Lehigh Valley Soccer History: “Stoners”

Pennsylvania Stoners midfielder Jim Stamatis (second from left) was an All-State selection at Liberty High School in Bethlehem before going on to Penn State University, where he was selected as a First Team All-America as a junior and named the winner of the Hermann Trophy as the nation's top collegiate player as a senior --- Stamatis is still the all-time leading scorer (52 go, 29 as, 133 pts) in the long history of Penn State Nittany Lions men's soccer ... (photo courtesy Bob Ehrlich)

Pennsylvania Stoners midfielder Jim Stamatis (second from left) was an All-State selection at Liberty High School in Bethlehem before going on to Penn State University, where he was selected as a First Team All-America as a junior and named the winner of the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate player as a senior — Stamatis is still the all-time leading scorer (52 go, 29 as, 133 pts) in the long history of Penn State Nittany Lions men’s soccer … (photo courtesy Bob Ehrlich)

Letter To The Editor :

I read with the “Footy Coming To The Lehigh Valley” article and its follow-up pieces with great interest as it provoked a few thoughts on a couple of related topics. With IronPigs AAA baseball and Phantoms AHL hockey already on the scene, a new soccer-specific stadium on the waterfront really would allow Allentown to stake its claim for the title of mecca for minor league sports, wouldn’t it then? I must admit, my initial reaction to the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer wanting to put a team here in the Lehigh Valley was something along the lines of, ‘Yippe, yet another Philly farm club that will harbor no concern about getting results but have all the player development and family entertainment I can handle!’
And then I remembered the way things used to be.
Now, believe it or not, there once WAS a very serious professional soccer team based in the City of Allentown that would draw well more than 8,000 people to games playing in a high caliber, nationwide league which required air travel. During each of their three seasons at what was then called Allentown School District Stadium (now known as J. Birney Crum), this ambitious pro team — proudly sporting the local Alpo dog food manufacturer’s logo on the front of its jersey — proved itself to be virtually unbeatable on home turf and qualified for the league playoffs each and every year, as well. As a matter of fact,Willie Ehrlich’s amazing Pennsylvania Stoners never lost a playoff game at ASD Stadium (three wins, one tie) in their three seasons there.
And when the Pennsylvania Stoners ultimately moved to Bethlehem before the 1982 season began, they took with them a 29-game home unbeaten streak (playoffs included) that was still intact.
Meanwhile, everybody likes it when a Rich Thompson, a Ryan Vogelsong or, perhaps, an Erik Kratz turns out on behalf of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, right? Well, the Pennsylvania Stoners local professional soccer team had that sort of stuff in spades! This in a era when almost all professional clubs in both the wealthier North American Soccer League and its more modest ‘rival’, the American Soccer League, tended to pack their rosters with experienced foreigners coming in from Europe and South America.
As it was, this locally-owned pro team placed a premium on using American college players, a laundry list of whom had local roots in the Lehigh Valley and/or regional ties to eastern Pennsylvania. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Stoners players who went to very local high schools such as Liberty, Freedom, Dieruff (yes, that’s right, Dieruff), Emmaus and Salisbury. Plus, the Stoners featured players from local institutions of higher learning institutions such as Lafayette College as well as East Stroudsburg State and also had a small truckload of players from Penn State (a highly successful Division I program that was busy qualifying for the annual NCAA tournament twelve times in fourteen seasons under the direction of the incomparable Walter Bahr).
Furthermore, the Pennsylvania Stoners were not just winners on the field, they were genuine and sincere “community partners” long before anybody figured out how to market that phrase ad nauseam. The Stoners used to hold free clinics all the time; they’d have an announcement along the lines of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be at such and such a field at such and such a time. We’re gonna be demonstrating some basic ball skills and some basic drills, too. But please bring your spikes because it’s a participation thing.’ It was a much, much different era back then — but Willie Ehrlich and his players did not hold the clinics so much for promotional purposes as Willie Ehrlich and his players held the clinics because passing knowledge of the Beautiful Game along to others was just something that was in their blood.
