Chicago’s Soccer History

Chicago has been one of the half-dozen historical soccer strongholds in the United States, with roots extending back to the late 1800’s. Soccer first came to Chicago, as it did many other cities, with the waves of European immigrants who flocked to the major industrial cities, bringing their love of the game with them. With the establishment of the National Soccer League of Chicago in 1920, the city’s position as a major soccer region was secure; for decades, the NSL was one of the “big four” of the amateur leagues, with numerous teams winning the National Challenge Cup, as well as sending players to the national team. In more recent years, Chicago was long represented in the North American League by the successful Chicago Sting and currently fans root for the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. The amateur league still remains one of the strongest in the country, and Chicago is currently home to the United States Soccer Federation.

The first years

The first official match played under Association Rules in Chicago was played between the newly organized sides of the Pullman Car Works and the Original Wanderers, in 1893. Pullman would go on to become a powerhouse in the early 20th century. Not long after this inaugural match, Soccer was featured at the Columbian Exposition, in a event dubbed a “world championship”, which culminated in a match between Chicago Braidwood and a club from Toronto. The success of these early neighborhood teams culminated in the founding of the Association Football League in 1904 with C. W. Critchley as the first President. Teams included the Wanderers, Calumet, Douglas Park, Hyde Park Blues, Hyde Park Grays, and Lake Shores. The Pullmans joined soon after, and immediately became the class team of the league, despite being the only team without an enclosed field. That was remedied within a few years.

The league was instrumental in securing bringing the Pilgrims club to Chicago during their groundbreaking tours of the US in 1905 and 1909. The Pilgrims were essentially an all-star squad of top players from major English amateur teams. These tours played a major role in reviving interest in soccer on this side of the Atlantic. During the 1905 tour, the Pilgrims’ sole loss came at the hands of the Chicago All-star squad, which had been created especially for the situation. They won their other 11 games, by a combined score of 72-7. In 1909, they were 16-2 with 4 ties, two at the hand of Illinois clubs, Gillespie Thistle (a 1-1 draw) and Coal City Maroons (0-0 draw). The Chicago clubs didn’t fare so well, Hyde Park Blues falling 2-8 and All-Chicago losing 0-2.

The Pilgrims success inspired another squad, the Corinthians, to make a pair of tours, in 1907 and 1911 respectively. Their 1907 tour opened in Chicago 8/25/07, where they beat the all-stars 5-2. They went 7-1-1 for their remaining matches. In 1911, the Corinthians went 5-0, defeating All-Chicago 4-0 and 11-1 in the opening games, September 10-11.

In 1909, Peter J. Peel, later commissioner of the Illinois State Soccer Association, donated a trophy for a tournament to benefit injured players. This soon became the premier soccer event in the city, a true championship open to any club, whether a member of the Association League or not. The Peel Cup soon became emblematic of Chicago soccer supremacy, eventually being awarded to the Illinois State champion. Campbell rovers won the first cup, but Pullman established the first dynasty, winning four straight between 1912 and 1915, while also taking the league championship on a regular basis. Pullman played regularly against teams from other cities, particularly against major St. Louis Clubs (whom they usually beat), and the legendary Bethlehem Steel (who usually beat them). The Association League folded despite its success after the 1912-13 season, with many of its clubs joining the new Chicago and District league in 1915. The following year, the Illinois State Soccer Football Association was formed, with Peter Peel as its first president.

The 1920s and 30s: Growth of the Amateur Leagues

As in many cities, the Chicago clubs were primarily organized along ethnic lines, but only a handful of nationalities were represented. Seeking to expand the circle of participation, a group of progressive organizers established the International Soccer Football League, with over a dozen nationalities represented among its original teams. Frank Foldi was the first president. Also operating was the Communist Labor Sports Union, who ran an Open Cup championship at the 1932 Chicago workers’ Olympics. The final featured Chicago Englewood and New York Red Sparks F.C. In 1924,for the first time, a Chicago-based player served on the National Team. This was Carl Johnson, of Chicago Swedish-Americans who played two games in 1924, including the Olympic loss to Uruguay, and a friendly against Poland later that year.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the International League founds its strength in the central European, German and Scandinavian communities, while the Chicago League and other municipal leagues catered mainly to the British & Irish ethnic enclaves. They also had the forethought to establish junior and youth squads to strengthen their base. This, combined with the increasing number of immigrants from outside the British isles flowing into the region, led to a consolidation among the smaller leagues, so that by the late 1930s only the International and Chicago Leagues remained, and they merged in 1938, becoming the National Soccer League of Chicago.

