Biggest US Open Cup controversies of last 100 years, Part 1: The Soccer War, boycotts, the ultimate sister kiss and more
Good or bad, controversies all have one thing in common, they get people talking. Over the years in the US Open Cup, there have been plenty of controversial moments. The problem is, not too many people know about them. Outside of the famous US-England match in 1950, US Soccer history isn’t romanticized like baseball, or made into epic tales like those in football.
Most soccer fans know little about the rich history of the Open Cup, particularly the games other than those of the championship finals. Over the past few years, TheCup.us has dug up the details of those pre-Final tournament games, many of which have never seen the light of day.
We’ve collected the 20 of these tales of dispute from the past 100 years of Open Cup play. This is not a complete list by all means. There is much, much more research to be done and along the way we are sure to find more controversies. For now, sit back and enjoy some of the more tabloid-worthy moments in US Open Cup history.
Note: As you read this, you’ll notice a lot of players with just one name. This is not an oversight on our part, but rather, many of the sources of this information (newspapers, publications etc.) only use the last name of players in their stories.
Part 1: The first 50 years
Nov. 30, 1913 – Jan. 18, 1914 Niagara Falls Rangers vs. MacNaughton Rangers
Not only did the first ever National Challenge Cup tournament in 1914 crown the first true United States soccer champion, it also provided the first major controversy of the century-old tournament.
In a second round game between the Niagara Falls Rangers and MacNaughton Rangers of Rochester, New York on November 30, 1913, the Rochester club won the game 1-0 on a goal from Stille, despite being dominated by Niagara Falls for the bulk of the contest, and seemed headed for a third-round match up with Roses FC of Detroit.
On December 4 the Niagara Falls Gazette reported that the losing Rangers had filed a protest with the USFA over the game. Two members of the Niagara Falls management committee stayed in Rochester an extra day and discovered that MacNaughton’s left full back, Bliss, has signed an amateur form for the Cup game. It was also revealed that Bliss served as a high school coach in Rochester for which he was receiving a salary, which according to the rules of the time would make him a professional. Bliss was no ringer for the Macs, having played for the team during the season leading up to the game.
At the USFA meeting on December 14 it was decided the matter would be held over while more evidence could be provided. MacNaughton had argued that the protest should have been brought forth when the teams exchanged rosters prior to the game, but USFA President Dr. G. Randolph Manning ignored their protest by ordering an inquiry into the playing status of Bliss. Finally on Jan. 5 during an emergency meeting of the USFA, the Niagara Falls team was granted a replay of the game, to be played in Niagara Falls.
In addition to the question of Bliss’s eligibility to play, MacNaughton was also cited for how the game itself was conducted. All Cup games were to have an admission price of 25 cents. The Macs had been charging 15 cents for their games all season, and protested the additional 10 cents in admission because their field was not properly enclosed. The USFA refused to move on the matter.
The anticipation of the replay was stopped cold the day before the game when MacNaughton announced they would not make the trip to Niagara Falls due to widespread illness in the team.
As a result of the admission fee row, MacNaughton failed to provide an official at the gate until almost kickoff, and also neglected to fill gaps in the hedges that ran down one side of the field, which allowed hundreds of spectators to avoid paying any admission at all. Niagara Falls received only $28 ($619 adjusted for inflation) for their cut of the gate, despite newspaper reports that there were 3,000-5,500 in attendance. The MacNaughton Rangers were fined $15 ($331 today) for the game admission fiasco, and the replay was set for Jan. 18, 1914, with bad blood inevitable.
MORE: Relive the inaugural National Challenge Cup with our “First Cup” series
April 1-3, 1923
Scullin Steel forfeits the 1923 final
St. Louis’ Scullin Steel was making their third final appearance in a row, looking to defend the championship they had won in 1922 over Brooklyn’s Todd Shipyards. Scullins’ run to the Open Cup Final was part of a string of thirteen finals appearances by St. Louis clubs from 1920-1937. Their opponents, New Jersey’s Paterson Silk Sox, were wrapping up their first season in the American Soccer League, although they had played for years in the National Association Football League (NAFBL).
