Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Last American Cup: Taking the Title to Poland

The American Challenge Cup 
There was a time in American soccer history when the some of the top clubs from around the world competed in a top-flight American league. This premier league was the International Soccer League (ISL), which existed for a short period from 1960 to 1965. The ISL generated enough buzz during its existence to lay the foundations for the future of the sport in America. During its existence, the ISL featured a number of teams that are known worldwide today including Bayern Munich, Everton, and Sporting Lisbon, to name a few. Among the teams to compete in the ISL, was a team from behind the Iron Curtain that would prove formidable in the last year of the leagues existence and take the American Challenge Cup (ACC) back to Poland for good. This team was Polonia Bytom.

Origins of the ISL

The International Soccer League was the brainchild of William Drought Cox, a man who is commonly associated with his ownership of several professional sports franchises including the Philadelphia Phillies, and the failed New York Yankees and Dodgers football franchises. Cox was, in fact, an ambitious entrepreneur who dealt in a number of businesses from art to lumber in addition to his forays into professional sports. His lumber company even supplied the pilings that constructors used to reinforce the Panama Canal, which he later sold and reinvested into mineral development in Greece. During the 1950s through his dealings in Europe, Cox became a soccer fan, saw a good business opportunity, and a void within the sports landscape of the United States.

The 1960’s saw an explosion of professional sports leagues in the United States. From 1960 to1965, Major League Baseball grew from 16 clubs to 20. Professional football saw the American Football League challenge the National Football League in 1960, which culminated in the merger of the two leagues and the creation of the Super Bowl in 1966. By the end of the decade, professional basketball and hockey would increase the number of existing franchises, and see the ABA challenge the NBA for basketball supremacy. Within this vast sports landscape, the American Soccer League (ASL) was at the helm of professional soccer, which many considered a semi-pro league talent wise. The ASL, though it was the only FIFA sanctioned league within the United States, was confined to the East Coast, at this time, and more specifically around New York City and New England. William Cox theorized that soccer would succeed in the growing sports landscape of America, if only the level of play was on par with the product overseas.

Cox saw the amount of people who would push through the turnstiles to see the best clubs and players across Europe. The world, including the United States, by this time, also knew about a growing legend from Brazil and the throngs of people who would pack into the Maracana to watch the beautiful game. Relying on the successes of the game worldwide, and the potential for a world-class production of the game within the states, Cox, in conjunction with the Mayor of New York, Robert F. Wagner, announced the creation of the International Soccer League on October 28, 1959.

From the onset, the ISL drew considerable interest from both the different ethnic groups of New York City and its major daily publication, the New York Times. In addition to its initial media coverage in print, the ISL managed to secure a television contract as well, something that today is vital to the success of professional sports, but was then still in its infancy. The league would also feature, albeit shortly, in other dailies across the nation, and in publications such as Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, and the New Yorker, proving there was considerable interest in the league initially.

Keeping with Cox’s original intent, the ISL brought over some of the world’s best teams and some of the best players of the era. The inaugural season set the tone for the league, and saw the league gain a foothold in the sports psyche of America as the final for the first American Challenge Cup drew over 25,000 fans to the Polo Grounds in New York to see Bangu, of Brazil, defeat Kilmarnock. The successes of the first season ensured the growth of the league in its second season and a future for a top-flight league in the United States.

The next five seasons saw the growth of the league coupled with expansion, threats of FIFA sanctions, Cox’s commitment to the growth of soccer and the success of the national team within the United States, and ultimately the demise of the league. FIFA nearly aborted the second season, only to retract its threats “as long as the proper paperwork was in the mail.” The second season also witnessed the first expansion of league play outside of New York City when the ISL held games in Montreal Canada. The ISL would later host games in Los Angeles, Chicago, Guadalajara, Mexico, and Chicopee, MA. The second season also saw the implementation of a two game final, and the first appearance of the team that came to dominate the American Challenge Cup, Dukla Prague.

