That designation is an impossibly tall order, so I really have no idea whether this was the greatest or not. My purpose is just that I want to tell about a game that few people in 2011 are familiar with. It may or may not have been the greatest, but it was very good.
The game is the U.S. Open Cup final of 1960. The Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals met the Los Angeles Kickers in Philadelphia on May 29, 1960. The Uke Nats won, 5-3.
This game had a lot going for it. First, a significant occasion: Within the small community of American soccer fandom, the U.S. Open Cup was a much bigger deal than it is today. Second, the two leading teams of the era: Between them, they were to win the U.S. Open Cup six times. Third, outstanding players: Alex Ely of Philadelphia and Al Zerhusen of Los Angeles were among the leading stars of the U.S. national team. Fourth, drama: The game seesawed back and forth before finally being decided in the second overtime. And fifth, an individual hero: All five of the winning team’s goals were scored by the same man.
The game was played at Edison Field, a spot more often referred to as 29th & Cambria or 29th & Clearfield after nearby street corners. Located in North Philadelphia, it once was the home field for many significant Philadelphia teams. There were 5,500 spectators for what was the first of five appearances in the U.S. Open Cup final that the Ukrainian Nationals were eventually to make. Not all of the stars were on the field. Serving as an advisor to the home team was Jimmy Mills, who had coached Philadelphia teams to the American Soccer League championship six times.
Zerhusen started the scoring 15 minutes into the game, putting the Los Angeles team in front with a header. Mike Noha, who played inside right for the Ukrainian Nationals and had emigrated from Argentina the year before, evened the score five minutes later, dribbling past four defenders and scoring from eight yards out. Before halftime, Werner Staacke had made it 2-1 for the Kickers when he scored on a penalty and Noha had equalized again, taking advantage after Los Angeles goalkeeper Victor Ottoboni fumbled the ball.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, a shot from outside the penalty area by Eberhardt Herz gave Los Angeles a 3-2 lead, but a handball in the area led to a penalty by Noha that tied the score once again. In the final minute of regulation time, a Philadelphia goal was called back for offside.
After 40 minutes of overtime, the first overtime period plus 10 minutes of the second, Noha finally put the Philadelphia team in front for the first time, taking a pass from Ely and shooting home from the edge of the penalty area. Six minutes later, he got the insurance goal.
The same two teams met in the cup final again four years later, and again it was a marathon affair. Even longer, actually. The final was tied, 2-2, after 90 minutes of regulation and 90 minutes of overtime. Los Angeles won the replay, 2-0. To settle two games, the two teams played a total of 420 minutes of soccer, 150 in 1960 and 270 in 1964.
A version of this article first appeared at Roger’s Big Soccer blog on March 15, 2011.