The final in Harrison, New Jersey turned out to be a thrilling affair. Scullin took a 2-0 lead after 57 minutes thanks to goals from Brannigan and Allie Schwarz. Paterson cut the score to 2-1 on Tommy Duggan’s goal eight minutes later, and John Heminsley tied the game with just six minutes remaining. Extra time failed to produce a winner, so a replay was in order.
When the USFA decided the replay would be held in the East, the St. Louis club announced they would not be able to field a team for the rematch. Scullin players Oellerman, Brannigan, Mulvey and Rooney had departed for baseball training camps. Also, Nolan, Bechtold and Bentley were injured for Scullin and not able to play. Scullin management suggested that had the replay been set for St. Louis, the players could have made it to St. Louis in time for the game. Keep in mind in 1923 commercial travel by air was still in its infancy, and interstate highways were still decades away. Travel by train was the only viable way across the country.
Oddly enough, instead of putting up a massive fight the have the game moved to St. Louis, Scullin management decided it would be best, and honorable, to forfeit the replay rather than field an inferior team. The club issued a statement detailing the decision and their reasons behind it. The final part of the statement read as follows:
“The Scullin Steel Club believes it is more honorable to surrender the National Cup and the title of which it is emblematic, under the circumstance, than to send into the playoff against Paterson a team wholly inadequate to compete for the championship of the United States and incapable of defending the title, which the Scullin F.C. hereby surrenders.”
With that, the first major controversy of the US Open Cup ended not with a heated argument, but with a whimper. Scullin fell early in the 1924 tournament, and eventually closed up shop in 1926. Paterson’s new owners for the 1923-24 ASL season moved the team to New York and called them the Giants. The Giants would later be at the center of another major controversy, the 1929 Soccer War.
ASL/St. Louis teams Boycott the Cup
From 1922-1937, teams from St. Louis or the American Soccer League won 14 out of 16 National Challenge Cup championships. A dispute centered on the way the cup was contested likely kept that total from reaching 15.
The Soccer War of 1928 & 1929 could very well have taken root in 1924, in the run-up to the National Challenge Cup tournament. American Soccer League clubs protested several issues which they felt put their clubs at a disadvantage as far as the Cup went.
One was that all of the ASL clubs were drawn into the tournament from the very beginning. Owners argued this forced them to play meaningless games against overmatched amateur clubs that had no realistic chance of winning. On top of that, the owners argued, if their teams were drawn to travel to play these preliminary games their clubs often lost money since the smaller gate receipts from their amateur hosts often failed to cover their travel costs. The ASL owners felt their teams should be exempt from these qualifying games and be allowed to enter later in the tournament.
Another of the major sticking points, perhaps the biggest one from the owners’ point of view, was the percentage of the gate the USFA took for cup games. The USFA took 33.3 percent of the gate receipts for Challenge Cup games, leaving the rest to be split between the two clubs. The ASL teams wanted to reduce the USFA’s cut to 15 percent.
When the tournament draw was released on Oct. 3, 1924, none of 12 ASL clubs, or the 4 professional teams from the St. Louis Soccer League, were included.
The USFA agreed to the ASL’s request on the tournament setup, and allowed 12 teams from the East and the West join in at a latter stage in the competition, with four clubs advancing from the preliminary rounds to make up a 16 team “first round proper” in each half. The USFA would not budge on the issue of gate receipts however.
While the Challenge Cup proceeded without them, the protesting clubs formed their own competition, the American Professional Soccer Championship. The St. Louis Soccer League proposed the idea that the champions of the two leagues meet in the spring of 1925 in a championship series. The ASL sent their Lewis Cup champion to face Ben Miller SC, winner of the SLSL. The three game series was won by Boston, and the games were played in front of crowds of at least 10,000 for each game.
On the Challenge Cup side, things were not looking so great. With the absence of the ASL teams, attendances took a nose dive in the rounds leading up to the final. The 1925 championship was contested by Chicago’s Canadian Club and the Shawsheen Indians of Andover, Massachusetts, two teams which had never reached the final before, and never would again. The fact that two newcomers were in the Cup final showed in the attendance numbers. The attendance for the final at Mark’s Stadium in North Tiverton, Rhode Island was a woeful 2,500, down from the 14,000 that saw Vesper Buick and Fall River Marksmen in St. Louis the previous year.
