Los Angeles' Forgotten Jewish Soccer Dynasty
Maccabi Los Angeles was a team comprised of soap stars, ringers, and random Jewish dudes. By one measure, it remains the most successful team in U.S. soccer history.
Photo courtesy of Eli Marmur
Eric Braeden lived a double life in the 1960s. On weekdays, the actor wore a Nazi uniform as Captain Hans Dietrich on ABC's World War II drama The Rat Patrol. On weekends, he donned a blue-and-white jersey emblazoned with a Star of David for Maccabi Los Angeles, the Jewish entrant in the largely ethnic Greater Los Angeles Soccer League.
Once, after delivering a hard tackle, the future Daytime Emmy winner says he found himself on the receiving end of a paradoxical insult: "You fucking Nazi! You fucking Jew!"
"I said: 'make up your mind, you moron; which is it?'"
The affront makes sense within the world of a forgotten soccer dynasty, which between 1973 and 1981 won five National Challenge Cups. The more-than-a-century-old tournament, now known as the US Open Cup, is America's less-popular equivalent to England's FA Cup in that it's open to squads from every level of the soccer pyramid; since Major League Soccer teams joined, they've won all but one. In Maccabi's day, ethnic teams loomed large; finalists and champions of the 1970s and '80s included the likes of New York Greek-American, Chicago Croatian SC and the San Pedro Yugoslavs.
No team has ever won more than Maccabi's five Open Cups; the also-defunct Bethlehem Steel team shares the honor.* The Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire each have four, and Chicago is still alive in the 2015 tournament.
In the 1976–77 season, the semi-professional Maccabis tallied 35 wins without a loss on the way to city, state and national titles. By the mid-80s, they no longer existed. Today, decades after the team's glories, players' memories aren't always in sync. One, Moshe Hoftman, laments that a pet parrot chewed up most of his notes from those days.
European immigrants, some of whom had been in concentration camps, founded the team in the 1960s. It started to win in the late '60s and '70s, when organizers lured skilled players from Israel, Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere onto the roster. Hoftman, an aspiring engineer from Israel, came on board when fullback Eli Marmur and the team's management arranged to pay his tuition to San Fernando Valley State College (and later UCLA). Benny Binshtock joined after he started working nearby for Mattel, his uncle's toy company. The German-born Braeden, who came to America to become an actor, says he originally played on the Maccabis because "they promised us some money for each game." Soon, he says, "I began to realize that I was the token German on a Jewish team."
The Maccabis say they were often the target of slurs from opponents and spectators—this despite the presence of non-Jewish players like Braeden, whose father was a Nazi party member and mayor of the town where Braeden grew up (Braeden says his father played no part in Nazi atrocities). The actor's teammate and roommate Michael Meyer, half-Jewish and German himself, remembers a member of a German team branding his friend a "traitor."
"None of us took any shit," Braeden says. Marmur fondly remembers his role as an "enforcer" who'd slug opposing players; he says that after one brawl with a Hungarian team, he and other Maccabi players were escorted off the premises in a police car for their protection from an angry mob of opposing fans. "At one point," Marmur says, "the referees said that it would be better if we lost—that it would be safer for everybody."
Maccabi alumni differ as to the frequency and severity of slurs; Meyer says he only occasionally heard abusive language.
The Maccabi team was not exclusively Jewish; major contributors included Braeden, who scored the winning semifinal goal on the way to their first US Open Cup championship, Chon Miranda of Mexico, and Tony Douglas, a native of Trinidad and Tobago.
Some players took pride in their ethnicity, but Meyer didn't find it important. "My mother actually was Jewish," says the academic, who later studied the history of music and art under the Nazis, "so I am part Jewish. But I never promoted that; I thought it was so dumb that these soccer guys looked for [you to have the] ethnic roots of the team you played for. I said: 'hey, this doesn't matter to me.'" He also played with other ethnic teams in the Greater Los Angeles League, including the Scots, where he met Braeden. "We players played for a lot of different teams," Meyer says. "Sometimes we got a little more money from this team or that team, and it didn't matter very much."
It mattered more for Braeden. "It became a statement," he says of playing on a Jewish team, given his own heritage. "I did not work with any prejudices in Germany in the years I lived there, and not one single time did I hear an anti-Semitic remark. Yet, coming here and working in this industry, I of course heard bad things about Germans. I said: 'I'll be damned, I am not like that.'"
The Maccabi team never faced the best talent of its day in the US Open Cup; the North American Soccer League, with intimidating teams like Pelé's New York Cosmos, skipped the event. Marmur says their absence was never an issue, as the Maccabis "were not close to that level."
Binshtock disagrees. He says Maccabi wanted a game against the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs, but "they told us it would be bad publicity, because they were afraid they were going to lose." He remembers beating the Aztecs in a scrimmage in an empty Rose Bowl. The Maccabis did share the stage with the NASL in the 1978 US Open Cup championship game, a 2–0 win over Bridgeport Vasco De Gama at Giants Stadium in New Jersey in front of more than 30,000 fans; the game was the undercard of a doubleheader that also included a Cosmos vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies tilt.
The team never traveled to the CONCACAF Champions Cup, either; Binshtock says finances were the issue. "There was no money," he says. "[Management] couldn't go to the Jewish community [for extra money] because, you know, it's soccer. Who cares about it?"
Maccabi won a record-tying fifth title in 1981 against a team called the Brooklyn Dodgers and, in 1982, fell short of a sixth in an extra-time defeat to the still-active New York Pancyprian Freedoms. They soon stopped playing entirely and shifted their focus to youth programs. Mike Shapow—a goaltender from the early days who remained in management to the end—says fundraising had become a challenge, hampering the recruitment of new players while the core aged. Now all that's left of the club is the occasional social gathering, including a semi-regular Tuesday-night date for some of the players at Il Forno in Santa Monica.
While many ethnic soccer teams survive in America, including several Jewish teams, they rarely make notable Open Cup runs. Perhaps this decade's most memorable underdog Open Cup performance came from amateur side Cal FC, which toppled the Portland Timbers on the road in 2012; a bar team was the darling of this year's early rounds. Marmur thinks it's better that today's game isn't as ethnically focused, but has warm memories of his team's improbable run. "What can I tell you?" he says. "Those were special days."
* In an extremely US Open Cup twist, Josh Hakala, founder of thecup.us, has informed us that there is (sort of, it could be argued) a third five-time US Open Cup winner: the Fall River Marksmen won four titles under their original name, and a fifth as the New Bedford Whalers after merging with other teams. Because the ownership and most of the players remained the same for the side's fifth championship, Hakala makes the case that the Marksmen and the Whalers should be considered one team.