Dukla Prague, so what?

Dukla Prague 1962
The 1960s saw Dukla Prague at the pinnacle of Czechoslovak soccer. The team dominated the first half of the decade and captured five league titles in six years. Due to the clubs ties with the army of Czechoslovakia, the team reaped financial benefits from the military, and were able to seize talented players from other clubs as part of their “military conscription”.  The club reached its apex in the 1966-67 campaign when it reached the semi-final round of the European Cup, where it lost to eventual champion Celtic.

When Dukla Prague entered the ISL in 1961, they were coming off a domestic double. The club also brought six players who would feature for the 1962 World Cup runner-up Czechoslovak national team, including the legendary, 1962 Ballon d’Or winner, Josef Masopust. Dukla competed in the second section of the 1961 season and absolutely tore through their group finishing undefeated with a 6-0-1 record with a plus 30-goal differential (36 for, 6 against). En route to the second section crown, Dukla rolled through Red Star Belgrade 4-2, Monoco 2-0, and Espanyol 5-1. Dukla also easily handled lesser competition from Shamrock Rovers, Rapid Vienna, and Israeli side Petah Tikva. Only Montreal Concordia were able to take a point from the Czechoslovak outfit. Rudolf Kucera of Dukla captured the golden boot handily with fifteen goals.

Dukla Prague’s success continued in the two game series for the American Challenge Cup against Everton. In addition to Masopust, Dukla fielded a top-notch squad featuring stalwarts of the national team: Ladislav Novak, Masopust’s midfield running mate, Svatopluk Pluskal, and national team members, Jaroslav Borovicka, Josef Jelinek, and goalkeeper Pavel Kouba. Dukla were favored in the two game series against Everton. The English side finished fifth during their 1960-61 English campaign and brought Welshman Roy Vernon, Scots Bobby Collins, Alex Parker and Alex Young to the across the Atlantic to compete in the ISL. Everton, the winners of the First Section of that ISL season, were by no means a pushover, but the 9-2 aggregate scoreline in favor of Dukla proved otherwise.
Josef Masopust
The first game of the Cup championship took place at the Polo Grounds on August 2, 1961. Dukla were favored to win the match due to their recent dominance in the second section of the league and, likely, the short memory of the press and fans. Though they were champions of the first section, Everton had not played in the ISL since mid-June, while the Dukla eleven were fresh off their 10-0 rout over Shamrock Rovers just three days prior. Dukla showed no signs of fatigue, carried their outstanding form into the game from the first whistle, and dominated Everton to the tune of 7-2. The second-leg, on August 6, proved to be a rather dull affair compared with the first match, but ultimately saw Dukla shut out Everton 2-0. With that win, Dukla ended their first foray in the ISL with an emphatic exclamation point. The next season, 1962, the ISL realized what a gem they had in Dukla Prague and changed the format of the league once again. Dukla would return to defend their championship only after the two section winners battled each other for the regular season ISL title. Dukla Prague would return to New York for the next four years and rattle off a run of four consecutive American Challenge Cups defeating America RJ of Brazil, a Bobby Moore led, West Ham United, and Polish side Zagłębie Sosnowiec. Though none of Dukla’s cup victories were as lopsided as the one against Everton, it took a team at the apex of its existence to snatch the ISL crown, 1962 Polish champions, Polonia Bytom.

1965 ISL First Section Champions

1965 ISL Schedule.
Courtesy of
The ISL’s final season proved to be a promising one. The league hosted double headers throughout the season and featured several strong sides including second time participant and 1963 ISL champion West Ham United, who lined up eventual 1966 World Cup winners, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, and the legendary Bobby Moore. The league, though successful to this point, did have its own problems. Similar to the 1964 campaign, the 1965 rendition only featured ten teams, down from a high of fourteen in 1963. Competing against West Ham in the first Section were: TSV 1860 Munich, European Cup Winners Cup runners up to West Ham United, and 1965-66 Bundesliga Champions, Italian sided Varese, and Brazil's Portugesa. Rounding out the group were the reincarnation of the New York Americans, a side comprised of a who’s who of the German-American Soccer League.

