Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cleveland's own Stoke City (?!?!)

Stoke City booked its place in the FA Cup final - the world's longest running domestic club tournament - with a 5-0 win Sunday over Bolton.

<a href="" target="_new" title="">FA Cup: Bolton/Stoke</a>

It's the first time in the club's 148-year history that it's gotten to Wembley and this storied place in English soccer.

Oddly enough, Cleveland has ties to Stoke City.

I've seen mentions over the years of Stoke being tied in some way to this area, but wasn't fully clear on how. So I did some research and found out.

In 1967 the entire Stoke City squad, including star goalkeeper Gordon Banks, played in the United Soccer Association as the Cleveland Stokers. The financiers of the project, hopeful of cashing in on the world's sport, imported clubs from abroad to essentially take on an alias and play in the league. English club Wolverhampton, for example, were the Los Angeles Wolves. Scottish club Aberdeen played as the Washington Whips.

The Stokers played their home matches at the old Stadium. Having Banks playing in Northeast Ohio, albeit temporarily, was actually a bit of a coup. Banks was the starting goalkeeper on the England squad that won its first (and still only) World Cup in 1966. In Stoke's lone season representing Cleveland in the United Soccer Association, it finished second in its division and didn't qualify for the playoffs.

Stoke's players returned home after the 1967 season. The Stokers franchise continued on with new ownership (Indians owner Vernon Stouffer and team president Gabe Paul sold to a group led by Howard Metzenbaum) and inherited most of the Philadelphia roster from the National Professional Soccer League, which the USA merged with to become the North American Soccer League. Amid a dispute with the league, however, the Stokers ended up last one more season in 1968 before folding for good in 1969.

This current Stoke squad, by the way, may have a tough time in the FA Cup final against powerful Manchester City and will go in as an underdog. But good for them to make it to what in some ways amounts to the English soccer version of the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 150 years of existence.

And for one of those years, Stoke was actually Cleveland's own. Who knew?

- Chris Lillstrung


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