Walter Bahr welcomes soccer back to Philadelphia

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Walter Barr stands in his den, where soccer memorabilia and photos decorate the wall. Bahr, 80, said he planned to attend today's news conference announcing the return of pro soccer to the region.

Originally published Feb. 28, 2008.

After nearly 60 years, Walter Bahr can still see the play unfold, the movement and timing of his pass that set up the most historic goal in American soccer:

The game-winner in the U.S. team's 1-0 upset of heavily favored England in the 1950 World Cup.

"Nothing fancy," Bahr said yesterday, recalling his storied cross to a teammate, from his home in Boalsburg, Pa.

Bahr, nearly 81, plans to be among hundreds who will gather today to welcome professional soccer back to Philadelphia, as Major League Soccer formally announces the award of a new expansion team to begin play in 2010. MLS commissioner Don Garber is scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. in Chester, where the club will play at a planned waterfront stadium.

The as-yet-unnamed side will be the league's 16th team.

"The soccer fans are just coming out of the woodwork," said Nick Sakiewicz, the CEO of the ownership group, his voice hoarse after an evening with anxious supporters. "It's incredible."

The team has already begun accepting season-ticket applications over the phone at 1-877-MLS-2010. A new Web site will go live shortly, offering a "Two for a Ben" deposit deal - $100 to reserve two seats.

The team's immediate priority is to start stadium construction. The hiring of front-office staff will begin in the fall, and this time next year the team expects to hire a coach.

The local ownership group had been locked in two-city competition with organizers in St. Louis, both sides hoping to become MLS's next team. Now, St. Louis is working to land the 17th club, in an anticipated future round of expansion, and Philadelphia is getting ready to celebrate.

Twenty-seven years after men's outdoor soccer was last played professionally here, the game is coming back to the City of Brotherly Love - or at least to someplace close.

The owners insist the new team will be successful, avoiding the fate of the Philadelphia Fury and Philadelphia Atoms, who failed in the old North American Soccer League.

The $115 million stadium will anchor an expansive $500 million housing, office and retail development that Gov. Rendell said would "change the face of Chester forever." The stadium complex is to sit just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, not far from the new Harrah's casino.

Rendell is expected to attend the news conference with other government leaders, MLS officials and former area soccer stars. There will also be a string band and at least a hundred members of the Sons of Ben, the fan club for a team that, until now, didn't exist.

"It's going to mean lots of jobs and lots of excitement in the city of Chester. Chester's progress is good for everybody in Delaware County," said State Rep. Bryan Lentz of Delaware County.

The announcement comes four weeks to the day after Rendell promised that Pennsylvania would provide a key $47 million in funding for the stadium complex. Delaware County Council is contributing $30 million, and Chester City Council donated the land. Last week, the Delaware River Port Authority kicked in $10 million.

"It shows that when government and the private sector work together, everybody's a winner," said Rep. Dwight Evans (D, Phila.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Bahr is a living link between the city's soccer past and future, between a time when the game was played in fields by millworkers and when it will by played at a glitzy stadium by pros.

Bahr, born in 1927, was captain of that storied 1950 team. He later played for the Philadelphia Nationals, and coached at Temple University and Penn State. He was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976. Two of his sons, Chris and Matt, became placekickers for the Penn State football team and later starred in the NFL.

The World Cup match remains a touchstone, the key play as clear to him now as it was on that sun-splashed day in Brazil. It was the 37th minute:

Bahr takes a throw-in from fellow U.S. team midfielder and fellow Philadelphian Ed McIlvenny. Bahr moves ahead, then turns from about 25 yards away and strikes the ball hard toward England's goal.

Bahr can see the goalkeeper moving right - he'll block the shot. But U.S. forward Joe Gaetjens breaks from a crowd of players, diving down for a header and deflecting the ball into the net.

"Joe was able to get a piece of it," Bahr said.

At the time, people reading newspaper reports in England thought the 1-0 score had to be a misprint, that it was more likely 10-1 for England. Today, in fan surveys, the game consistently ranks among the all-time upsets, perhaps the biggest of all.

The 2005 movie The Game of Their Lives told a Hollywood tale of that game, with Bahr portrayed by actor Wes Bentley. Yesterday, Bahr was planning his drive to Chester, but worried that forecasted snow might force him to stay home.

"I plan to come down, there's no question," Bahr said. "Philadelphia certainly is one of the cities that deserves a professional team, because their involvement with soccer goes back to the very beginning in the U.S." 


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani contributed to this article.