So, what ever became of the Pennsylvania Stoners’ players? Well, one of them signed for reigning Portuguese first division champion Sporting Lisbon and went on to appear for the Nigeria national team as they attempted to qualify for the 1982 FIFA World Cup final tournament in Spain. Another became a placekicker in the National Football League for no less than 17 seasons and collected two Super Bowl rings along the way.
(Actually, the Pennsylvania Stoners had two former players go on to become NFL placekickers but that would be another story)
Others got into coaching. One former Stoners player went back to his native Brazil and had a role in the development of a youngster who became known as Kaka and would be named FIFA’s Player of the Year in 2007 while with Italian giant AC Milan. Another former Stoners player stayed in the area and transformed a local Allentown college into a legitimate Division III national powerhouse.
Some former Stoners players inevitably “retired” and went out into world and got “real jobs”. But, of course, a leopard can’t change his spots. And, furthermore, once something is in your blood, quite often, that is exactly where it stays.
When I was ten years old, I was in the stands at ASD Stadium watching the Pennsylvania Stoners play their inaugural season in the American Soccer League. By sixteen years of age, ASL soccer at ASD is long gone but now I’m playing club soccer for a great guy named Frank Olszewski from Catasauqua, who is getting us regular training games with a men’s team that is packed with former Stoners players. They are under strict orders not to take it easy on the youngsters — and so they don’t!
For all the times we played them (usually over at East Hills in Bethlehem), we got a scoreless draw once but that was it. We lost all the rest but there was never, ever any question who the real winners were on each and every occasion. Exactly how much invaluable stuff we learned by playing against the former professionals, who were quite open and friendly about sharing all their ‘tricks of the trade’, can never be calculated.
This is how I know for sure, though, that Willie Ehrlich’s Pennsylvania Stoners clinics back in the day were about so much more than just marketing and promotions.
There are plenty of other people in my age bracket who played youth soccer in the Lehigh Valley during that era who could easily speak about the positive impact that Willie Ehrlich’s Pennsylvania Stoners had on the community at large, as well, make no mistake. There probably is no real way for anybody to “thank” those Pennsylvania Stoners for all the things they did before and after they ceased to exist. But remembering the team’s on-field accomplishments and helping the team to celebrate the anniversary of its finest hour might be a humble start.
So, yeah, it’s true. Not all that long ago, the City Without Limits once had a professional team that was a league champion. Given what we are traditionally accustomed to getting from the IronPigs and Phantoms, could and would you believe that?!
Rolf Oeler
PS — On the subject of stuff available with the assistance of Google :

stoner shirt

Categories: Kram's Korner - From the Club Level, Union Affiliate Soccer

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3 replies

    • Carlos Madeira, who had a goal in the Pennsylvania Stoners’ club record-tying 6-1 rout of the Detroit Express in July of 1981, also went to Louis E. Dieruff High School.

      As it was, Carlos had two younger brothers (John and Joaquin, known as “Jack”) who both played for cross-town rival William Allen … John was a key man on the Allen team which won the 1981 District XI title by defeating Freedom 4-0 in the final.

      Meanwhile, I sat next to Roman Urbanczuk’s younger sister, Elizabeth, in Mrs. Lakatosh’s home room class my sophomore year at Allen.

  1. I think former Salisbury High School all state soccer player Jason Yeisley, who also played college soccer at Penn State, is now a member of the Richmond Kickers in the USL. I believe he was their leading scorer in 2015 and it would be nice to see him return to the Valley as a pro. I think his team played Harrisburg 2 times in 2015.

    I never played soccer but I grew up around the game because my dad played for some pretty good teams (Portuguese-American Soccer Club) in the late 40’s and early 50’s. I’m really hoping the new team does well in the valley.

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