On paper, West Ham should have run roughshod through the first section. They were the preseason favorite given their reputation and past performances within the ISL, but by the end of the six game tournament they were bottom of the table with only one win and two losses coming to the first section champions, the New York Americans. The Americans proved to be a plucky bunch and took the league by surprise. Standout keeper Uwe Schwart and future NFL placekicker Bobby Howfield led them throughout the 1965 season. In fact, the Americans defeated West Ham twice and only dropped their first game to 1860 Munich en route to the first section crown. The New York squad had to wait the rest of the summer to find out who they would face for the ISL championship and a shot at Dukla Prague for the American Challenge Cup.

So what exactly is a Polonia Bytom?

Courtesy of club website
Only four teams competed in the second section of the 1965 ISL season, but the clubs played the same amount of games, six, as the clubs of the first section. Competing in the second half of the campaign was, West Bromwich Albion, recent Scottish champions, Kilmarnock, the renowned, Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners and Hungarian champions, Ferencvaros, and reigning Karl Rappan (Intertoto) Cup champions and two-time Polish champion, Polonia Bytom.

Coming into the second section, Polonia Bytom were looking to continue the successes of past Polish clubs in the ISL. Polonia were the third Polish team to enter the tournament following Polish powerhouse, the Miners of Gornik Zabrze, and 1964 ISL Champions and ACC runners up, Zaglebie Sosnowiec. The Ukrainian Weekly considered Bytom “the most enthusiastic, swift, and resourceful team” competing in the second section. Club legends Edward Szymkowiak, Zygmunt Anczok, and Jan Liberda paced the Silesian eleven. Bytom were in the midst of their most successful spell, fresh off of their first international cup title, and ultimately at the apex  of the club's success. Their foray in the ISL would see the Poles continue their fine run of form and ultimately add silverware to their trophy cabinet.
Edward Szymkowiak
 Courtesy of club website
Looking to draw some of its large Polish population, the ISL scheduled Polonia Bytom’s first match in Chicago against Ferencvaros, a team that some media considered the best in the section. A little over 12,000 people saw a competitive nil-nil draw between the two Eastern European clubs, which undoubtedly is less than the league thought would come through the gates. It proved the last ISL game played outside of New York, as the teams completed the rest of the season at an increasingly dilapidating Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island.

In their second game, played in front of just over 6,000 fans, the Polish squad missed several opportunities and went down 1-0 to Kilmarnock in the 26th minute. Bytom equalized via a beautifully placed ball by Jan Banas that nicked the crossbar and dropped in tying the game at 1-1. The Scots hung on and poor shooting by the Poles doomed the side to their second consecutive draw.

Bytom’s third foray in league play saw the Red and Blue face the Baggies of West Brom. The Brits from the West Midlands were comfortably up 2-0 at halftime. Were it not for two late goals by future St. Louis Star Norbert Pogrezba, West Brom would have taken the two points and command of the second section. The 2-2 draw, displayed in front of a paltry 4,000 plus fans, moved the Poles into a tie for second in the league after three games. The next few games proved decisive in Polonia Bytom’s ISL title hopes and ultimately cemented their place in the championship game against the New York Americans.

Bytom’s streak of three draws came to an end in their forth league game in a rematch with the Hungarian champions Ferencvaros. In a game mired by controversy, the Poles stole two points late on a game winning goal by Zygmunt Schmidt. The Hungarians protested the result due to an illegal substitution. The ISL rules dictated that a team could make a substitution up to the 45th minute of a game, save for a goalkeeper, but Schmidt entered the game for Jan Banas at the start of the second half. Despite the protests, the late goal by the proclaimed illegal substitute Schmidt stood. Bytom took the two points for a victory, winning 2-1, and climbed to the top of the four-team table with five points.

