at the Lehigh Gymnasium tonight at 7:45 p.m. and this training will be continued until Friday evening. All of the players with the exception of Galbraith came out of Saturday’s game without injury and all are confident that they will be able to hold their own against the All Star Brooklyn team next Sunday.” (South Bethlehem Globe)
(Then & now - MLS's Philadelphia Union twice reached the Open Cup Final and are en route for a third)
But Brooklyn FC – led by former Disston AA star Robert Millar – took a 1-0 win over Bethlehem on January 25, 1914, going on to win the first U.S. Open Cup title. That would be Bethlehem’s only loss in the U.S. Open Cup until the 1917 Final.
Meanwhile, Peabody FC and West Philadelphia also advanced to the Third Round. Only Peabody, an amateur team and the least likely of the surviving Philly teams, moved on.
West Philadelphia surrendered home field to New Bedford for “a consideration” and was eliminated by a 2-0 score on January 24, 1914. Peabody, which would finish in seventh place (3W-10L-1D, 7 points) in the Allied American League, gained a forfeit win over St. George’s on January 31, 1914. Peabody then lost, 4-1, at New Bedford in the quarterfinals on March 21, 1914.
“Fall River and New Bedford could not compete with Philadelphia for number of teams but they could for quality of the best teams,” Allaway said.
Philly Roots go National
The U.S. Foot Ball Association (a forerunner of today’s U.S. Soccer Federation), strongly influenced by Philadelphians, whose organizational skills were honed in setting up the city’s multiple leagues, made the U.S. Open Cup a priority soon after affiliating with FIFA in 1913. The USSF invited all members to enter the cup, the initial competition including teams from Chicago and Detroit, while the American Cup limited entrants to the Northeast. Within a decade, the U.S. Open Cup would supersede the American Cup, which concluded after the 1924 competition.
(Trophies were the name of the game for the old Beth Steel)
Bethlehem, with Fleming, Millar and other Hall of Famers in the lineup, won the U.S. Open Cup in 1915 and ’16, lost in the Final to the Fall River Rovers in 1917, and won again in 1918, ’19 and ‘26. Two other Pennsylvania teams have won the Open Cup – the Philadelphia German Americans (1936) and the Ukrainian Nationals (1960, ’61, ’63 and ’66).
The Union became the first Philly area team to reach the Open Cup finals since the 1966 Uke Nats, falling to the Seattle Sounders (2014) and Sporting Kansas City (2015). If the Union can advance to the Semifinals for the fourth time in seven years, Philadelphia will not be viewing this as just another game, but rather the latest in a long line of proud moments in America's oldest soccer competition and its longest continually running sporting event.