During the 1920s, Pullman continued its success at the state level, winning the Peel Cup in 1921, 1923, 1925 and 1926, but they were joined by a new dynasty, the Chicago Bricklayers. The Bricklayers only won Peel Cups in 1920 and 1924, but were the pioneering Chicago club to have notable success at the national level, making the National Challenge Cup finals in 1928 (Losing to the New York Nationals of the ASL) and 1931 (losing to Fall River F. C. of the ASL). They were not the first Chicago club to make the finals, Chicago Canadian Club having done so in 1924.

Tours by foreign squads were commonplace during this era, and included many top teams from Europe and elsewhere in the world. These included the Uruguayan Olympic Champions in 1924, their National Team in 1927 (who lost to Bricklayers 2-3), Hakoah Vienna (1926, 1927), Sparta Prague (1926), Glasgow Rangers (1928, 1930), Maccabees of Tel-Aviv (1936), Charlton Athletic (1937), Scottish Internationals (1935, 1939), Preston North End (1929), and Glasgow Celtic (1931) The foreign teams usually won, but the Chicago clubs and all-star sides usually put up a good fight and kept the score close.

In 1934, Julius Hjulian, of the Chicago Wonder Bolts was called to the National Team, and played for the US during their World Cup qualifying match, as well as their sole match of the 1934 Cup, a 1-7 trouncing at the hands of host Italy.

The next major powerhouse was Sparta A.B.A, who dominated the Chicago scene during the 1930s. Sparta reached the Western finals of the National Challenge Cup in 1927, 29, 33, 36, 38 and 39, five consecutive Peel Cups from 1928-1933, and SEVEN consecutive Chicago League championships between 1930 and 1936. (with 1928 and 1938 thrown in for good measure). Final victory arrived with a National Challenge Cup trophy in 1938, this squad saw the services of the inestimable Billy Gonsalves, one of the best players in US history. Gonsalves then went to Chicago Manhattan Beer where he helped them win the Challenge Cup the following season. Sparta returned to the final in 1940, losing to Baltimore SC of the American Soccer League II. During the war years, the Chicago Vikings rose to prominence, winning Peel Cups in 1940, 1941, and 1944, as well as the 1943 season when combined with the Slovaks.

The war years hit Chicago hard, and many players went off to serve the country, leaving the leagues decimated. But already, new dynasties were in the making as other well established clubs clawed their way to the top. Schwaben, founded in 1926, won five league championships in the NSL during the late 1930s and early 40s. Before the war, there was some sentiment towards establishing a fully professional league for the Midwest, but that was sidetracked after Pearl Harbor. But the idea would return once the war was over.

The post-war years

After World War II ended, the NSL was fortified by a flood of players returning from military service, and by 1947, was probably the largest amateur league in the country, boasting 42 senior, 12 junior and 5 youth teams within its divisions, covering a radius of approx. 55 miles, with teams in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. It was also unique among US leagues at the time in pioneering the summer playing season, extending from April to November. The league had gone through some franchise changes, with pioneering teams such as Pullman and Bricklayers folding. Now the premier clubs were Vikings, Hansa and Sparta, Schwaben was just coming into its own and would have its glory days in the coming decade.

In 1947, the idea of a major professional league came to fruition with the establishment of the North American Soccer Football League. The NASFL was headed by Fred Weizman of Chicago, with Leslie O’Connor, general manager of Baseball’s Chicago White Sox taking over in 1947. The league had six teams: the Detroit Wolverines, Toronto Greenbacks, Chicago Maroons, Pittsburgh Strassers and Chicago Vikings, all of whom had been top clubs in their metropolitan amateur leagues. St. Louis Raiders joined for 1947. Although it was a noble effort, and the league drew well, financial losses were heavy, and it folded after two seasons.

Returning to the NSL, the Chicago Vikings were at the top of their form, winning the NSL 1948 season and the Peel Cup in 1949.. Sparta meanwhile continued their run of Peel Cup victories, taking the cup three consecutive years, 1946-1948, and making the National Challenge Cup finals in 1947. The National Team reached this way again in 1949, as Peter Matevich of the Slovaks played in two World Cup qualifiers, and Alan Wolanin of the Eagles played in the 1950 World Cup loss to Spain.

