History of Soccer in Cleveland

The sport of soccer originated in Great Britain and spread throughout the world during the second half of the 19th century. It is not surprising that immigrants of British origin first brought the game to Cleveland during that time. By 1906 distinct teams were formed, the most prominent being the Cleveland Soccer Football Club. In that year the organization was responsible for bringing the Corinthians, a world famous English amateur team made up largely of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, to Cleveland. The locals lost 8-0 before a crowd of nearly 1,000 at Case field. The spectators thoroughly enjoyed the game. Among them were Cleveland Schools Superintendent of Physical Instruction George Ehler, Physical Director Fischer of Lincoln High School and FRANK R. VAN HORN†, president of the Case Athletic Assn. All agreed that soccer would be a good addition to the high school program. In fact, a 2-game series between ST. IGNATIUS HIGH SCHOOL and CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL was played in the fall of 1907. Each team won a game in the first ever soccer contest in Cleveland between secondary schools.

The enthusiasm generated by the Corinthians’ visit also contributed to the formation of the first amateur league. Play began in Oct. 1906 and the inaugural teams were the Thistles, Cleveland Club, Engineers, and Magyars. The Ohio State Soccer Football Commission was organized and affiliated with the U.S. Soccer Football Assn. in 1915. Growth was steady until the immigration restrictions following World War I began to slow the tide of Europeans coming to the U.S. During the 1920s and 1930s anywhere from 75 to 125 teams were registered in Northern Ohio. The names of the teams show them to be backed by business, fraternal, religious and ethnic organizations. Some well known Cleveland firms that sponsored teams were White Motor Co. (see WHITE MOTOR CORP.), Favorite Knitting Mills, TELLING-BELLE VERNON CO., Graphite Bronze, Ideal Rubber Co., Bruell Insurance, Rosenblum Clothes, Gold Bond, and Bartunik Clothes.

Other team names, such as Britannia, Shamrocks, Thistles, All Welsh, Swedish Americans, American Hungarians, Holland Americans, Banat German Sports, American Swiss, La Fraternidad de los Iberos en America, Danish Athletic Club, and Slavia, identified a variety of ethnic groups promoting the sport. A few teams, such as Chagrin Falls, Willoughby, Rocky River, Lorain and Cleveland carried the name of cities and towns from where players were drawn. Many teams in the 1920s and early 1930s had their own fields, such as American Hungarian Park (E. 80th and Kinsman), Sparta Field (E. 52nd and Harvard), Magyar Field (W. 73rd and Denison), Slavia Hooper Field (E. 55th St.), Shamrock Field (W. 65th and Herman), Welsh Field (E. 183rd and Coit), Banat Winton Field (W. 117th and Madison), and F.I.A. Field (E. 42nd and Harvard). Other sites were provided by the City of Cleveland and included two fields at Gordon Park, two at Edgewater Park, two at Woodhill Park, two at Woodland Hills Park, and one each at Garfield Park, and under the Clark Ave. Bridge. The Lakewood Elks made their field available and many important games were played at LUNA PARK Stadium (E. 105th and Woodland) and Baldwin Reservoir.

The growth experienced during the 1920s reached its climax during the 3-year period 1930-May 1932. During that time Bruell Insurance finished runnerup in the National Challenge Cup tournament and Goodyear and Shamrocks became National Amateur Cup champions. Bruell lost a 2-game series to the Marksmen of Fall River, MA, in 1930. In the following year, the Goodyear Wingfoots won the National Amateur title by defeating Black Cats of New Bedford, MA. Although Goodyear was an Akron team, they played in the Ohio Intl. Soccer League, which was centered in Cleveland. On 1 May 1932 the Shamrocks became the first and only Cleveland team to win a national soccer title by defeating Santo Christo of New Bedford, MA, at Slavia Field. A quieter phase ensued for Cleveland soccer following the Shamrock triumph, although in 1945 the Cleveland Americans were able to reach the National Challenge Cup Finals. The Cleveland team lost a 2-game series to Brookhatten of New York. The last Cleveland team to play for a National Title was the Inter-Italians. In 1971, 39 years after the Shamrock victory, they lost in the finals of the National Amateur Cup to Kutis of St. Louis in a game played at Brooklyn High School. The success of the Inter-Italians symbolized the revival of soccer following the period of decline which began in the mid 1930s.

Cleveland got its first whiff of professional soccer when the International Soccer League began playing some of their games in the city in 1964. The ISL had originally operated almost exclusively out of the New York City region. Not a true club based league, the ISL imported major foreign teams to play a league season during their offseason. These included such well known clubs as Kilmarnock, Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade, Real Valladolid, Rapid Vienna, Norrkoping, West Ham United. The teams considered this more of an exhibition series useful mainly for training, but the US fans attended matches enthusiatically as this was their best chance to see top-flight soccer. Unfortunately the ISL folded after the 1965 season, but fans of northeastern Ohio would not be left wanting for long.

