The Difference Between Phoenix Clubs & Tribute Clubs

Given that football clubs are ultimately businesses and that businesses can fail, the idea of phoenix clubs is not a new one. Off the top of my head, I can think of a whole host of clubs who fit the definition to some extent or other, ranging from AFC Wimbledon in England to Parma Calcio 1913 in Italy. These are, on the whole, clubs which were founded, or re-founded, to replace a club which had gone insolvent or was relocated. This is a relatively common happening all over the football world. However, what about the tribute club? A club who is formed, with the sole purpose of restoring awareness to a name which hasn’t been spoken of in many years.

This past week on Twitter, there was an announcement regarding the establishment, or maybe it was the re-establishment, of the Fall River Marksmen. For those who are fans of the history of football in the US, the name resonates deeply, as the Marksmen were one of many storied clubs to have played in the original American Soccer League, during the 1920s. Included in the announcement was a declaration that this club wants to restore the Fall River Marksmen name to its former glory, but this is the second club from Fall River to make such an announcement in the last twelve months. Previously, the Fall River Rovers had declared their intention for re-establishing the prestige that their club name once held.

The story of the development of the game in this part of New England is complicated and fractious. The Rovers, early in the history of the US Open Cup, played in four consecutive finals, winning it in both 1888 and 1889 and reaching the semi-finals of the competition on four occasions between 1909 and 1915, as well as reaching the final of the National Challenge Cup in three successive seasons between 1916 and 1918. The 1916 final, against Bethlehem Steel was attended by an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, with the match punctuated by crowd violence after a contentious late penalty kick won it for Bethlehem, stoking a rivalry that would run throughout the next decade. 

The Fall River Marksmen (named for their founder Sam Mark), meanwhile, had come into being in 1922 when, following the merger of two other leagues to form the American Soccer League, Fall Rovers Rovers were disbanded. A new club, Fall Rovers United, played out the 1921/22 season but struggled both on and off the pitch, before Mark stepped in and offered to invest in the club, building Mark’s Stadium in North Tiverton, Rhode Island, one of the first soccer-specific stadiums in the United States of America.

The Marksmen went on to become the dominant team of what has come to be known as the “Golden Age” of American soccer, winning the league six times and the National Challenge Cup three times before the Great Depression which followed the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 truly bit. With crowds falling, Mark merged the club with another called New York Soccer Club under the name of New York Yankees, but this club only lasted for one season before moving to New Bedford Massachussetts as the New Bedford Whalers. Again, though, the club could not be made financially viable and the Whalers folded in the fall of 1932.

At the time of writing the new club has not fielded a squad, despite having declared the intention of playing in the coming 2019 season. Also, much like the Marksmen above, the Rovers will probably be playing at something comparable to the non-league level of the game in England. But can a club really been a “phoenix club” if there is barely anyone alive who can still remember the original club in any sense at all? Fall City Rovers last played a competitive match in 1921. Fall City Marksmen last did so a decade later. One would have to be over ninety years old even to be able to vaguely recall either of their previous incarnations.

This isn’t the only example of this happening either, as soccer in the United States continues to grow. In the United Soccer League, there is a club called Bethlehem Steel FC, which might be considered to be something like a feeder side for the Philadelphia Union of MLS. Like the Marksmen and the Rovers, the name Bethlehem Steel FC, amongst those with a detailed knowledge of American soccer history, conjures up the mental image of a club which was dominant during its most successful era.

This modern incarnation may be called Bethlehem Steel FC, but this can only truly be considered in name only. The original Bethlehem Steel FC are one of the most storied clubs to have existed during the “Golden Age.”  Founded in 1907 as Bethlehem FC before changing their name as a result of a change of ownership seven years later, Steel were six-time winners of the old American Cup, which was the challenge cup forerunner to the US Open Cup, and were also five-time winners of the US Open Cup. The modern Bethlehem Steel, on the other hand, find themselves bereft of hardware since their reformation in 2014.

There is a perception amongst those who have a reverence for history that the usage of Bethlehem Steel FC was little more than a land grab by the MLS club Philadelphia Union, who have no ties to the previous clubs from the area, and who are merely looking for a way to grab attention by reviving this storied name. The best comparison I can think of, would be for FC United of Manchester to rename themselves Newton Heath. While the name would be an homage, of sorts, to local football history, there is no tangible lineage to connect the two clubs, beyond the name only.

Yet even this is far from a perfect analogy. There remains a direct emotional link between the supporters of FC United of Manchester  and Manchester United (many of the former do still consider themselves the latter as well), and the very formation of the former club would not have happened in the first place had it not been for disillusionment with the the latter. With such a huge gap in time between the failure of the original Marksmen, Rovers and Steel clubs and the arrival of their replacements, though, there’s really no way to be able to consider them a continuation of a tradition in the same way.

This convention of recycling names from the past is very much a part of the present within American club soccer, and it stretches all the way to the top. Of the 2019 MLS roster, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders all take the name of previous clubs from the NASL, yet none them have any significant connection to the extinct clubs whose names they’ve adopted other than coming from the same city. The idea of honouring the past is important, and it is a great thing. However, when it comes to the romanticising of football’s past, this can all start to feel egregious and disingenuous, potentially even tainting once proud institutions with the stains of the sins and failures of their namesakes and losing sight of what made that club’s name so memorable to begin with, should they fail to achieve success themselves.