Nearly 100 years into the history of the tournament, there have been a number of clubs that have been dominant forces in the United States Open Cup, but two stand as the Kings of the Cup with a record five championships. On Tuesday, the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer hope to join that elite list with the Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles.
While attempting to make history, the Fire will be looking to stave off a league rival aiming to push Chicago off the stage as the tournament’s greatest MLS club. Relative newcomer Seattle is on the verge of becoming the fourth team ever to three-peat.
The Fire’s connection with the Open Cup began right from the start, as the team captured the tournament title in their expansion season in 1998. They went on to win it three more times (2000, 2003 and 2006).
Similarly, Bethlehem Steel were the dominant club in the early years of the US Open Cup, previously known as National Challenge Cup. A Third Round 1-0 exit to eventual inaugural NCC champion Brooklyn FC in 1914 was quickly forgotten a year later as the club, founded in 1911, returned to capture the championship in its second running. Bethlehem Steel dominated the tournament on defense from the Third Round on, never allowing more than one goal against. They knocked off fellow Pennsylvania side Victor FC in the Third Round, 1-0, the closest contest of the campaign. They downed New Jersey’s Scottish Americans, 3-1 in the Quarterfinals, and dropped another state rival, Homestead FC, 4-1 in the semifinals. They met up with another Brooklyn side in the Final, winning their first championship 3-1, against Brooklyn Celtic.
The second title a year later was a little harder. Another Pennsylvania rival gave them a tough test early on again, as Disston A.A. forced a replay in the second round with a 1-1 draw. Bethlehem Steel would advance with a 3-0 win in the second leg. Philadelphia Hibernian were no match in the Third Round though, falling 6-0. Bethlehem Steel then began to face out of state competition, blanking New Jersey’s West Hudson A.A. 1-0 in the Quarterfinals. Pullman FC of Illinois forced another replay with a scoreless draw in the Semifinals, but Bethlehem Steel kept the run alive with a 2-1 victory. They moved on to win their second consecutive title, 1-0 against Fall River Rovers of Massachusetts in 1916. For the second year in a row they did not allow more than a goal in any game.
The 1916 Final marked the first of three consecutive championship meetings between the two clubs. For the third straight year, Bethlehem Steel went through the tournament without allowing more than a goal in a game, downing familiar faces in Brooklyn Celtic (Second Round, 3-1), West Hudson A.A. (Third Round, 3-0) and Homestead FC (Quarterfinals, 2-1) to reach the Semifinals. They then topped Joliet Steel Works of Illinois 6-0. Fall River, however, copied that playbook in their run and bested Bethlehem Steel, 1-0 in the 1917 championship, spoiling the three-peat bid.
1921 Bethlehem Steel team photo. Photo: BethlehemSteelSoccer.org
Though the tournament shrank with the military enlistment of players in the First World War, things remained the same on the pitch for Bethlehem Steel, as they swept through the tournament with an aggregate tally of 11-1 against their three opponents heading into the championship game against those Fall River Rovers. For the first time in four tournaments though, the club allowed two goals as the pair played to a 2-2 draw. Bethlehem Steel would claim their third title with a 3-0 victory in the replay two weeks later.
Bethlehem Steel made it four championships in five years with another dominant run a year later. Again, an early round contest proved the most difficult, as state foe Merchant Ship “A” battled the three-time champs in high scoring Second Round affair, becoming the first to score three goals against Bethlehem Steel in six editions of the tournament. It was not enough, as the favorites won out 4-3 and proceeded to not allow another goal in the tournament, topping New Jersey’s Paterson FC, 2-0, in the 1919 Final.
The run of consecutive championship appearances would come to an end in 1920 for Bethlehem Steel, exiting in the Quarterfinals at the hands of Robins Dry Dock 1-0, after 1-0 and 10-0 wins in the previous two rounds. Robins Dry Dock would go on to win the tournament a year later.
Bethlehem Steel began to make noise again in 1924, with a trip to the Semifinals before being knocked out by Fall River Marksmen, who went on to win the first of their four championships between 1924 and 1931. After taking the 1925 tournament off, Bethlehem came back in familiar form to capture their fifth championship in 1926. They dominated the Eastern Division portion of the bracket with a 12-4 aggregate over four games, again not allowing more than a goal in any game. This set up a meeting with Missouri’s Ben Millers in the Final. Archie Stark scored three goals to help lead the club to a 7-2 victory before a reported crowd of 18,000 at Ebbets Field, home of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
1918 Bethlehem Steel team photo. Photo: BethlehemSteelSoccer.org
The club would go on to reach the final four again the following year, the quarterfinals in 1929 and the semifinals in 1930 before folding due to the Great Depression.
While Fall River Marksmen came close to equaling their mark after the team dissolved, it would take nearly 50 years for another club to begin its run for five, despite other challenges from Philadelphia Ukrainians (4 titles in 1960, 61, 63, 66) and New York’s Greek American AA (4 titles in 1967, 68, 69, 74) as well.
A group formed by a group of Israeli expatriates for a simple Sunday recreation team turned competitive in the seventies, when a number of former Israeli national team players immigrated to the area and joined Maccabi Los Angeles.
Much like Bethlehem Steel, defense was key in Maccabi LA’s first title run as they swept through the Western Bracket of the tournament without allowing a goal in four rounds. They would defeat Cleveland’s Inter Italian 5-3 in the 1973 Championship.
The club returned to the Final two years later, downing New York City’s Inter-Giuliana, 1-0, for their second title. Maccabi LA would win its third two years later again, with a lopsided 5-1 victory against United German Hungarians of Philadelphia in the 1977 Championship.
The elusive repeat would finally come in 1978, with a 2-0 overtime victory against Connecticut’s Bridgeport Vasco de Gama for the Maccabi LA’s fourth championship. The club nearly won number five in 1980, falling 3-2 to New York Pancyprian Freedoms in New York, but would break through a year later against the Brooklyn Dodgers, with another 5-1 victory in the 1981 Final. A shot at holding the record alone at six was again spoiled by the Freedoms in 1982, as Maccabi LA were edged out in a 4-3 overtime affair in Chicago.
Bethlehem Steel’s status as the only five-time champion, however, could have easily been untouched until today. All five titles won by Maccabi Los Angeles from 1973-81 came during the era of the North American Soccer League, which existed from 1968-84. Perhaps the most famous and arguably most-talented professional league prior to Major League Soccer’s 1996 launch, the NASL did not compete in the US Open Cup, opening the door for the history-making run of the Israeli club.
Though overshadowed by the NASL at the time, one of highlight moments for the tournament and Maccabi LA during the era came in the 1978 Final. The match was held at Giants Stadium (The Meadowlands) in front of a crowd of over 30,000, as part of a doubleheader with the NASL’s New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies – a game with a reported crowd of around 70,000.
On Tuesday, over 30,000 fans are expected to come out for a second consecutive year to see who will come out on top in the Battle for Open Cup History.