Soccer was finally becoming part of Cleveland’s sports culture. In the late 1960s school soccer began to flourish for the first time since its abandonment by the Cleveland schools in 1931. During the interim, only UNIVERSITY SCHOOL which established an interscholastic program in 1927, kept the game alive at the secondary education level. The Preppers played in an interstate league with Shady Side Academy of Pittsburgh, PA, Cranbrook School of Bloomfield Hills, MI, Western Reserve Academy of Hudson, OH, and Nichols School of Buffalo, NY. During the time that soccer was largely absent from the schools some senior soccer clubs tried to keep the sport alive by establishing junior teams. Many of the junior players in the 1930s also played at the Cleveland junior high schools.

In 1967, professional soccer made its return to the USA in the guise of two rival leagues (one sanctioned, one outlaw). The sanctioned league, the United Soccer Association, included the Cleveland Stokers as one of its franchises. This atypical league imported clubs wholesale from other foreign leagues, but unlike the ISL, each club was based in a specific city. The Stokers were actually Stoke City (England) who boasted the famous goalkeeper Gordon banks on their roster. Cleveland went 5-4-3, averaging 6,500 fans per game, by the best attendance the city had seen for organized soccer. Major changes were afoot however as the league rivalry proved untenable; the USA left the franchise importing business to establish regular teams, and reached an agreement with the outlaw circuit (The National Professional Soccer League) to merge into a new league (The North American Soccer League). Unfortunately, Cleveland was not one of the teams to gain entry into the new outfit.

Cleveland returned to the professional scene in 1972 with the launching of the Cleveland Stars in the 2nd division American Soccer League. After two decent seasons (2nd place finishes), Cleveland, was renamed the Cobras. In 1975 they won the central division making their first visit to the playoffs. Unfortunately that would be their high point; although the leam was regularly long-lived for the league in that era, the best they could do was hold onto the middle spots of the standings, eventually sinking to the nether regions for their last few years, finally moving in 1981 to Georgia.

By 1994 the revival of soccer that had begun with the increased immigration of the 1960s, and the favorable publicity associated with England’s courageous 4-2 overtime victory over Germany in the 1966 World Cup Finals, translated into 150 boys and girls teams in the Cleveland area, although ironically no CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS were playing the sport. In addition, over 25,000 youth were registered to play through the Ohio Youth Soccer Assn. with jurisdiction in northern Ohio. Univ. soccer received a boost when Cleveland State (see CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY) was established in 1965 and continued the program launched by FENN COLLEGE in 1954. Many of the early players were born in Europe and come to Cleveland in the post-World War II era.

Professional soccer was first introduced to Cleveland in the autumn of 1929 when the Midwest Professional Soccer League was launched under the leadership of Joseph Triner, a Chicago businessman. Two Cleveland teams, Bruell Insurance and Slavia, were joined by two clubs from Detroit (Detroit Soccer Club and Holly Carburetor), and two from Chicago (Sparta Athletic Club and the Carpenters). The league survived for a season playing a double round-robin format, with a double elimination competition for the Triner Cup in the spring and summer. Bruell Insurance was Triner Cup Champion. After the demise of the Midwest Professional Soccer League, professional soccer did not reappear for 37 years. In 1967 prominent Cleveland businessman VERNON STOUFFER† obtained a franchise for Cleveland in the United Soccer Assn. The Stoke City Stokers from England’s First Division represented Cleveland and played a schedule that began in mid-June and ended in September. In 1968 the Cleveland Stokers became a charter member of the North American Soccer League and were assigned to the Lakes Division of the Eastern Conference. Other teams in the division were the Detroit Cougars, Chicago Mustangs, and Toronto Falcons. The games were played in major league baseball stadiums with a playoff series in September to determine a champion. Prominent Clevelanders involved in the team, besides Stouffer, were Howard Metzenbaum, chairman of the board and treasurer, and Alva (Ted) Bonda, executive vice-president. The roster included players born in England, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Nigeria. The manager was Norman Low, former player personnel director for Liverpool Football Club.

The franchise failed after 2 years but professional soccer returned on a more modest scale in 1972. The team was called the Cleveland Stars and it was organized largely by men of Italian origin who were involved with the successful Inter-Italian amateur team. The Stars used Baldwin Wallace’s George Finnie Stadium and averaged almost 3,000 fans a game in their first year. Local players were used and the coach was Olinto Busetto. After 3 years the small investors who had backed the club were no longer willing to participate. With professional soccer in jeopardy, Howard Collier, a successful businessman, led a group of 4 investors who rescued the franchise and renamed the team the Cobras. In their first year the team was division champion under coach Herb Haller. They were never so successful again, although Dr. John Gyekenyesi, a NASA engineer, through skillful management kept the team in operation from 1975 through 1982. The sale of the franchise to Atlanta brought an end to outdoor professional soccer in Cleveland.