In May 1925, a month after the Challenge Cup final, the USFA saw the writing on the wall and gave in to the concessions demanded by the ASL, at least as far as the Challenge Cup was concerned. With the ASL and St. Louis clubs back in the tournament, the 1926 final drew 18,000 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to watch Bethlehem Steel defeat Ben Miller 7-2.
1928 – Oct. 1929
The Soccer War
While the ASL/St. Louis boycott of the 1925 National Challenge Cup was still fresh in the memory of soccer fans, a more costly skirmish erupted in 1928. The reason given for the troubles was the ASL’s participation in the National Challenge Cup, but what was really at stake was control over the governing body of soccer in this country.
Trouble began to brew in 1927, when the USFA was nearly suspended by FIFA for ASL teams signing players still under contracts with European clubs. The USFA wriggled its way out of trouble by agreeing to a number of sanctions and limitations to keep European players from breaking contracts to play in the United States. Many of the ASL clubs were not happy with this development. The ASL owners, most of whom also owned baseball teams, looked to free themselves from the USFA’s control and run the league more like baseball, without being subject to a higher authority.
Even though their teams returned to the Cup for the 1926 edition, ASL owners were still bothered by the fact that cup games were played during the ASL season. While the 1925 boycott was over the USFA’s cut of the gate and playing preliminary games, this time the owners claimed the cup games disrupted the ASL season, confused fans, and wore their players out, predating by decades modern complaints of fixture congestion.
New York Nationals owner Charles Stoneham, who also owned the New York baseball Giants, proposed that the other ASL owners remove their teams from the Challenge Cup, create a Midwest division of the ASL, and create a final match between the division winners that would eclipse the Challenge Cup Final. Most of the ASL owners agreed to Stoneham’s plan, except for three teams. Bethlehem Steel, Newark Skeeters and the New York soccer Giants defied the other ASL clubs and entered the Cup anyway.
This led to the ASL suspending the three teams, after which the ASL was suspended by the USFA, making them an outlaw league. Bethlehem, Newark and the Giants, along with several semi-pro teams from New York, formed the Eastern Soccer League. Of the three, the Giants made it the furthest in the 1929 Cup, reaching the Eastern Final were they lost to fellow ESL club Hakoah All Stars, who went on to win the Cup.
Under pressure from the USFA and other national federations, the ASL realized their fight could not be won. By Oct. 1929 the ASL made peace with the USFA, and halted their 1929 fall season after a few games in order to restart with the Bethlehem, Newark and the Giants, playing under the name Atlantic Coast League.
While things were patched up between the country’s major soccer powers, trouble still loomed ahead. The infamous 1929 Stock Market Crash occurred just weeks after the truce. With the Great Depression under way, the first ASL succumbed in 1932, and was replaced by a smaller, semipro ASL in 1933. Gone were the days of luring English and Scottish players with higher wages. As a result, soccer fell to the back of the pack among the emerging professional sports in gaining popularity in the US, such as football and basketball.
ASL plays round robin qualifying
When the practice of Major League Soccer teams playing qualifying games to get into the Open Cup began in 2007, some fans and the teams themselves weren’t happy. Many questioned how the tournament could be taken seriously if all of the top flight teams are not involved.
Just two years removed from their scrap with the USFA in the “Soccer War”, the ASL decided, apparently with the USFA’s approval, to have their clubs skip the early rounds of the knockout competition in order to engage in two qualifying groups. The ASL’s New England teams formed one group, while the teams in New York City comprised another. The ASL owners argued that playing the round robin qualifying matches would ensure the two best teams would reach the Eastern Semifinals.
However, most knew the real reason for the qualifying setup: more matches among ASL clubs meant more gate revenue for the owners. Plus, the clubs assumed that since the games were not proper cup games, the USFA could not take their 25 percent of the gate.
