Now that the Philadelphia Union’s third kit has officially been unveiled, I want to take a moment to answer a question many of you might be asking yourself.
Why Bethlehem Steel?
History is the foundation of the present
The guiding design concept behind the the new kit is that the Union’s existence is built upon a foundation that, in addition to the fans, includes the Philadelphia area’s rich soccer history.
It wasn’t very long after the formalization of the rules of the game in 1863 before expats and others were playing soccer in and around Philadelphia. Neighborhood athletic associations and ethnic clubs, Philadelphia’s cricket clubs, students—are all examples of those who played the game before the city’s first formal league, the Pennsylvania Football Union, was organized in 1889. Incidentally, two of the founding teams of the PFU were the Chester Volunteers and the Eddystones so the Union’s roots in the foundation of Philadelphia soccer history can be said to involve not just their name but also the area around PPL Park.
But why Bethlehem Steel and not teams like the ASL champion Philadelphia Nationals or Philadelphia Americans? Why not the Ukrainian Nationals, who dominated in the ASL and in US Open Cup play during the first half of the 1960s? Why not the Philadelphia Atoms? This year marks the 40th anniversary of their NASL championship inaugural season and they even wore adidas kits in 1973.
Why Bethlehem Steel, a team that is 69 miles from Philadelphia?
The answer is quite simple: Bethlehem Steel FC’s history, just like the teams mentioned above and many more, is a part of Philadelphia’s soccer history.
Bethlehem Steel FC is part of Philadelphia’s soccer history
In August of 1911, Bethlehem joined the newly formed Eastern Pennsylvania League, composed of teams from Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lansford and Summit Hill. After trotting undefeated through that first season Bethlehem FC naturally looked to Philadelphia greater challenges.
As early as 1908, Bethlehem FC was playing exhibition games against teams from the Philadelphia League. In February of 1912, the club joined Philadelphia’s Allied Amateur Football Association in order to participate in the association’s annual Allied Amateur Cup tournament, which that year kicked off in March, just as the Union’s season does. Bethlehem made it to the tournament final only to lose 3–1 to Upper Darby’s Cardington FC.
In August of 1912, the team joined the first division of Philadelphia’s newly formed Allied American Football Association. While with the AAFA, Bethlehem would win the league championship two consecutive seasons as well as the city’s Allied Cup tournament and the first of six American Cup championships.
Bethlehem moved to Philadelphia’s American League of Association Football Clubs for the 1914-15 season. With a team made up of what the 1915 Spalding Guide described as “practically the cream of Philadelphia soccer players,” Bethlehem won the league championship that season and their first US Open Cup, then known as the National Challenge Cup.
For the 1915-16 season, Bethlehem joined the American League of Philadelphia. While they finished second in league play, that season they became the first club to win the American Cup and the US Open Cup in the same year.
In other words, Bethlehem’s emergence as a legend of American soccer begins with the club joining Philadelphia-based leagues. From the AAFA cup tournament in the spring of 1912 through the spring of 1916 in the ALP, Bethlehem won three Philadelphia-based league championships, finishing second the only season they were not champions, and one Allied Amateur Cup. During that time they also won two of their six American Cup titles and two of their five US Open Cup titles. By the time Bethlehem withdrew from league play for the 1916-17 season to focus on cup tournament play and exhibition games, their legend was firmly established, locally and across the country.
When Bethlehem joined the semi-professional National Association Football League for the first of four seasons in 1917—where in addition to winning three consecutive league championships after finishing in second place that first season the club also claimed both the American Cup and US Open Cup championship’s two more times—they were joined by another storied Philadelphia team, Disston. Before becoming Disston ahead of the 1914-15 season—the same season Bethlehem FC became Bethlehem Steel FC—the team had won the 1910 American Cup playing as Tacony FC, Tacony being the de facto company town of the Disston Saw Works. Bethlehem had defeated Tacony for its first American Cup title in 1914, handing the Sawmakers their second American Cup final loss in a row.
Bethlehem as Philadelphia FC
When the American Soccer League began in 1921, the league wanted a team to be based in Philadelphia. Bethlehem Steel became that team, playing as the Philadelphia Field Club for the 1921-22 season. They won the inaugural ASL championship before returning to Bethlehem the next season. Following their season in the ASL as Philadelphia FC and until the club’s demise in 1930, Bethlehem would record four second place finishes in the ASL, one ASL championship, two Eastern Soccer League championships, one Lewis Cup championship, one American Cup championship, and one US Open Cup championship.
Who and why
Who were Bethlehem Steel? One of the most successful teams in the history of soccer in the United States.
Why Bethlehem Steel? Because their history is part of the long history of soccer in the Philadelphia area.
Setting aside Bethlehem Steel’s accomplishments for a moment to give you another sense of that history, in the half century between 1923 and 1973, Philadelphia teams won one American Cup, five US Open Cups, five National Amateur Cups, and five McGuire Cups. In league play, there were 17 ASL championships and one NASL championship.
Then, as always, these champions played alongside teams who finished second, or third, or last, and whose only abiding reward may have been little more than the love of the game. As the living legacy of all these teams, the Union will continue their own chapter in that history when they open the season at PPL Park this Saturday at 4pm.
Whether the new third kit marks the beginning of a Union tradition of honoring Philadelphia’s soccer history through their jerseys remains to be seen, but I honor the club’s acknowledgement that its own emerging history rests on a foundation laid by those who preceded them in the long history of soccer in the Philadelphia area.
The Union have embraced Philadelphia’s soccer history and you should too—whether you have ever played the game, coached, reffed, volunteered, been the driver, or simply support the Union or one of the many past or present area teams— you are part of that history.
Which is to say that history also belongs to you.