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The Rise and Fall of the Bethlehem Steel Football Club
- Updated: February 27, 2013
Despite its relatively short existence; the team only played from 1911 to 1930, the Bethlehem Steel Football Club has gone down as one of the most storied teams in US Soccer history. With the Philadelphia Union’s recent revival of the team’s colors and old badge in way of their 2013 third kit, it seemed only appropriate to take a look back at the brief, yet rich tale of the Bethlehem Steel Football Club.
In 1907, Bethlehem FC played their first ever match on November 17th, suffering a rather large loss to one of the top pro teams in the country at the time, West Hudson A.A. Despite the 11-2 loss, Bethlehem’s popularity continued to grow since the sport of soccer was such a hit in the small city. In 1913, the Bethlehem Steel Company built the Bethlehem Steel Athletic Field, which technically was the first soccer specific stadium in the United States. With a new field that had stadium seating, all it needed was a tenant. The choice was obvious and in 1914, Charles Schwab (not that Charles Schwab), owner of the Bethlehem Steel Company, took the team professional, re-branding them in the process with the team name Bethlehem Steel F.C.
At this point in Schwab’s life, the Steel Company had made him an extremely wealthy man (he would eventually die with over $300,00 in debt), so he used his financial power to bring over some of the top players at the time to the club. On top of these player signings, Schwab also imported players from Scotland and England. If there was such a thing as a powerhouse team at that time, BSFC certainly was one. With the new ownership and a stacked team, Bethlehem would make the move to the American Soccer League of Philadelphia after a combined three championships in both the AAFBA and the ALAFC. The club would only stay in the ALP for one season, and after taking a year off from proffesional play in 1917, joined the National Association Foot Ball League where they would find success yet again. While there, Bethlehem would win three consecutive championships from 1919 to 1921. Unfortunately, despite the strength and popularity of the team, Bethlehem F.C. was disbanded due to financial loss and was moved to Philadelphia where they played as the Philadelphia Field Club in the newly formed American Soccer League.
With virtually the same team under a different name, it came as no surprise that they won the first ever ASL championship. Still, the team was lacking both a fan base and funding. Being based out of Philadelphia was proving to be cost prohibitive, so Schwab and the ownership moved the team back to Bethlehem, once again using the BSFC monicker. Despite one more championship in the ASL, this was where it all started to go downhill for the storied club. After Bethlehem refused to join an ASL boycott of the US Open Cup, then known as the National Challenge Cup, they were thrown out. Despite the fact that Bethlehem did partake in a similar boycott of the Challenge Cup in 1925 with the ASL, it seems to make sense as to why they ignored to do so the second time. The US Open Cup is a big reason why people still remember Bethlehem Steel F.C. Along with Maccabi Los Angeles tied at five, BSFC are the winningest team in US Open Cup history. With all five of those wins coming before both boycotts, why participate in cursing something that had been so successful for you?
Unfortunately, not choosing to boycott may have accelerated Bethlehem’s demise. With BSFC joining the Eastern Soccer League with two other banished ASL sides under the USFA flag, the Soccer Wars began, the Great Depression hit and Bethlehem FC eventually folded in 1930. Before the fold, BSFC would go on to win two more championships in the ESL, before re-joining the ASL in their final season of play. In all, Bethlehem F.C. won nine league championships, five US Open Cups and six American Cups.
It comes as no great surprise despite some opinions to the contrary that the Union have chosen to resurrect the spirit of old Bethlehem Steel F.C. by placing their colors and badges on this years third kit. Even if it is just a one off, the execution of the idea is fantastic. Some may say going the Philadelphia Atoms route may have made more sense, but just look above at the history this team made in just 19 years. You be the judge. Either way, for at least two more years, Bethlehem Steel F.C. lives once more…