35 years ago today, a Lehigh Valley professional sports team won a National Championship. This is the first in a series to commemorate that win, and prepare for the return of professional soccer to the Lehigh Valley. This piece arrived in my inbox from one Anon Y. Mouse.
Part One: Origins and Birth of the Pennsylvania Stoners
The mid-1970s was a very significant time period for the development of soccer in the United States, an era which was dominated by the arrival of a wave of foreign professional players spearheaded by the incomparable Brazilian megastar Pele, who was signed by the ambitious New York Cosmos to the astonishingly lucrative contact paying $ 1.4 million dollars a year.By quickly signing other established international stars such as Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and sweeper Franz Beckenbauer, the captain of West Germany’s World Cup-winning squad in 1974, to play alongside the seemingly ageless Pele, the New York Cosmos became wildly popular in very short order. Soon, all teams in the ever-expanding North American Soccer League began to follow suit, even if not all clubs were able to spend the same enormous amounts of money that the Cosmos, who were backed by the financial might of the Warner Communicatoins company, could and would. Indeed, this widespread policy of actively seeking experienced foreign professional players even filtered down to the more austere American Soccer League, which, after decades of operating regionally had finally, in 1976, become a full-fledged national circuit which required air travel..Meanwhile, over in Bethlehem, there was a local resident who was harboring radical ideas about how an American professional soccer team should be run. Willie Ehrlich was an executive in the bicycle manufacturing industry but also knew a little bit about soccer having been a youth team player with Ujpest FC (for well over a century now, one of the giants of Hungarian professional football) as well as a professional player in France. And building a professional soccer team that could win a championship by using American players just so happened to be Ehrlich’s own particular version of the American Dream..The success of the Bethlehem-based Shimano youth team program is credited by many as having provided the original impetus for the would-be American Soccer League champion Pennsylvania Stoners. After all, it was the Shimano side coached by Ehrlich who had defeated the touring youth team of West German professional club Arminia Bielefeld not once but twice. A young Polish-born striker from Dieruff High School over in Allentown named Roman Urbanczuk netted four goals as Shimano smashed Arminia Bielefeld, the national domestic champions for their age bracket, by the lopsided score of 6-1 in a match played at Taylor Stadium on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem..(Taylor Stadium, of course, closed in 1987 and has since been demolished; on that site now stands the Rauch Business Center, the Zoellner Arts Center and a parking garage).Others, and not incorrectly, point to the achievements of Ross Bike, a team in the local Lehigh Valley Senior League who did rather well in the annual U.S. Open Cup and National Amateur Cup tournaments..And then there were the long-since forgotten Lehigh Valley All-Stars, mostly a collection of talented collegians from Pennsylvania schools with a trio of players who were already veterans of the NASL tossed in for good measure. In the summer of 1977, this Lehigh Valley All-Stars team soundly defeated the professional Cleveland Cobras from the American Soccer League 4-0 in a match that was played at the Allentown School District Stadium. If any event foreshadowed the arrival of top notch professional soccer in the City of Allentown, it could have very well been this — no fewer than eleven of the players on the roster of the Lehigh Valley All-Stars team from 1977 went on to play for the Pennsylvania Stoners at some point during Willie Ehrlich’s three very successful seasons as coach of the American Soccer League club from 1979 to 1981..
And so it came to be. Ehrlich got a group of investors together and secured a new franchise in the American Soccer League that would start playing in the spring of 1979, with all of the fledgling club’s home matches to be held at ASD Stadium. The original plan was to christen the new team the “Pennsylvania Keystones” in an obvious nod to the commonwealth’s popular nickname. However, the rights to the name “Keystones” were already owned by a World Tennis Team organization and they were not interested in relinquishing them; thus, the name “Stoners” was selected as an alternative option..When it came time to actually start signing players to stock the new professional team’s roster, Willie Ehrlich stayed true to his overriding belief. This at a point in time when almost all the other ASL clubs were busy targeting aging Brazilian World Cup players and others with copious amounts of experience from the crack European and South American leagues in a bid to emulate/keep pace with their counterparts in the wealthier NASL, of course. But Ehrlich intentionally went against the contemporary grain and loaded his team up with American college players, the overwhelming majority of whom had absolutely no professional experience in any league whatsoever..And to this end, the would-be two-time ASL Coach of the Year left no collegiate stone unturned. In addition to three players from the powerful Hartwick College side that had won the 1977 NCAA Division I title and another trio from the Penn State program that had just qualified for the annual NCAA men’s soccer tournament for the ninth year in succession, on the Pennsylvania Stoners’ roster at the start of the 1979 ASL season were some who had actually not played at the highest level of collegiate soccer in all the land. Unhearlded goalkeeper Scott Manning, who had not been projected as a starter going into training camp but wound up representing the Stoners at the 1979 ASL All-Star Game, came from the State University of New York at Cortland, a Division III school, while defender Rod O’Savio had been an NAIA All-America at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia..The adventurous Ehrlich even dared to roster a couple of local players from Allentown who did not even have so much as any collegiate experience at all. However, the former Shimano striker Urbanczuk, still less than a year out of Dieruff High School, did make a couple of appearances in the Major Indoor Soccer League for the Cleveland Force during the 1978/79 season, it should be noted, and defender Joe Dueh, Jr., yet another Dieruff High product, had spent three seasons with the official United States Armed Forces of Europe team while stationed overseas. It would be one of those two local players, however, who justified the local pioneer’s faith, though, by scoring the very first league goal in the history of the Pennsylvania Stoners..As it was, the use of local players would become a hallmark of the Pennsylvania Stoners all throughout the club’s tenure in the American Soccer League, just as Willie Ehrlich had always originally intended it to be..