One dissenting voice was that of Boston Globe writer George M. Collins. In his Jan. 5, 1931 column, Collins stated his displeasure of the ASL qualifying scheme:
“Under What rules is this season’s National Cup series? Has this premier cup competition conducted by the United States Football (Soccer) Association become one of the celebrated “rackets?” What does this “round-robin” series which the American League clubs are to engage in mean
The “knockout” idea made the National Cup games attractive to the fans. Going to the game knowing that it was sure to be a case of “death or glory” made the boys anxious to see the tilt. This new idea of playing a “series of games” on a league system may produce more money and it may not. That remains to be seen.”
Collins again argued against the games in his January 12 column:
“Soccer fans refuse to be “kidded” with this year’s National Cup round-robin series. Attendances in New England prove it. Back in the days of the “knock out” tilts, a meeting between Fall River and Pawtucket or New Bedford would have packed in 10,000 fans.
The round robin series, even if it is only an experiment, should not have been arranged or permitted by the United States Football Association, because it’s not what the fans want. Nor is it according to the rules and regulations of the governing body.
The angle of the pro clubs is different. Who is going to pay the salary of the players if no games are to be played in January and February? One thing is certain and that is that unless the National Cup games are on the “knockout” plan, attendances will not increase.“
The Hakoah All Stars and Fall River Marksmen emerged as the two ASL survivors, and had mixed results in the Eastern Semifinals. Hakoah wound up losing to the Newark Americans, the lone ASL team to skip the round robin series. Fall River went on to win the 1931 Cup. In an interesting twist, the Marksmen had merged with another ASL team, New York SC, to become the New York Yankees. The team was required to play as the Marksmen for the remainder of the tournament, since they began cup play under that name.
The ASL teams resumed conventional Cup play in 1932, but returned to the round robin format again in 1933. By this time the ASL was a shell of its former self, having disbanded and reformed as a lower budget semi-pro league. The two group winners, Pawtucket Rangers and New York Americans, survived their semifinal games and met in the Eastern Final, which the Americans won on aggregate, 6-5. The Americans went on to drop the 1933 Final to Stix, Baer & Fuller of St. Louis.
May 5-June 13, 1940
Sparta and Baltimore share the Championship
If playing to a tie is like kissing your sister, what would sharing a championship be like? That’s exactly what Chicago’s Sparta A & BA and Baltimore SC did in 1940 when they couldn’t agree on the details of a tiebreaking third match for the Open Cup Championship.
The first game of the two-leg aggregate series was on May 5 at Bugle Field in Baltimore. Sparta and Baltimore played to a scoreless draw. During the second leg the following week in Chicago, Baltimore took a 2-0 lead in the first half but Sparta came back with two goals in the second. Tied 2-2 after 90 minutes, the clubs played 30 minutes of extra time without settling anything. When referee Phil Fox ordered the teams to play another 30 minutes to break the draw, Baltimore refused to continue.
Speculation ran wild as to whether Baltimore would be disqualified. On May 22 it was reported that the USFA Challenge Cup Committee would take a mail vote to decide if the title would be awarded to Sparta, or if a third match would be scheduled.
When asked why his team refused to continue, Baltimore manager Fred Doyle claimed that his players’ health would be endangered due to the loss of sleep from traveling to Chicago, as well as playing two hours on a field made very dusty by high winds. Doyle also said that Fox admitted to him that he himself was in no condition to continue.
On May 29 the committees’ votes were tallied and a third game was ordered played. The game was to be played on June 16 at Starlight Park in New York City. Baltimore was also fined $50 (about $750 adjusted for inflation) for walking off the field in Chicago.
On June 6 it was reported that Sparta had appealed to the USFA to move the game to Chicago, claiming that many of their players would not be able to make the trip, as well as the loss of star forward Jimmy McDermott through a suspension. Also complicating matters was Baltimore’s request that they receive double the normal amount for travel expenses.
With no middle ground in sight, the USFA announced on June 11 that the third game was postponed, and on June 13 the game was cancelled all together. As a result, Sparta and Baltimore became the only co-champions in Open Cup history.
Sparta Ogden Dairy vs. Chrysler SC
Mar. 1 – 31, 1942
Just two years after Chicago’s Sparta were forced to share the Open Cup championship when the Baltimore SC walked off the field refusing to play extra time, Sparta would cause controversy as the team walking off the field.