The Polish side looked to continue racking up wins when they met Kilmarnock in their fifth game. Bytom’s eleven proved better finishers the second time around. Zygmunt Schmidt seized the lead for the Poles within the first quarter hour on an assist from Jerzy Jozwiak. In the second half, Norbert Pogrezba tallied another goal for Bytom and cemented the Silesian side’s place atop the second section standings with an easy 2-0 win.

Polonia Bytom’s final match in the ISL’s second section was a rematch against English side West Bromich Albion. The game hardly resembled the first match between the two sides. Bytom dominated the match from the first whistle. Pogrezba and Schmidt again flashed their goal-scoring prowess throughout the game. Schmidt notched the first goal, a header from a corner, in the 31st minute. Pogrezba added a second goal from eight yards away only four minutes after Schmidt’s tally. Schmidt put the game out of reach just four minutes later when he found the net for the second time. West Brom found themselves down 3-0 at the half. Bytom kept the pressure on the Baggies and added a 4th goal scored by Pogrezba just twenty seconds into the second half. Both Pogrezba and Schmidt added another goal each, giving both men a hat trick in a 6-0 rout of West Brom. With the win, Polonia Bytom became the third consecutive Polish side to win an ISL second section title. They finished the section undefeated with three wins and three draws and earned a two game series with the New York Americans for the ISL Championship, with the winner gaining the right to challenge Dukla Prague for the American Challenge Cup.

Polonia Bytom 1960s
Courtesy of club website
Despite the successes of the Americans in the first section of the season, Polonia Bytom entered the series as favorites. Before their section win, the New York eleven, the first American team to compete in the ISL in three years, were not considered to be serious contenders for the section. Their win, to some, symbolized a breakthrough in American soccer and showed that teams could not just come to the States to vacation and collect a paycheck. Both teams featured speedy attacks and superb goaltenders anchored both clubs defenses. In fact, the Americans keeper, Uwe Schwart earned the Dwight D. Eisenhower MVP trophy becoming the second goalkeeper to win the award joining Karl Bogelein of West German club Reutlingen. Bytom entered the series fresh off its 6-0 rout of West Brom looking to end the Americans Cinderella run and take as much silverware as they could back to Poland.

Congressman, and soon to be Mayor of New York, John Lindsay took the honorary first kick in front of just over 8,000 fans to get the first game of the series underway. Bytom pressed the New Yorkers from the first whistle storming into the final third early on. New York had no answer defensively, but the Americans were able to contain the Poles for the first quarter of an hour. Soon after, Jan Banas capitalized on a botched clearance and slotted the ball past Uwe Schwart to put Polonia Bytom up 1-0. The score line held for the rest of the first half. Bytom managed eight shots in the first half, a number they would quadruple by the end of the game, an ISL record. The Poles started the second half much the same as the first and continually made deep runs into the final third, totaling twenty-five shots in the half. Zygmunt Schmidt notched Bytom’s second goal just after the start of the half, while Jerzy Jozwiak, a second-half substitute, bagged an empty net goal in the dying minutes of the game after New York pulled Schwart from goal. Consequently, Pogrezba assisted both second half goals. Had it not been for the 5’7” MVP Schwart manning the Americans goal, Polonia Bytom could have won the game by a far greater margin. Bytom’s win all but ensured a win in the second leg of the final, and pushed them one-step closer to a showdown with Dukla Prague.

The second match, a rain soaked affair witnessed by a little over 3,000 fans, initially appeared to follow the script written by both sides just three days prior in the first leg played August 1st. Polonia Bytom sought to command the game once again from the onset, but New York, learning from its mistakes, weathered the attack. The Americans played with much more confidence and saw Robert Howfield put them up 1-0 at the 28th minute mark. It proved to be a short-lived lead for the New York club. Zygmunt Schmidt tied the game two minutes later, and just after the start of the second half Jozwiak scored putting Bytom up 2-1. Once again, Pogrezba assisted on both goals. The Polish side proved too much for New York and held off the Americans to win the game by the score of 2-1 and the series on a 5-1 aggregate. All that stood in the way of Bytom and the American Challenge Cup trophy was four-time winners Dukla Prague.

