The Living Dead: Bethlehem Steel FC
The concept of zombies has fascinated humans for centuries. The idea that some sinister magical, scientific, or paranormal force could reanimate a previously deceased human is truly chilling, especially since zombies’ main desire is to bite and turn all living humans to their undead state. One of the earliest American tales of zombies lies in Voodoo folklore in Haitian and, subsequently, Louisiana Creole culture. They believed that a Voodoo priest could make a powder out of Porcupinefish (also known as a Blowfish) toxin and bring a person back to life under the priest’s control. They would appear the same to all casual onlookers, but they would not be able to speak and had lost their free will. Their new master would dictate anything they did. Bethlehem Steel FC is one such zombie.
Bethlehem Steel FC has a similar origin to many worldwide. The club began with a group of factory workers who had a common love of the sport and a need to blow off understandable steam after difficult days at the factory. By 1904, Bethlehem Steel Corporation had established itself as the primary shipbuilders and construction material provider in the entire country, with a few of its innovations leading to the age of the skyscraper in America’s metropolitan areas. The soccer team did not hit such lofty heights in their early history, however. The team started as a recreational side and after a few years, they decided to take their shot at playing in a more formal league setting. They originally played under the name Bethlehem Football Club and in their first official match, rather than dipping their toes in the water and playing another small, local side, BFC went big.
They called up the best team in the country at the time, West Hudson Athletic Association. The New Jersey-based club was fresh off a National Association Football League Championship. This league was semi-professional but its clubs would eventually form a large contingent of the more renowned and significant American Soccer League. West Hudson AA also had an American Cup (a contemporary of the National Challenge Cup which would become the US Open Cup) in its trophy cabinet at the time and would go on to win two more in the subsequent years. BFC took the field November 17, 1907 for the first time ever and were promptly demolished 11-2 by their far superior and far more experienced foes. This was not the start that BFC had in mind, but the club had its start nonetheless and it would press forward.
Bethlehem Football Club operated at an amateur level in the ensuing years, playing in local leagues and not making much noise at a national level. The club won the amateur Allied American Football Association (AAFBA) in 1912-13 and this title caught the eye of management at the company, who began to take a more active role in the running of the club. They built Bethlehem Steel Athletic Field in 1913, which is recognized as one of the first “full-seater” soccer stadiums in the United States. Charles M. Schwab, the owner of Bethlehem Steel Corporation (not to be confused with Charles R. Schwab, the famous stock broker), started to see the team as potentially good for business and set out to turn the squad into a true force in American soccer. At the start of the 1913 season, Schwab renamed the team to the now iconic Bethlehem Steel Football Club and turned the team from amateur to professional. This move involved a large injection of cash as well as moving the player recruitment from factory workers to recognized footballers abroad, primarily from England and Scotland. The results of the change showed in extremely short order.
The 1913-14 season saw BSFC open in the amateur AAFBA and it had no issue dominating, finishing as undefeated champions. It also saw success on other fronts as it won the Allied Amateur Cup and the coveted American Cup, completing a treble and simultaneously announcing its arrival as a force to be reckoned with in the sport. The next season saw BSFC compete in the American League of Philadelphia, a local amateur league, which it also decimated en route to another league championship. Their players’ national exploits continued as well as they reached the final of the National Challenge Cup and secured the DeWar Trophy for the first time with a 3-1 defeat of Brooklyn Celtic. This was the beginning of what is a record history in the National Challenge Cup, winning the cup on five different occasions and stamping their place in American Soccer folklore.
The domination of the local leagues continued and it became very clear that BSFC needed a new challenge if it was going to continue to compete with the best clubs in the nation. It moved on to the National Association Football League in 1917, having won another Challenge Cup in 1915-16, defeating Fall River Rovers (one of the predecessors to Fall River Marksmen who you will have read another ghost story about. If not, it’s here) 1-0 in the final. This move up to better competition alongside the likes of West Hudson AA spurred BSFC on to further glory. BSFC reached an incredible six straight Challenge Cup Finals from 1914-1919 triumphing in all but two. The team was practically unstoppable during this period, securing a further four league titles in the same time frame. In 1921, American Soccer as a whole saw the need to provide a higher level of competition and the American Soccer League was born.
This step up to the American Soccer League meant a serious slowing to the rate of silverware filling the trophy cabinets at BSFC. The league had a long, if inconsistent, list of quality clubs who were also able to attract foreign talent with the promise of lucrative contracts and this meant a couple of tough league seasons for BSFC. In the first six years of ASL league play, the club were runners-up three times and had no league titles to their name. The national silverware had gone missing as well, with no Challenge Cup runs to speak of since joining the ASL. This all began to change in 1924, with the arrival of the most potent goalscorers in American soccer history, Archie Stark.
Scottish forward Archie Stark (pictured above) had lived in the US since he was thirteen and had made a name in the ASL for New York FC. The mismanagement of that club turned into a benefit for BSFC as they snapped up Stark at a cut rate as NYFC attempted to ditch its debt. The man had been a prolific scorer for NYFC but had played on the wing. He came to Bethlehem and they moved him to center forward. The results were absolutely incredible. He scored 67 goals in 44 games in 1924-25, which somehow still did not lead to a league championship for BSFC. His return was not as significant the following year, but he did lift a trophy as BSFC reached the Challenge Cup Final and triumphed emphatically over St. Louis-based Ben Millers by a score of 7-2 in front of 18,000 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. All things seemed to be trending up for BSFC on the back of its new star and indeed it secured its first ASL title the following year, with Stark scoring a further 32 league goals. BSFC were seemingly back to being the best, but American Soccer was headed down a road that would send many of these clubs over a cliff to their untimely demise.
The “Soccer Wars” as they became known, were really just one dispute between the United States Football Association and the ASL. Another article could easily be spent just on this period in 1928-29, but suffice it to say that this dispute ultimately lead to the demise of the ASL and many of the marquee clubs within it. Two more league seasons were all that BSFC could withstand and between the impact of the Great Depression on the steel industry and the hit that the ASL as a whole took, they could not continue and the club ceased to be in 1930. As for the ASL, the league struggled to survive and fully collapsed in 1933, and dying with it was any fervor the American public had held for the sport.
Fast forward to 2013. BSFC had been dead for fully 83 years when the Philadelphia Union of MLS wore an alternate kit commemorating the first famous Pennsylvania club. This served as foreshadowing for the reanimation ritual that MLS and the Union were about to perform. In 2015, Union ownership announced that they would be operating an United Soccer League team as their official affiliate and naming it Bethlehem Steel FC. The badge was unveiled and featured the famous name and the I-beam from the original crest, but with the Union’s snake coiled around the beam. This famous club had been reanimated by its voodoo priest and was now controlled totally by its master, the Philadelphia Union. The most successful club in the Open Cup lives on, but in name and physical form only. The club that was, is not, and may never be again.