In the late 1930s/early 40s, Chicago’s Sparta Ogden Dairy (one of many sponsor names tacked onto Sparta’s name in those days) and Detroit’s Chrysler SC were two of the better teams in the Western half of the Open Cup bracket each year. Sparta represented the West in the 1940 Open Cup final, and Chrysler reached the final in 1941. When they were slated to meet in the 1942 Western Quarterfinals, it looked to be one of the showcase matches of the tournament that year. In the end, the Chrysler team disbanded as a result of what unfolded.
The first game in Chicago went smoothly enough, as Sparta and Chrysler played to a dramatic 3-3 extra time draw. Neil Campbell had scored what looked to be the winning goal for Chrysler in the 88th minute, only to see Sparta’s Jerry Rezak convert a penalty kick in the final minute to send the game to extra time.
Things got messy in the replay a week later in Detroit.
Once again the game went to extra time, this time on the dramatics of George Hay scoring from the penalty spot for Chrysler in the 90th minute. After the teams played a scoreless 30 minutes, referee Jack Wilson called for an additional 30 minutes. Wilson claimed he was instructed by the USFA that the game had to end with a winner (penalty kicks were not used as a tiebreaker until the early 1970s).
Sparta manager Ray Schwarzkopf pulled his team off the field, claiming they were physically unable to continue. Schwarzkopf also argued that since Chrysler were not required to keep playing in Chicago, he saw no reason why his club should do the same in Detroit. Some in the Detroit crowd felt this was simply a ploy by the Chicagoans to avoid defeat since two of their players, Jimmy Wolf and Joe Janezic, were playing with injuries.
After hearing that Chrysler manager McInnis would refuse a replay of the game, Schwarzkopf seemed unconcerned. “You don’t think that the USFA would let Chrysler win that way, when it can order a replay to get another 25 per cent cut of the gate,” the Sparta manager told the Chicago Daily Tribune.
After referee Wilson initially awarded the replay to Chrysler via forfeit, the USFA upheld an appeal by Sparta and insisted a replay was to be scheduled, seemingly contradicting the very orders given to Wilson. While not happy with the decision, Chrysler relented and accepted a replay, on the condition that the date pushed back. Chrysler secretary William Hay claimed the club had been informed of the replay date a mere five days before the game was to be played, and that they could not possibly get all of their players off of their World War II defense jobs on such short notice.
In addition to refusing to push back the replay date, the USFA more or less gave Chrysler a “show up or else” threat. USFA Secretary James Armstrong informed the club that “failure to appear in Chicago would mean forfeiture of the game and would also result in further drastic action”. This proved to be the last straw for the Detroit club, as Hay announced that not only would Chrysler withdraw from the competition, they would also disband their team.
“We played one-half hour extra session in Chicago,” Hay told the Chicago Daily Tribune, “and that’s all we were asked to play. But the game here (in Detroit) was to have been to a finish and the USFA instructed referee Jack Wilson to that effect,” Hay continued. “The Sparta team knew that before the game started. Thus, the USFA’s order for a replay seemed to be unjustified in the first place.”
A few days later the Chrysler team reconsidered and filed an appeal to play the match on April 5, but the USFA turned down the appeal and Chrysler was out of luck. Sparta would go on to the Western Final, were they lost to Pittsburgh’s Gallatin by a 4-3 aggregate score.
March 1948-October 1949
St. Louis expense protest
A year and a half before the most famous victory in United States soccer history, a dispute over expenses led the defending Open Cup champions to withdraw from the 1949 tournament.
The trouble began in April of 1948, when two Chicago clubs, Sparta and Schwaben, visited St. Louis for Open and Amateur Cup games, respectively. It was after these matches that the Chicago clubs took exception to the expense report submitted by the St. Louis teams, Simpkins Ford (Open) and Steamfitters SC (Amateur). The Windy City teams claimed Simpkins and Steamfitters expense claims were “outlandish” and high above what has allowable under the National Cup rules.
The teams from Chicago’s National Soccer League voted unanimously to boycott future National Cup competitions unless the matter was straightened out by the USFA. They also demanded to be reimbursed their proper share of the gates after the proper expenses had been deducted.