The 1950s and 1960s

The NSL, which had staged some pioneering indoor exhibitions in the 1920s, established the first competitive indoor soccer league in 1950, a U.S. first. Twelve teams participated that first year in a 13 week season, broadcast on local radio. Vikings won the regular season, with Eagles winning the playoff trophy. Similar to the ASL game, the NSL had a field of 60 x 42 yards with play-off boards, 7 man teams with two ten minute halves. The playing surface was dirt with only gym shoes permitted. Goalkeeper Gino Gardassanich won the MVP and went with the US World Cup squad to Brazil but did not play. The season was so successful that 17 teams took part the following season, in two divisions. The indoor seasons continued at least through the 1962 season, but was gone by 1968.

During the 1950s, Schwaben was the pre-eminent soccer power in the city, winning six consecutive NSL titles from 1955-1960, and 1963 (1956 was a tie), taking the Peel Cup in 1958, the National Amateur Cup in 1964, and making the National Challenge Cup finals in 1956. The Peel Cup was dominated by the Eagles (who also won the National Challenge Cup in 1953), and Falcons in the early 50’s, with Kickers and Olympic rising to prominence later in the decade and in the 1960s.

The increasing prominence of NSL teams at the national competitions drew the attention of the US Soccer Federation, and Chicago-based players became ever more prominent on the US National Team. Ed Murphy, who had led the Slovaks to the National Amateur Cup final in 1953, won a regular spot on the National Team in 1955, and was a regular for ten years. By the early 1960s, several Chicago based players were regulars on the national team, including Adolph Bachmaier of the Kickers , Melmut Michael and Walter Rongo of Schwaben, and future NASL coach Willy Roy, who was playing for Hansa.

An early attempt to reintroduce professional soccer was the advent of the second International Soccer League in 1960. This New York based operation, which imported foreign teams to play a summer “season” in major US cities, staged several games during its later years in Chicago and although they never drew as well as in New York City, they did whet peoples’ appetites for a higher caliber game. So people were primed when the next big revolution hit the US soccer scene in 1967.

The North American Soccer League

Top level professional soccer returned to the US in 1967 with the formation of two rival leagues, both of which had teams in Chicago. In the United Soccer Association were the Chicago Mustangs, actually the Italian team Caligari, playing a summer “season” between their regular season. The Chicago Spurs of the National Professional Soccer League were a new team, boasting such players as Willy Roy and Bob Gansler who would see time with the National Team. The two leagues wisely merged in 1968, becoming the North American Soccer League, and the Mustangs continued for the 1968 season, but most of the league folded in 1969, along with the Mustangs who had only two mediocre seasons to show for their efforts.

Life returned to the usual at this point. The Kickers won the National Amateur Cup in 1966, 1968, and 1970, and Olympic made the US Open Cup (formerly the National Challenge Cup) finals in 1968, AND Olympic won three consecutive NSL championships from 1968-1970. When the American Soccer League expanded to the Midwest in 1972, the Chicago team was known as the Americans, but they folded after one season., they were followed by the Chicago Cats in the mid 1970’s, but they only lasted a couple seasons.

Big-time soccer returned to Chicago in 1975 when the NASL added the Chicago Sting. The Sting were a long-lived franchise, despite middling attendance, playing from 1975 until the league’s demise in 1984. Initially led by such players as Willy Roy, Clive Griffiths and Rudy Getzinger, the Sting were erratic performers in their early years. Later, with such stars as Karl-Heinz Granitza and Arno Steffenhagen, they found their stride, winning the Soccer Bowl in 1981 and 1984. After the NASL’s 1984 demise, the Sting continued to play in the Major Indoor Soccer League until 1988. That year, the American Indoor Soccer Association (later the NPSL) added the Chicago Power who played until 1996, wining the 1990 championship.

The Recent Years and the Present

Meanwhile during this time, the NSL continued play in a more low-key manner, but its success continued. Chicago Croatian made the US Open Cup finals in 1974 and 1979, the Eagles won the Amateur Cup in 1989 and the Open Cup in 1990, and made the Amateur Cup finals in 1994. The most recent NSL triumph was Chicago Schwaben’s taking of the National Amateur Cup in 1998. The league continues to this day, although very few clubs remain from its glory days. It is much like any other municipal amateur league, people mostly playing for recreation and not a career, but this league has a lot of history to it.

