Since the first in 1977, there have been xx crowds of more than 50,00 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 for many decades, the record soccer crowd in New York City itself was for a game that was played nearly 100 years ago.
On May 1, 1926, 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 at the Polo Grounds in front of 40,000. 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. Sixty 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 others 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 a number of its best players, who decided to stay in America after the 1926 tour. 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, Haeusler and Guttman were among nine players from the 1926 Hakoah team who stayed in America. One of them, Schwarz, later became the dominant figure in the American Soccer League, owning the New York Americans team and running the league 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 a few 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 few different ways.
A version of this article was originally posted on the BigSoccer.com website on March 6, 2011