The American Challenge Cup

ACC Series Program
Dukla Prague, perennial Czechoslovak power, reigning ACC champions, and current Czechoslavak Cup champions, came to New York right after it completed a series of games on a tour of South America. The format for the two game series differed from years past. The ACC would be decided on points, two for a win and one for a loss, instead of total goals. If the series remained tied after the two games, then the teams would play an extra fifteen-minute period to determine the champion. The teams would play an additional fifteen minutes if a tie remained, and if for some reason either team failed to break the deadlock, a coin flip would determine the winner. Under these circumstances, Polonia Bytom and Dukla Prague met on August 8, 1965 for the first match in the series.

The game kicked off on a hot Sunday afternoon in front of 11,442 fans at Downing Stadium. Both sides fielded heady keepers, a well-knit defensive unit, and a strong attack, but Dukla’s reputation had them favored to win especially with their slew of international stars. Dukla controlled the tempo throughout the first half, but could not take advantage of on their strong play. Bytom slowly warmed to the game, utilized their speed, and capitalized on several of Dukla’s defensive mistakes and the rainy weather. Jan Banas put Bytom up 1-0 in the 54th minute. A Ladislav Novak foul set up a Bytom free kick, one that Banas took eagerly. The free kick bounced around in the box and Banas, sensing an opportunity, knocked in the rebound for the goal. Bytom took advantage of a little rain and another foul to add its second goal of the game. Ryszard Grzegorczyk rocketed in a twenty yarder off an indirect free kick that bounced off the post and in leaving Czechoslovak national team keeper Ivo Victor frozen. The game ended 2-0 seeing Polonia Bytom one-step closer to the trophy and saw Dukla lose for the first time in 20 ISL games over five years.

Just three days later on August 11, Polonia Bytom carried their fine form into the second game of the ACC series. The Poles pressed Dukla as soon as the game started. All of their confidence and pressure almost proved for naught when Josef Vacenovsky put Dukla up 1-0 in the 7th minute of the match. All Dukla needed to do was preserve their lead and win to force a fifteen minute playoff following the game. The Polish side proved undeterred by the early defensive lapse and stayed with their original game plan. Bytom kept the pressure on and managed an equalizer in the 23rd minute when Jerzy Jozniak received a pass from Jan Banas, deked Dukla keeper Pavel Kouba, and slotted the ball into the goal. Sensing victory, Bytom continued to press and completely outran and outclassed Dukla for the rest of the game. Bytom won the series on points with three to Dukla’s one.

Several players holding the ACC
Courtesy of club website

Nearly 15,000 fans witnessed the ISL final that day. Bytom wowed everyone in attendance and finally ended Dukla Prague’s dominance of the ACC. The crowd rushed the field and encircled the Poles as William Cox handed them their second international trophy of the year. The game proved the last of the ISL, but not the end of top-flight soccer in the United States. Through the ISL, Cox brought a level of soccer to America that had never truly existed. By putting quality soccer on display, and only losing around $100,000 in five years, Cox proved that soccer was something more than a kicking game played by non-Americans. The ISL directly influenced the creation of NASL and Polonia Bytom by defeating Dukla Prague in the last game of the league’s existence, gave the league a fine swansong, and the Polish side an incredibly large trophy that it still holds to this day.

Polonia Bytom with their Intercontinental haul

Crowd amassed for Polonia Bytom's return from the United States
Courtesy of the club website

A number of primary and secondary sources were used in the making of this article. Some of sources used include: The New York Times, The Ukrainian Weekly, The American Soccer History ArchivesTom Dunmore's Pitch Invasion post on ISL history, and Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, The New Yorker, and several other sources. 

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