Vereinigung Erzgebirge: Nearly 100 Years of Grassroots Community Building

Vereinigung Erzgebirge club grounds

When supporters descended on the small suburban community west of Philadelphia, they weren’t just coming to watch one of the best David vs. Goliath matchups of the 2024 U.S. Open Cup first round, they were experiencing the fruits of a community-building effort nearly 100 years in the making.

Founded in 1931 by immigrants who arrived from the Erzgebirge region of Germany (located near the border with the Czech Republic), Vereinigung Erzgebirge first began as a way for German immigrants to maintain a sense of community in a new country. The lush green area outside Philadelphia reminded the club’s founders of the wooded mountain landscape of the Erzgebirge region in Germany and they decided it would be the perfect place to build their social club.

Even the logo of the club, with three pine trees standing tall on green hills, is inspired by the logo of the town of Thalheim/Erzgebirge.

During those early days in the 1930’s, Vereinigung Erzgebirge members would work in the factories inside the city during the week, and come out to the countryside on weekends to spend time with family and friends.

At the start, it wasn’t solely about sport. But naturally, anything created by European immigrants at the time was bound to have soccer as one of its core elements.

And today, the club is a shining example of how soccer can build community, and how community can build soccer.

“I think this club does an excellent job of fostering a sense of community among players, families, and members,” shared Rob Oldfield, Vereinigung Erzgebirge coach and former player. “Being one of the oldest grassroots organizations in the U.S., we have a ton of players who started at the club when they were four years old and have a place to come back once they finish playing in college or professionally to play and support the sport.”

Continued Oldfield, “We would not have qualified for this tournament without the support of our youth teams, members, and alumni who have followed us for decades. To see them line our fields and cheer their support, it means everything – it gives the players something to fight for.”

That sentiment was shared by just about everyone we spoke to at the club’s first-round match.

Most of those in attendance played themselves, had parents and grandparents who played for the club, and now had kids of their own who were going through the club system.

Richard Jethon, who has been a member of the club for more than 40 years, spoke about how his grandfather was there in the early days of Vereinigung Erzgebirge and the sense of pride he had being part of the club.

“Growing up in Pennsylvania back in the 60s and 70s, nothing was open on Sundays,” recalled Jethon, whose kids also played for Vereinigung Erzgebirge. “They still had blue laws in the state at that time so families would come to the club and the kids would run around and we’d stay through dinner. And even though things are different today in terms of activities, it’s still that same family-first club.”

Board member Monika Bernhardt mirrored those sentiments, saying, “We are all so close as a club and community. I played for the club when I was younger and even today I keep in touch with my teammates from 30 or 40 years ago. We have all gone our separate ways but we make time to get together when we can.”

From the youth teams decked out in green, to the older adults who were part of some of those early Vereinigung Erzgebirge teams, everyone in attendance noted how the match was a milestone in a long history of accomplishments and memories for the club.

Generations of Milestones

In the early 1930s, the club’s soccer team competed in the North Philadelphia League and found some success in the subsequent decades, winning various trophies in local leagues along the way. The club grew and with it, more teams were added, including a women’s and various youth teams that competed in the region. Over time, Vereinigung Erzgebirge expanded its grounds to make room for the demand for more community and sports facilities.

Rich with history, Vereinigung Erzgebirge is home to one of the few pieces of the Berlin Wall in North America. 

For nearly 100 years, the club has grown to become a staple in Pennsylvania soccer. This year was the first in 22 years that VE Club has competed in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. (Although the club did qualify in 2020 before the tournament was canceled).

When asked what makes the match so special, Coach Rob Oldfield was quick to point out the fact that it’s about more than wins and losses.

The coaches and players aren’t paid for the countless hours they spend each year helping Vereinigung Erzgebirge grow into what it has become today. They do it because they love the sport and they love what the club stands for.

During the day, the players are chemical engineers, accountants, and bakers. The volunteers are hospital workers, managers, and servicemembers.

Then after work, they give their free time to their hometown club.

Said Oldfield, “The Open Cup match is almost like a reward. We want to have a good showing but most of all it’s a celebration of soccer.”

Beyond the Pitch

When the final whistle blew on Thursday night, there was disappointment, to be sure, but there was also pride. Despite the scoreline, those in attendance knew that the team had fought hard and stood toe-to-toe with the professionals for Charlotte Independence.

At the afterparty at the Vereinigung Erzgebirge clubhouse bar, it was less about the result and more about the memory.

Players, coaches, and club members congratulated one another and talked about tackles and missed opportunities from the match. Others swapped stories about previous Open Cup runs and league trophies.

As night went on, fewer and fewer people cared about who won on that frigid night. They were just there to enjoy the company of their neighbors and share some beers with old and new friends alike.

That’s because for Vereinigung Erzgebirge, the value of community has always been priority number one.

Vereinigung Erzgebirge