Six months later, the topic of expense reports popped up once more, again involving Simpkins Ford. This time it centered on the travel bill for New York’s Brookhattan to play the 1948 Final in St. Louis. The joy felt by Simpkins after winning the Final 3-2 on an 89th minute strike from Henry Merlo soon faded when Brookhattan made an appeal to the USFA that the St. Louis club owed them $1,550 (about $13,000 adjusted for inflation) in travel expenses.
Simpkins took exception to this, stating that they followed the letter of the USFA rulebook by offering to pay Brookhattans train fare, but not the more expensive airline flight. Brookhattan claimed that flying instead of coming in by train saved time away from work for their players. Perhaps adding to their frustration after the close loss, Brookhattans return flight was delayed for 22 hours in Columbus, Ohio after a forced landing.
Just two weeks after the 1948 final, and another few weeks away from the start of preliminary games for the 1949 tournament, the representatives of the four clubs from the St. Louis Major Soccer League announced they would not participate in the upcoming tournament.
“We haven’t been able to establish harmonious relations with the USFA in cup game matters.” explained Eddie Murphy, president of the St. Louis league.
Murphy hoped to work out some kind pf championship final between the St. Louis league winner and the champion of the American Soccer League, just as in 1925 when the clubs from both leagues boycotted the Cup tournament that year. Nothing came of the proposed championship showdown.
St. Louis was left to be represented in the 1949 cup by four teams from the city’s amateur Municipal League. Zenthrofer Furs managed to reach the Western semifinals, but to get there only needed to defeat the other St. Louis amateurs and a club from Dallas, Texas making its first Open Cup appearance. The St. Louis pro clubs would return for the 1950 competition, which was won by Simpkins. The 1949 boycott kept the team from having the chance to become the second team (at the time) to win three Open Cup titles in a row.
Eintracht can’t defend their title
Just seven years after defending champion Simpkins Ford decided to withdraw from the 1949 Open Cup in protest over expense reports, 1955 cup winner Eintracht SC were prevented from defending their title because of a dispute between the USSFA and the GASL.
In 1955 Eintracht was caught in the middle of a dispute between the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA) and the German American Soccer League, the league Eintracht was a part of. The league had been suspended by the USSFA in 1955 when other member leagues of the New York State Soccer Football Association accused the GASL of having an unfair balance of power within the organization.
The GASL had developed a habit of paying the NYSSFA membership dues of its clubs in a lump sum, while other leagues left the matter up to the individual clubs. The result was a lopsided representation of the GASL at the annual NYSSFA meeting, as the dues for clubs in other leagues were still coming in. With a voting majority in hand, a number of GASL loyalists were elected to NYSSFA leadership positions.
After the USSFA upheld a protest from the other member leagues, a three person panel was set up to administer to the affairs of the NYSSFA. After the GASL refused to cooperate, the panel gave up. The USSFA then appointed former USSFA president Tom Sager as the commissioner of a new organization, the New York State Comission.
As the GASL affiliated officers continued to bicker on petty issues, the league announced they would pull out of the NYSSFA. The USSFA declared the GASL an outlaw league, meaning anyone playing in the GASL would face a worldwide ban. The USSFA declared all the leagues players free agents and suggested that join other teams in league in good standing with the USSFA.
With the NYSSFA still heavily influenced by the GASL, the organization was not recognized by the USSFA. The NYSSFA filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the USSFA’s actions, but was dismissed in court. The GASL played the 1956 season as an “independent” league, and their clubs were not allowed to participate in any competitions sponsored by the USSFA.
The fight between the GASL and the USSFA had actually began while Eintracht was still playing games in the 1955 competition, and the USSFA’s declaration that the GASL was an outlaw league had to wait until Eintracht was finished with the tournament. One irony of the controversy was that Eintracht and Swiss FC, the final two New York clubs left alive in the 1955 cup, were members of the GASL. With the absence of the GASL clubs, entries from New York in 1956 dropped to a mere 6 teams, where clubs numbering in the high teens were the norm.
The dispute was not settled until 1957, causing the GASL clubs to miss two successive Open Cup tournaments. Upon returning to cup competition in 1958, Eintracht picked up were they left off, reaching the Eastern semifinals were they dropped a wild 9-8 aggregate series to eventual runner up Pompei SC from Baltimore.