Over the last 40 years, there have been 58 crowds of more than 50,000 for soccer games in the New York City area. The fact that every one of those has been on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River is part of the reason why until just a few years ago, the record soccer crowd in New York City itself was for a game that was played almost 90 years ago.
That record was set on May 1, 1926, when a crowd of 46,000 attended a game at the Polo Grounds in New York between Hakoah, an Austrian first-division team, and the “New York Stars,” who were a combined team of two American Soccer League clubs from New York, the New York Giants and Indiana Flooring.
The fact that Hakoah was an all-Jewish team and New York has a large Jewish population was an obvious factor in drawing the large attendance. This was only the first of several big crowds in New York for soccer games involving Jewish teams. A year later (to the day), Hakoah played the New York Giants in front of 40,000 at the Polo Grounds. In 1947, Hapoel of Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, played a New York all-star team in front of 43,177 at Yankee Stadium. In 1956, the Israeli Olympic team played an American Soccer League all-star team in front of 42,455 at Yankee Stadium. Fifty years ago, those were the four largest soccer crowds ever in the United States.
Hakoah didn’t do too well on the field on May 1, 1926. The New York team, which included six future Hall of Famers, won, 3-0. However, that was the only loss on a seven-game tour for Hakoah, which was founded in 1901 and had won the Austrian first-division championship in 1925. The Austrians finished their six-week tour of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island with a record of four wins, one loss and two ties. Two of the victories had come against Brooklyn Wanderers, an ASL team owned and managed by Nat Agar, one of the four main organizers of the tour (the other organizers were Abe Tuvim, Nathan Strauss and New York Giants owner Maurice Vandeweghe).
A year later, Hakoah came back for another American tour, which is a bit surprising considering that the first one had cost it eight of its best players, who stayed in America after the 1926 tour, having decided that anti-Semitism wasn’t as bad here as it was in Austria. When Hakoah played the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on May 1, 1927, the New York team’s lineup included three players, Erno Schwarz, Moritz Haeusler and Bela Guttman, who had been members of the Hakoah team a year before. The 1927 tour wasn’t quite as successful, as the six American games produced two wins, one loss and three ties for Hakoah. However, it did include one game that stands as sort of a landmark in American soccer. On June 8, 1927 at the Polo Grounds, Hakoah played a 0-0 tie with a combined New York Giants/Bethlehem Steel team that was the first pro soccer game played at night under lights in the United States.
Schwarz and Guttman were probably the most successful of the Hakoah players who stayed in America. Schwarz later became the dominant figure in the American Soccer League, owning the New York Americans team and functioning as the league’s business manager for much of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Guttman gained his greatest fame after eventually returning to Europe, where he was manager of the great Benfica teams in Portugal in the 1960s.
Some of the former Hakoah players who stayed in America formed a team (called Hakoah, of course), that won the U.S. Open Cup in 1929. The fact that some of them had jumped their Austrian contracts to stay in America resulted in an Austrian protest to FIFA that may have helped to precipitate the 1928-29 administrative battle between the ASL and the U.S. Football Association that was known as the Soccer War.
The Hakoah tours had effects on American soccer in a variety of ways.
A version of this article was originally posted on the BigSoccer.com website in March 2011