After an offseason of labor strife and uncertainty, MLS Year No. 15 will kick off, on schedule, tomorrow night in front of a packed house at Qwest Field in Seattle. Last season’s expansion sensation, Sounders FC, will host this year’s new team—and the league’s 16th—Philadelphia Union.
Like Seattle, which had a team in the North American Soccer League (NASL) back in the day, Philadelphia enters the league with a solid soccer history behind it. In fact, soccer’s roots in Philly go just about as deep as they do anywhere in the U.S. Here’s a quick look:
Arguably the first professional team in U.S. soccer history, and definitely one of the most successful, Bethlehem Steel FC was founded in 1907 in Bethlehem, PA, just 60 miles north of Philadelphia. The club was originally formed to boost morale among the steel company’s workers, but in 1914, the corporation’s owner, Charles Schwab, began using it as a marketing tool, pouring money into the club and luring top players from Britain.
The Steel went on to appear in five straight U.S. Challenge Cup finals (U.S. Open Cup precursor) from 1915 to ’19, winning four. In 1919, Bethlehem went on a tour of Scandinavia, losing just two of 14 games.
Schwab, however, would not have approved of the name of the current team from eastern Pennsylvania—he was known as a ruthless union-buster.
Formed in 1936 (as the Philadelphia Passon) the Nationals were a middling American Soccer League (ASL) team until the late 1940s, when their most famous player, Walter Bahr, returned from the 1948 Olympics and led the team to three straight ASL titles. Bahr was a member of the 1950 U.S. team that shocked England 1-0 in the World Cup.
The Union team that debuts tomorrow night will hope to follow in the footsteps of their NASL ancestors the Atoms, who won the league in 1973, their very first year of existence. And they did it with a roster dominated by U.S.-born (and Philly-bred) players, in front of Veterans Stadium crowds as large as 20,000, when the league average was hovering around 5,000.
The Atoms’ keeper, local boy Bob Rigby, became the first soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Walter Bahr’s son, Chris Bahr, joined the team in 1975, winning the Rookie of the Year award after scoring 11 goals.
Other notable Atoms players included defender Bobby Smith, who would later play with Pelé and the Cosmos, and future U.S. national team coach Manny Schellscheidt.
College, Youth Clubs
The region has a long tradition of quality college programs, from 1970s NCAA power Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University) to Penn and Lehigh, and it’s home to famous youth club FC Delco as well as U.S. stars such as Ben Olsen, Chris Albright and Bobby Convey, among others.
Philadelphia Union will have that history behind it when it takes the field in 2010, along with a raucous supporters group, the Sons of Ben, which was formed in 2007 with the goal of bringing an MLS franchise to Philly, and currently boasts 5,200 members.
The team they’ll cheer on tomorrow night looks to be a defense-first outfit as coach Peter Nowak has built his squad from the back, bringing in experienced defenders Danny Califf, Shavar Thomas, Jordan Harvey and Michael Orozco to play in front of probable starting goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Costa Rican David Myrie will also figure in to the backline.
We like what Nowak did in the expansion draft, picking up former Seattle midfielder Sebastien LeToux, speedy winger Shea Salinas from San Jose, and holding midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi from the Galaxy. For offensive flair, Nowak will look to ex-D.C. United attacking midfielder Fred, the Mononymous One, whom the Union acquired in a draft-day trade.
Goals could also come from experienced striker Alejandro Moreno—a three-time MLS Cup winner, with L.A., Houston, and Columbus—and intriguing rookie prospect Danny Mwanga, the 18-year-old No. 1 overall draft pick.
They’ll take on a Seattle team fresh off a superb debut season in which it made the playoffs and won the U.S. Open Cup.
Sounders FC will suit up Kasey Keller in goal, midfielders Steve Zakuani (a rookie of the year candidate in ’09) and Brad Evans (who earned thee caps for the U.S. in 2009) and dangerous strikers Fredy Montero and Freddie Ljunberg.
Enjoy the game—it’s on ESPN2 at 9:30, in hi-def so clear you will be able to distinguish Seattle’s green uniforms against the identical green of the Qwest Field pitch.