Philadelphia soccer legend Alex Ely passed away in late September at the age of 83. Ely, a native of São Paulo, Brazil, was a key member of the Ukrainian Nationals from the late 1950s to early 1960s and promoted the game in various playing and coaching capacities for a majority of his life.
Ely was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1997.
Born to German immigrants, Ely grew up in the streets of São Paulo during a period of anti-German sentiment, where he learned to use his feet and his fists to escape the harshness of discrimination and poverty while also embracing the samba culture and the Brazilian style of the game. He came to America in 1956 and lived with his aunt and uncle determined to join the Navy. Hardly speaking any English, he failed the entrance exams and soon signed with Vereinigung Erzgebirge as a way to play soccer in a familiar environment while attending night school to achieve his high school equivalency.
Years later, he joined the Ukrainian Nationals, an emerging amateur club in the city that won the National Amateur Cup in 1957. During one of the brightest periods of the local game, the Ukrainian Nationals achieved tremendous success in the American Soccer League, a professional league created from the ethnic amateur clubs throughout the Northeastern United States. Led by stars like Walt Bahr, Walt Chyzowych, and Andy Racz, the Ukes won the league from 1961-1964 and won six titles from 1957-1970. In 1960, the Ukes beat the Los Angeles Kickers 5-3 in extra time to secure the club’s first U.S. Open Cup title. Ely assisted on both of Mike Noha’s extra time goals.
The Ukes played in the U.S. Open Cup final five times in seven years, winning in 1960, 61, 63, and 66. Ely lifted the trophy in 1960 and 1963 and was on the losing side in 1964. He missed the 1961 final after suffering a broken ankle in a match against Glasgow’s Third Lanark prior to the final. During the glory years of the Ukrainian Nationals, many touring professional clubs came to the U.S. in search of quality opponents, and the Ukes were on top of that list. In 1959, the Ukes tied Manchester United and Manchester City, and in 1961 they lost to VFB Stuttgart 3-1. In 1962, Ely played on an All-Star team against the England National team, which included Bobby and Jackie Charlton and many of the stars who’d win the World Cup four years later.
Ely also played for the New York Americans in the International Soccer League, Toronto Roma, Philadelphia Spartans, Delaware Wings, and the United German Hungarians. Capped three times, Ely first represented the U.S. in the 1959 Pan-Am Games, winning a bronze medal in a competition that saw the Americans beat Mexico and Brazil. He achieved notoriety for his play back home and was offered a contract with Flamengo, which he declined to pursue his studies in America. In 1960, he played in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Los Angeles, which the Americans lost, and he played for the U.S. in 1965, twice against Mexico as the U.S. again failed to qualify for the World Cup.
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1964 with a degree in Foreign Language Education, Ely returned to Brazil during his prime and taught English for eight years while playing for Santos. But he found the life of a teacher more sustainable than the life of a footballer, so while he taught he played for various lower-level pro and amateur clubs. At Santos, he became friendly with Pelé and later spent a number of years coaching Pelé’s camps when he returned to the United States. Ely earned his Master’s Degree in English Education from Temple before a teaching and coaching career that took him to Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop Prendergast, and Monsignor Bonner. He also published a number of popular English textbooks in Brazil as well as a novel Destiny at Dawn.
His memoir From Hell to the Hall of Fame details his life in Brazil and America as well his soccer career. One of the prominent figures in maintaining the traditions of the United Soccer League, Ely’s coaching stops included the Ukrainian Nationals, Philadelphia Spartans, Monsigner Bonner, Spring Garden College, Archbishop Carroll, UGH and Swarthmore College. In 1975, Ely founded the Kolping Soccer Club and coached for twenty years.
Alex Ely’s influence on the modern game can best be described by some of his former players. Blaise Santangelo, head coach of West Chester United Predators, one of the best amateur teams in the region over the past decade, played for Ely at Archbishop Carroll.
“Alex came in my sophomore year in 1982,” Santangelo told the Brotherly Game. “We knew he was somebody special.”
In Ely’s first season at Carroll, the team finished first in the PCL South, beat St. Joe’s Prep, and lost to Archbishop Ryan in the final.
“He was a great guy,” Santangelo said about Ely, who also coached Santangelo’s younger brother Michael. “He knew the game and let players play.”
Even though he was years removed from his playing days, Ely never shied away from joining in. “He wasn’t as fit obviously,” Santangelo said, “but you could never get the ball off his feet.” After Santangelo’s college career at Elizabethtown, he played for Ely at the Ukrainians and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup in 1987. “I didn’t realize how great he was until I played for the Ukes. He was one of the top players in the country for three to four years.”
Santangelo credits Ely’s passion for the game as his greatest contribution. “He had a personality you could never forget,” he said. “He loved the game and made it easy to love the game. Alex had a tremendous effect on me as a player and coach.”
Paul Donaghy, who played in the USASA Open Cup final in 2002 with VE after a career at Cabrini, played for Ely at Cardinal Dougherty in 1994 when Ely was the Spanish teacher.
“He would cut holes in a newspaper,” Donaghy told the Brotherly Game about his teacher, “then he’d read the paper during a test and look through the holes to catch people cheating.”
Donaghy was a senior captain during Ely’s lone season at Dougherty and remembers his coach’s impact on a team that was holding onto its winning traditions. “Mr. Ely was an excellent coach and an interesting character,” he said, “I remember one practice where he set up cones like a boxing ring and we got in and slap-boxed each other.”
Donaghy, who had aspirations for playing the next level, admired Ely’s professional-style practices, his stories about Pelé, and the manner in which he coached barefoot. “He never wore shoes,” he said. “He’d walk across the parking lot with broken glass to get to the field. It didn’t bother him.” Even then, like he did at Carroll with Santangelo’s teams, Ely still participated in trainings. “He would play in scrimmages,” Donaghy said, “For a guy in his sixties, we couldn’t get the ball off him. We’d kick him but it was like kicking a steel beam.”
Donaghy, an All-Catholic League player, recalls goalie Dan Devery punting balls to Ely at midfield. “He’d catch the ball on the top of his foot, and the ball would drop dead.”
Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin offered his thoughts on Ely’s passing during a media session shortly after Ely’s death. “We briefly met at UGH a while back, back in the days when UGH was the special place to play your high school games,” Curtin said. “We crossed paths and met there, a legend of the game, won trophies basically everywhere he went.”
Curtin, who played at Bishop McDevitt in the PCL, where Ely coached for decades, reflected on the influence of pioneers like Ely on the local game. “With all these older guys that pass away, I think they are proud of the way the game has grown in this country and in the city of Philadelphia.”
The Philadelphia soccer community will miss another integral member responsible for the game’s sustainability over the past half-century. As a coach and educator, Ely spread the joys of soccer in and around the city at the professional, amateur, and school levels, influencing thousands of men and women. Ely’s leadership and commitment helped take soccer from a recreational activity to a profession, and his passion enabled many young players to embrace the game and pass it along to the next generation.