They close their eyes to remember those old days better. To bring back images of Edison Field, near the corner of 29th and Clearfield, south of Allegheny Avenue. These old men wait for those pictures, from over a half-century ago, to sharpen in their memory like ships on a foggy horizon. There’s the old clubhouse on North Broad Street. There’s game day too, when men in suits, hats and raincoats took their wives out to cheer on their favorite Philadelphia sports team. It wasn’t the Phillies or the Eagles or the 76ers. No, sir. It was Tryzub they went to see, the Ukrainian Nationals, Philadelphia Ukrainians or simply the Ukes [yoo-kees] – America’s best soccer team during the 1960s.
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“We beat everybody back then,” snapped Alexandre Alex Ely, his eyes still mischievous at 80 years old. He speaks in a gravelly voice and wears the fleece jacket he was given upon his induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1997. “I’ve lost track of how many trophies we won in those years. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but we had the best soccer team in the country for a good few years.”
(The Dewar Cup - the original U.S. Open Cup - on one of its four trips to Edison Field in Philly)
Ely was born on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the son of a German father who emigrated after nearly dying in the poison trenches of World War I. Young Alex learned the game of soccer, futebol, playing barefoot in the crowded street games around Mogi das Cruzes. He learned to fight in those games too. He was 12 years old the first time he wore a pair of proper soccer cleats, and the lessons he learned early were a mish-mash of the fabled jogo bonito of Brazilian lore and the blood-and-thunder of its reality. Those lessons served him well after his arrival in the U.S., on his own and still a teenager, in 1959.
Rough Stuff in the Old ASL
“There’s nothing romantic about playing soccer, especially in those days,” said Ely with a rough laugh, remembering the broken collarbones and shattered ankles that kept him out of the Ukrainian Nationals starting XI (those were the only things that kept him out). “It was very dangerous playing in those days because the referees weren’t always the best and a lot of bad things happened if you didn’t watch out for yourself. Guys would go after you hard. But there was something inside me that never let me give up and we always seemed to win.” Ivan John Borodiak, who came to the club from Argentina’s San Lorenzo, remembers it the same way: “The game was really rough back then and it was a lot more difficult to show your finesse because there was always someone looking to kick you. It was hard to play soccer the right way, but we did.”
(The Ukrainians rest before a training session in 1966)
Winning became a habit in those old Ukrainian Nationals teams of the 1960s. They won four Open Cups, six American Soccer League (ASL) titles and two Lewis Cups (The ASL’s league Cup). When they first won the U.S. Open Cup – then known as the National Challenge Cup or simply the National Championship – Argentinian striker Mike Noha scored five goals in a single game against the Los Angeles Kickers in Philly. The men from California were loaded with talent and boasted the renowned Al Zerhusen, U.S. National Team midfielder and Olympian. The Final, played in front of nearly 6,000 fans, finished 3-3 in regular time and 5-3 after extra-time. “Noha was pretty good,” begrudged his old teammate Ely. “A fantastic finisher really, and I remember I set up one of his goals that day in the final against the Kickers. I was always setting up goals for him.”
What Ely remembers best is the way the Ukrainians played the game. “I was kind of a tough nut in middle-field, but I liked to be the playmaker, to deliver the goals to my teammates,” said the man who went on to star for the U.S. National Team before returning to Brazil in 1965 to play for Santos, where he lined up beside Pele on a few occasions. “We liked to keep the ball and move it around the field, which was crazy then. The game just wasn’t played that way here. Most teams had the ball up in the air all the time.”
Borodiak, now 78, was a cultured fullback and another club legend who played from 1963 to 1966. He remembers the Ukes’ approach the same way. “The idea was to be a group that connected to each other really well,” said the defender, who later went on to play in the early days of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) with the Baltimore Bays and Cleveland Stokers before going into business making porcelain bridges for the dental industry. “No one was supposed to be involved with the ball too long. That’s what made the big difference for us as a team. In this country, we were able to stand above our opponents by keeping and moving the ball around the field.”