During their existence the Cobras kept alive a long-standing Cleveland tradition of bringing to our city top professional and amateur soccer clubs from around the world. Teams visiting under their auspices were the Canadian and Israeli Olympic teams, Eintracht Braunschweig (Germany), Partisan Belgrade (Yugoslavia), Jerusalem Betar (Israel), Arka Gdyna (Poland), Shannon Rovers (Ireland), and the Polish National team. Crowds of up to 10,000 witnessed some of these games. These visits kept alive a practice that began in 1906, when the Corinthians came to Cleveland. Other teams to appear in Cleveland included Sparta A.C. (Czechoslovakia), Uruguay National Team (World Cup Champion in 1930), Hakoah (Austria), Maccabees (Palestine), Preston North End (England), Kilmarnock (Scotland), Glasgow Rangers (Scotland), Audax Italiano (Chili), Marte (Mexico), Hungaria (Hungary), Rapid Vienna (Austria), Israeli (Israel), Red Stars (Yugoslavia), F.C. Saarbruecken (Germany), M.T.K. (Hungary), Elfsborg (Sweden), Santos (Brazil), Deportivo Cruz Azul (Mexico), K.S. Ruch-Chorzow (Poland), Dinamo (Yugoslavia), and Ujpest (Hungary). In the summer of 1994 the German club Bayern Munich played the USA prior to the start of the World Cup in front of 15,000 spectators.

Currently, the only professional soccer played in Cleveland is of the indoor variety. Indoor soccer was introduced to Cleveland in 1928 when a successful 1-day tournament won by the American Hungarians was held at Public Auditorium. Over the years competitions have been held at the CENTRAL ARMORY, the Equestrium, Collinwood High School, Turners Hall, the Force Fitness Centers, Cleveland State, and CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE. The origins of professional indoor soccer date to 2 Feb. 1930 when the Slavia and Bruell Insurance American Hungarians played a 3-game series to determine the professional championship of Cleveland, the winner to be determined by total goals. The games were played indoors on turf at the Equestrium with 7 players on a side; the Bruells won with a 6 goal advantage.

The Cleveland Force was a charter franchise of the Major Indoor Soccer Leaguye which began play in 1978. Under the astute direction of Bart Wolstein, the club enjoyed great success, playing at the Richfield Coliseum, often in front of nearly 20,000 fans. Although the Force finished last in their first two seasons, fans loved the quick pace and excitement and were rewarded with a 2nd place Eastern finish in 80-81. After stumbling in 82-83, the Force rallied and made the semifinals the next five seasons. In 1987-88 it looked like the fans patience would be rewarded and frustrations ended when the team finally defeated their semifinal opponent and made their first appearance in the championship series. Alas, they lost to San Diego Sockers in four straight and due to financial difficulties the team folded at the end of the season.

When the franchise and the league were terminated after the 1990 season, George Hoffman, an Akron stockbroker, saved professional indoor soccer in Cleveland by organizing the CLEVELAND CRUNCH. The team was terrible their first year, but in 90-91 they made it to the finals before losing a tough series, again to San Diego (who were in the middle of one of their periodic dynasties). With the demise of the MISL in 1992, they jumped to the rival indoor circuit, the National Professional league, driving their way to the finals, this time losiong to Kansas City. The Crunch won the championship in 1994, making them Cleveland’s first professional championship team in 30 years, and their dynasty had begun. Cleveland won titles in 1993-94, 1995-96, and 1998-99, while earning runnerup honors in 1996-97 and 1999-2000. Unfortunately they crashed to earth at that point, and brought up the rear for two seasons. Renaming themselves the Force in 2002, the team rebounded, and battled to the championship series in 2004-05, but folded that year due to financial problems.

Cleveland definitely identified itself with the indoor game during the last quarter of the 20th century, but the outdoor game eventually made a comeback at levels above the flourishing amateur circuits. However, the recent outdoor endeavors paled in comparison to the excitement and fan support generated by the Force and the Crunch. The W-League introduced Cleveland to Women’s soccer with the addition of the Cleveland Eclipse in 1996. After two provisional seasons, the Eclipse won their division, and had respectable performances during the remainder of their five year run. Men’s outdoor soccer returned in 1997 when the USISL (Now United Soccer Leagues) added the Cleveland Caps in their 3rd division league in 1997; The Caps folded after two weak seasons.

Cleveland returned to the USL in 2004 with the addition of the Internationals to their amateur Premier Development League. Cleveland welcomed the National Team to Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2006 for a friendly with Venezuela, a well attended match won by the USA 2-0. This was followed in 2007 by a match between the women’s national team and China, a 2-1 American win. Earlier that year, Cleveland returned to 3rd division soccer when the Cleveland City Stars of USL Division 2 made their debut. The City Stars saw much success during their first two seasons, finishing second in 2007 and winning the 2008 championship in an exciting title match. This earned them promotion to USL Division 1, but with 11 players having advanced to other Division 1 teams, they started with an entirely new roster and coach, playing poorly and folding after a last-place finish. Cleveland fans were again left pining, and things looked rather bleak as the first decade of the 21st century ended. Outside of the local amateur leagues, the only soccer in the city was provided by the amateur USL-PDL’s Internationals, and no real prospects of expansion into Major league Soccer or the division 2 teams on the horizon. A rare highlight in recent times came on May 22, 2010 when the Women’s National team trounced Germany 4-0 in front of 10,321, with Abby Wambach scoring twice.