As young players in the ’40s, we often watched the Philadelphia Americans and the Philadelphia Nationals—our local pro teams in the old American Soccer League. Eventually we trained with the pros as we moved up the soccer ladder. By the time we signed with the pros in the mid-’50s, Walter Bahr, Benny McLaughlin, Jack Hynes, and our heroes from our junior days were well-established stars. For Americans, Bahr and McLaughlin had no equals. We learned from both–Bahr with his end-to-end hustle, his ball control, his long accurate passes, his 40-yard throws, his take-charge leadership, and his powerful shots on goal. The smaller McLaughlin inspired us with his finesse, dribbling opponents one-on-one throughout the game–lithe, snaking through defenses, setting up other attackers with deadly through passes, a little guy taking on the biggest defenders, bouncing up from bruising tackles, and also possessing a devastating shot.
I joined the Philadelphia Uhrik Truckers, named after owner Tony Uhrik, a Philadelphia trucking magnate, in 1955. The “Truckers” had taken the old Philadelphia Americans franchise, and won back-to-back American Soccer League titles in 1955 and 1956. Jimmy Mills, the ageless Haverford University coach who passed away in 1990 at the age of 96, coached the Uhriks. I’ll always remember Jimmy’s Scottish accent booming out, “Give it a bit more ginger, lads.”
The ASL was semi-pro, the only recognized professional league in the U.S. at the time. Players were also in the old German-American League (GAL) in New York “under the table,” but the “pros” were in the ASL.
The “modern ASL,” formed in 1933 with exclusive rights from the USSF to operate professional soccer on the Eastern seaboard, by mid-1950 was on reasonably solid footing. The ASL had initiated its foreign tours in 1946, earning money from the games. Dominated by New York and Philadelphia teams, the ASL represented with the GAL, the peak of soccer in the eastern U.S. at the time. Ethnic teams like New York Hakoah, Brooklyn Hispano, Newark Portuguese, Newark Ukrainians, and Ludlow Luisitano competed along¬side American-grown talent from the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. In the mid-’50s, there was nowhere else to go to play top-level soccer in the U.S.–at least on the East coast. The other top amateur leagues in the country were the National Soccer League of Chicago, St. Louis Major League, and the Greater Los Angeles League. All of these except for the ASL and St. Louis League remain active to this day.
The ASL contributed to the growth of U.S. soccer by keeping the pro game alive until the upsurge in pro teams in the late ’60s, bringing foreign teams to play the ASL All-Stars and each other, and providing players for the U.S. National Teams. The ASL attracted hundreds of coaches, referees, administrators, and spectators who later would become the basis for the growth of pro soccer.
The Philadelphia pro teams often attracted several thousand spectators in this soccer-hungry town, whereas away games were often played before sparse crowds with little media attention in dusty ovals. For example, the Brooklyn Hispano played on a cinder field which served as a parking lot during the week, with the tire tracks often making the path of the ball unpredictable. Metropolitan Oval in New York’s Bronx was often our destination after a three-hour drive where we played rain or shine before several hundred standing and often hostile spectators. Being on the touch line, the fans could yell at both opposing players and officials indiscriminately. After these games, we often had to exit in a circle, fists at the ready, as fans tried to get at us, forgoing the single shower to jump in our cars for the long ride home. The referee disappeared equally as fast.
Whatever criticisms have been leveled at the ASL, thousands of youngsters had heroes to emulate and exciting soccer to watch. We could shoot for a pro spot after college, as some of us did, to continue our playing. We could watch world-class foreign teams, marveling at their skills and speed. It was the best soccer around for the period, and American-born players more than held their own. The ASL also kept pro soccer alive until the mid-’60s arrival of the new professional leagues–the United Soccer Association (1967), the National Professional Soccer League (1967), and then the North American Soccer League (1968).
A version of this article appeared at the Philly Soccer Page on January 7, 2013. The article is excerpted from a longer piece that appeared in 1992 in the Michigan Ethnic Heritage Studies Center‘s Journal of Ethno-Development originally entitled “American Soccer Didn’t Start with Pele: Philadelphia Soccer in the 1940s and 1950s.”