(The Ukes v. Pompei of Baltimore at Edison Field)
That possession game also helped the Ukes when big-name teams from abroad came over for friendlies, which they often did. Manchester United, Wolves, Eintracht Frankfurt, VFB Stuttgart, Austria Vienna, Man City and Dundee were just a few of the foreign teams to take on the Ukrainian Nationals through those glory years. Silken banners still hang in the barroom of the club headquarters – now a 45-minute drive north of the city in Horsham, Pa. where once there were only cornfields as far as the eye could see. The banners blush in the shadows with the tarnished trophies, perched up in the rafters over the bar taps.
“We used to get two, three thousand people to just regular league games,” said Bogdan Siryj, the former club president. He was only a young boy back in the 60s and he watched his favorite players, like Ely, Borodiak and Noha, up close at Edison Field. “The enthusiasm was just incredible and these guys were my heroes. We used to carry [Mike] Noha around the field on our shoulders.”
It’s hard for Siryj – hard for all of the old Ukrainians – not to get choked up when they recall the old days. He remembers the Open Cup Final in 1964 that required 90 minutes of extra-time after 90 minutes of regular time. “I think it was one of the longest games ever played,” recalled Ely with a shake of his head. There was the ‘Noha’ Final in 1960 and the ‘double’ years of 1961 and 1963 – in all there were four Open Cup titles won in the space of six years (1960-1966). The Ukes became the first soccer team in American history to have their home games televised. And the players, Siryj can rattle their names off like an auctioneer – “Ely, Noha, the Lunas and Oscar Mendez. And there was Ismaiel Fereyra, Walter Tarnawsy and Walt Chyzowych.”
(Members of the team board a plane for El Salvador and the 1967 CONCACAF Champions Cup)
“So many people used to talk about our games and the players,” remembered George Litynsky, a goalkeeper who was scouted in his native Argentina by Noha, who made regular trips back home after each season in search of talent for the club. “There was a bar and people used to show up there and hang around and talk about us. There was so much excitement around the club. And for me, when I came, I had almost no English, but these people around me were like a family. It was special.”
Litynsky came late in the wave of Ukes’ dominance, but he remembers the 1966 Open Cup Final. He was back-up that day to Tarnawsky, born in the former USSR and once an Argentinian international and pro with Newell’s Old Boys. “It was an exciting day and we had close to 4,000 fans here,” said Litynsky who went on to have a career in architecture. “We had beaten them [Orange County FC] 1-0 in California and then we beat them 3-0 in Philly in the return leg, and I can still remember how much enthusiasm there was at the field and how the fans ran on the pitch after the final whistle.”
Work and Play – a Tough Balance
It wasn’t always easy. In those days, the best soccer team in America was still semipro at best. “The money wasn’t good,” Litynsky laughed. “I was getting 40 dollars a game, Some of the superstars like Tarnawksy and Borodiak, maybe they got 60 dollars a game. But it wasn’t like it is today with contracts for millions of dollars. We all used to play and we all used to work.” Ely, who went to night school and became a coach and teacher after his return from Brazil, recalls the hardships too: “The money we got was mostly for expenses and you had to work. It wasn’t like in Brazil where if you were a big star in a big team, you’d have it made.”
(The Ukrainian Nationals - Ely is third from left in the top row and Borodiak - same row - is third from right)
What the old Ukes remember best are the moments, still sharp in the mind’s eye, of winning. Of celebrating. Of being the best, of being young and surrounded by possibility. “It was something; the way people would come from far away, from Delaware and farther than that, to watch us play,” said Ely, fidgeting in his chair. Borodiak remembers those smiles after the final whistle, before the trophy came, when they’d done enough to win. “It’s most memorable when you become a champion,” he said in his halting accented English. “The leagues and the cups, when you look back, you remember those moments like they were yesterday.” For Litynsky, it’s simpler than that: “It felt like home.”
It was a long day for the old timers – these legends who dressed for the occasion in blue blazers, pressed shirts and hard shoes. They return to their wives and grown children who wait patiently, sipping drinks below the flock of trophies, like birds, in the rafters. They say their so-longs in the barroom where pictures of their younger selves, black-and-white and ropy with muscle, hang on the walls around them. When they head outside into a foggy summer night, they watch for a minute as the kids – in the same Ukrainian Nationals’ red and black they used to wear – play under the glow of floodlights.