Vereinigung Erzgebirge is all about history.
After entering the 68-acre property at 130 Davisville Road in Warminster, Pennsylvania, in suburban Philadelphia, you travel down a quarter-mile path toward the club’s headquarters. You’ll pass a forest, including three trees that original members planted when the organization was established as a social club in 1931. If you’re lucky, you might even see some deer grazing.
"It's pretty impressive," said Rob Oldfield, the club’s director of coaching and first-team coach.
You finally arrive at the clubhouse, complete with a banquet facility (for weddings and parties), and a beer garden that’s the focal point for the club's annual Oktoberfest celebrations. There’s a swimming pool nearby and several soccer fields -- all part of a club that arrived in the U.S. 93 years ago.
In 2002 Vereinigung Erzgebirge made history in the Open Cup, qualifying to the Tournament Proper for the first time. And now, after an over 20-year wait, the club is shaping to get back there. A recent win over 1977 Open Cup Runners-up United German Hungarians, amid the lush greenery of the club’s homebase, saw VE through to the Fourth and Final Qualifying Round of the 2024 edition.
Then to Now
What does Vereinigung Erzgebirge mean, you ask? Again, we need a little history lesson. The original members of the club come from Erzgebirge, a wooded region in Germany’s east where a low range of mountains of the same name rise over the Czech border. Vereinigung means union.
The organization's official logo, three pine trees on three hills, was taken from the town of Thalheim Erzgebirge, where many of the club founders were born. Needless to say, Vereinigung Erzgebirge is a mouthful to pronounce for many mere mortals, unless you’ve grown up with it. It’s the reason many fans simply refer to the club as VE.
"It's not that bad," Oldfield said with a laugh. "If you get one of the old German guys, they have a little more flair and accent on it."
"It was almost like going to the Poconos or up to the mountains at the time," club vice president Steve Feuchter said. "It was like a big social thing and it started growing and growing from that."
A Piece of the Wall
VE has a unique affinity with the Berlin Wall too.
Many club members still had family and friends in the old East Germany in the years before it came down – heralding the end of the Cold War.
"In the early 1980s the East German government would let people leave to visit the [United] States and it would usually be the older people who came," Feuchter said. "It was pretty eye-opening for them to come over here and see the big difference between East and West.
"When the Wall came down in 1989, we had a large celebration here," Feuchter added, remembering that the club wound up on local TV news in Pennsylvania.Lufthansa Airlines had a 12’ by 8’ piece of the wall and couldn't find anyone to take it. So the company offered it to VE. And that’s how the club came to be the caretakers of the huge concrete slab in the garden just outside the clubhouse that is the largest piece of the Berlin Wall in North America.
"We have a remembrance every year," Feuchter said. "I don't know where exactly in Berlin it came from. People come by all the time and take photographs. It’s a pretty important historical piece and a lot of the people who lived through that time recall the hardships they had in the East."
Feuchter himself is the son of a German immigrant who joined the club and wound up playing soccer, which has become a focal point of the organization in the early 21st century.
There were 11 teams back in the Seventies. Today VE boasts two dozen.
In the early 1930s, the team played Saxonia SC of Paterson, N.J. in its first game before joining the North Philadelphia League. Slowly but surely the club’s reputation grew and the first teamers were soon earning hardware for the trophy cases. American soccer legends Walter Bahr and Alex Ely, both members of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, played for VE in the early 1960s.
Golden Age of Modern Era
If there’s a golden age of modern VE soccer, it probably would have been the late 1990s through to the early years of the current century. They won Eastern Pennsylvania titles in the Amateur Cup and the Werner Fricker Open Cup, among other trophies. The team reached the 1997 National Amateur Cup Final Four in Portland too.
It all culminated in that 2002 appearance in the Open Cup.
With Oldfield, a player-coach on that 1997 Final Four team, in charge of the side in 2002, VE dropped a 4-0 decision to the South Jersey Barons in the First Round.
Feuchter called Oldfield, who went on to oversee all coaching at VE: "the face of the sports program at the club.
"He [Oldfield] has done a tremendous job elevating a unique culture where the players are all welcome," Feuchter added. "For him to be doing this for over 20 years is amazing because we've had a lot of coaches. And it's a lot of work.”
Besides boasting quality teams with opportunities to play in elite amateur competitions, Oldfield has another recruiting weapon: the club grounds.
A Tour With Impact
"If they're not familiar with the club, I try to get them to see exactly what we're talking about because it's a different thing when you pull down that driveway and we walk you around the grounds and the deer are running by," said the coach, who manages, every year, to recruit many of the area’s top amateur players.
"We take you down to the bar and show you a couple of old-timer pictures and here's where we'll be grabbing beers after the game,” he added. “There's always somebody you haven't met before who wants to meet you."
Oldfield still has vivid memories of losing in the First Round of the club’s only trip to the Open Cup. He knows the value of an opportunity – and how rare they are.
"You've got to make the most of things because you might not be back," said the coach, who felt the sting of disappointment in 2022 when VE reached the Tournament Proper only for the Covid-19 pandemic to see the tournament canceled. Disappointment struck again last year when the team was eliminated in the Third Qualifying Round by regional powers West Chester United.
VE tops UGH in PKs to advance in U.S. Open Cup Qualifying https://t.co/jGbH6GdHDe— 𝖁𝖊𝖗𝖊𝖎𝖓. 𝕰𝖗𝖟𝖌𝖊𝖇𝖎𝖗𝖌𝖊 (@VEClub) October 24, 2023
Next up, in the fourth game of the 2024 Qualifying Rounds, is a home test for VE against an impressive New Jersey Alliance FC who routed the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals 6-0 last time out (also on the road).
Just getting to the Open Cup Tournament Proper would be a huge accomplishment for VE – now just one win away from pulling off that feat.
“It's the one competition that we enter that we know we're not going to win,” admitted Oldfield, hoping for more output from the likes of former Monmouth University striker Alex Hajj and St Francis University's Kevin Smolyn in the next round. “The chances of actually going through everybody and winning it is astronomical, but it's that experience. There's so much press. All the local outlets pick it up.
“Who doesn't want to see their name drawn up against the [local MLS side] Philadelphia Union,” Oldfield added with a smile, channeling the underdog ethos of the Open Cup. “Something like that would be amazing.”Michael Lewis can be reached at email@example.com and @Soccerwriter on Twitter. His book (ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers) is available for purchase.