Chicago has not been a hotbed of college soccer, despite the substantial number of varsity teams in the area, most notably Loyola, Northwestern and University of Illinois-Chicago. Although all three were regular fixtures in the NCAA tournament, none has made it to the final, and even fewer women’s teams have yet made an impact, but this could change.

The US National Team played 3 games at Soldier Field in 1992 and 1993, beating Portugal 1-0, drawing with Italy 1-1 and losing to Germany 3-4, the last two being part of the World Series of Soccer, leading up to World Cup 1994. Chicago was a major venue for this World Cup, the most successful in terms of fan attendance. Several first round games, including the opening match were played there, as well as a couple of later round matches were played there, including the Cup’s opening match, all to sellout or near sellout crowds. Despite this success, the initial MLS franchise planned for Chicago was withdrawn to lack of investors, and fans had to make do with the indoor Power, who were successful in their own right.

The fan’s cries for big time soccer were finally answered in 1998. After making do with the USISL’s Division 3 Chicago Stingers for three seasons, the fans were rewarded when Major League Soccer awarded a franchise to the city, the Chicago Fire. The Fire were an immediate hit with the fans, with such prominent players as Hristo Stoichkov and Peter Nowak, and were an immediate hit at the box office. The Fire stunned the US soccer world by winning BOTH the MLS Cup AND the US Open Cup in 1998, their first year, a feat unequaled in US sports history, and have continued to be one of the more successful MLS teams, winning the US Open Cup again in 2000. At the amateur level, Chicago schwaben a long-running team in the Metropolitan League won the National Amateur Cup in 1998. Women’s soccer came to Chicago when the Cobras were launched in 1996, and began a long and successful career, with numerous first and 2nd place divisional finishes, a championship in 2000, runner-up in 1997, 1999 and 2003, and asemifinal appearance in 2004. In 2005 they were renamed the Gaels and in 2008 the Red Eleven but they have yet to recapture their winning ways as the Cobras.

The next milestone in Chicago’s history was its selection as a venue for the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The US team had already played two games there, beating Germany 4-2 in 1998 and Holland 3-0 in May 1999. The US’s one Cup game at Soldier’s was a hard hitting 7-1 thumping of a feisty Nigerian team, before a sellout crowd of 65,080. The latest new team for the region was the Select which played in the USL-PDL for two unsuccessful seasons. The Chicago Fire continued to see mixed success during the first decade of the 20th century. Often finishing 2nd or first in their division, the Fire made the finals in 2004, and the semifinals in 2007, 08 and 09, but always falling just short of their goal. They had considerably more success at the U. S. Open Cup, winning the title in 2000, 2003 and 2006, and earning runner-up honors in 2004. Their prowess in the open Cup earned the fire several spots in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and they made it to the semifinals in 2004. They received a bye through the first round in 2001 but the tournament was cancelled and they were given a spot in the 2002 edition where they fell in the quarterfinals.

The Fire finally opened their soccer-specific stadium in the suburb of Bridgeview late in the decade and it was an immediate success. They also expanded their player development system by adding a reserve squad as an amateur club in the PDL in 2001, and it has been a perennial contende, so much so that they added another amateur club in the NPSL. Indoor soccer made its return with the debut of the Chicago Storm in the MISL in 2004. Generally a mediocre team they did finish second in the 2006-07 season. After the demise of the MISL, they joined with several fellow teams in organizing the XSL which went bust after 1 season, with the Storm coming in last. As of 2010 the team is on hiatus looking for a new league. The Women’s Premier League attempted to join the chicago bandwagomn with the Chicago United Breeze in 2007, but they folded after two years. But the decade ended on a triumphant note as Women’s Professional Soccer added the Chicago red stars as a charter franchise, bringing professional women’s soccer to the Windy City for the first time.

As the first decade of the 21st century emnded, Chicago found itself with a professional men’s team that had a storied history of success, a new top-ranked women’s pro team, and durable amateur teams in both the women’s and men’s national amateur circuits, as well as a burgeomning youth program and numerous successful college squads. In short things looked positive for the future.