Union's Open Cup links to '66 Ukrainian Nationals

When the Union take the field at PPL Park on Tuesday to play in the 101st U.S. Open Cup final, they will be following in the footsteps of some American soccer legends.

Teams from Pennsylvania have won the tournament 14 times. Among those champions are two powerhouses from the Greater Philadelphia region.

Bethlehem Steel won four Open Cups between 1915 and 1919 and a record-setting fifth in 1926. The Union have paid tribute to their legacy with a black-and-white alternate jersey that resembles Steel's old uniform.

Four decades later, Philadelphia's Ukrainian Nationals won four titles between 1960 and 1966. They were the last local team to lift the trophy.

Although much time has passed since the Ukes' heyday, the team still exists, and some of its former players remain in the region. Those men are happy to help build bonds between their past and present.

Oscar Mendez, a forward on the Ukrainian Nationals' 1966 team, is a proud Union season-ticket holder. The 74-year-old has fond memories of emigrating from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Philadelphia, and playing in the Open Cup. He now lives in Swedesboro, N.J., and still has clippings from The Inquirer on the Ukes' exploits.

"Playing for the Ukes, particularly in that tournament, was one of the memories that just sticks with you," Mendez said. "I have a collection of things that I passed on to one of my sons. I said, keep it there and some day read it because you will see what your father did."

Mendez is also the godfather to the son of one of his former teammates, goalkeeper George Litynskij, who now lives in Langhorne. Litynskij has fond memories of thousands of fans showing up to watch the Ukes' games on a field at 29th and Cambria, near Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Though the team was called the Ukrainian Nationals, its roster was very diverse, and its fans were, too.

"People used to show up from lots of ethnic groups, because they brought that spirit from the countries where they came from," said Litynskij, who's now 78. But he added that the more casual observers "asked 'What kind of sport is that?' because it was not very popular."

Midfielder Alex Ely was born near Sao Paulo, Brazil, to an American mother, and spent his playing career in both nations. At one point, he was teammates with Pelé at famed Brazilian club Santos, and he played six years with the U.S. national team.

Some Philadelphians might know Ely best for his post-playing career. He spent many years as a foreign-language teacher at Cardinal Dougherty and Archbishop Prendergast and coached soccer at Monsignor Bonner, Archbishop Carroll, and Swarthmore College. He remains a part-time teacher at Bonner-Prendergast.

In 1997, Ely was enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame. He was inducted with former teammate Walt Chyzowych, a Temple product who went on to coach Philadelphia University and the U.S. national team. Their honor came 21 years after the Hall of Fame welcomed the most famous Uke of all: Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 U.S. World Cup team that upset England.

"It was wonderful to play and represent a group of people that deserve recognition," Ely said.

Ely, now 76, lives in Northeast Philadelphia. He owns a bar on Roosevelt Boulevard near Oxford Circle, and a photo of him playing for the national team hangs on one of the walls.

Mendez, Litynskij, and Ely will be watching the Union on Tuesday, cheering on their effort to write a new chapter in Philadelphia's U.S. Open Cup history.