A Capsule US Soccer History: Substance and Sizzle

“Soccer does not have the rhythm that Americans are used to.”

“The politics of soccer make me nostalgic for the politics of the Middle East.”

-Henry Kissinger

“What do people not want to talk about? Soccer. Jazz. Infidelity”

-Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy on the television program 30 Rock

Soccer has had a limited but picaresque role in shaping the political character of the United States, and until recently, it has only sporadically and erratically registered in the established order of American team sports. Soccer’s primary political history in the US has been to serve as a foil to its indigenous sports, particularly baseball and football. Following its arrival in the country in 1860s, soccer spent most of its first century struggling to become established at the amateur and professional levels, despite the fact that it, along with rugby, provided the basis for development of American Football. With few exceptions, for the first century after its arrival, soccer was considered a marginal, foreign, and fringe sport by most middle class, native-born Americans, and it attracted as much notoriety for its potentially corruptive (foreign) influence as it did for its positive attributes.

During three distinct historical periods, one in the 1920s, another in the1970s, and since 1996 with the founding of Major League Soccer (MLS), professional soccer has flourished. The first successful period featured the first version of the American Soccer League (ASL 1, 1921–1931.) Over a half-century later, the NASL (1968–1983) enjoyed a “golden era” between 1974–1979 when Pele and other international stars joined teams in the league, and the New York Cosmos became a local sensation during the Disco Age. In recent years, soccer has at last become permanently established as a professional spectator sport at the national level with the maturation of MLS. An improved player development structure, respectable results at the international level (notably more for women’s soccer than men’s,) and a professional league comprised of twenty teams that has steadily climbed in all salient measures of success: ratings, infrastructure, quality, and team/player valuations, the US has established a deep-rooted soccer culture for the first time.

Women’s soccer in the US has a much shorter history than men’s soccer, but has been an unbridled success at the amateur level. Statistics compiled by US Youth Soccer for 2014 indicated that there were approximately 1.5 million registered female youth players in the US (“US Youth Soccer,” 2014 data, http://www.usyouthsoccer.org) The US women’s national team won its first World Cup in 1999, and has been ranked either first or second in the world since 2003 (Fifa/Coca Cola World Rankings, 2017, http://www.fifa.com). During the run up and in the aftermath of the 1999 cup win, women’s soccer garnered the type of media attention in the US normally reserved for the “big three” men’s sports of baseball, football, and basketball, and has created media stars such as Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, who became a global star in the aftermath of a goal celebration in which she removed her shirt to reveal a Nike-branded sports bra. The US women’s national team continues to be the focus for top college players. A professional women’s league, the WPS, operated for several years but folded in 2012, with a successor league, the Women’s Professional Soccer League operated by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) starting play in 2013. As of 2017, ten teams are operating across the US.

Markovits and Hellerman posit that women’s soccer has flourished in part because men have not historically dominated the sport in the US. In the vast majority of nations where men’s soccer exists as the leading or singular team sport, women’s participation is considered to be frivolous, unnecessary, and in many cases antithetical to prevailing religious and political principles. Furthermore, soccer, as the pre-eminent men’s team sport in most of the countries in the world, is regarded in the same machismo terms as baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey are in the US, in effect serving as an inhibiting factor in developing the women’s side of the sport. (Markovits, Andrei S., and Steven L. Hellerman. “Women’s soccer in the United States: yet another American ‘exceptionalism’.” Soccer & Society 4, no. 2–3 (2003): 14–29.)

In the post-Pele NASL era, soccer began to grow at the youth level due to its perception on the part of many parents new to the sport as a safer and less competitive alternative to established team sports. The comparative low cost and safety of soccer led to an increase in youth registration beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the second decade of the 21st century.

Despite its acceptance in recent as a mainstream sport in the post-MLS era, soccer, uniquely among all sports in the US, continues to be contentious for a significant minority of political and sports commentators who view it as alien, un-American, and at times seditious in its organization, ethos, and fealty to a foreign organizing body (FIFA).

Section 1 Political Origins of Soccer in the US

Soccer (officially denoted in the US as “football” until 1974, when the change to “soccer” was made official by the United States Soccer Federation) arrived in the US with English, Scottish, and German immigrants in the 1860s in the ports at Ellis Island in New York and New Orleans, Louisiana. Early pockets of interest formed in the eastern parts of the US, along with the (then) western outpost of St. Louis, Missouri. [1]

Predating the arrival of soccer in the US, the English sport of cricket provided an early case study for political acceptance of a foreign sport. Although baseball, cricket’s chief rival in the US, was derived from the British children’s sport of rounders, baseball’s advocates sought to dissociate it from any connection with a foreign-born sport. In the 1830s, prior to the dissemination of baseball, cricket had attained popularity in the US in New York and Philadelphia, chiefly among upper class contestants and supporters affiliated with private clubs. Emerging from its reputation as a child’s game, baseball began to attain organized status in the mid-1840s. While both cricket and baseball competed for press coverage and overlapped in terms of having affluent sponsors and players, baseball gradually began to attract a more diverse group of players, including immigrants.

When it did arrive, soccer provided the second challenge for baseball. Soccer’s infelicitous arrival in the US coinciding with the rise of baseball was one of several problems that inhibited its development. Politically, the function of soccer in its early days in the US was not so much one of integration as polarization. Soccer in effect served to reinforce nativist (and later nationalist) proclivities among Americans by highlighting its outsider status. Markovits and Hellerman note that in the crucial period between 1890–1915, when baseball was consolidating its status as the dominant grassroots sport in the US, soccer suffered from several vital failings — including its foreign origins — that inhibited its development and acceptance. (Markovits, Andrei S., and Steven L. Hellerman. Offside: soccer and American exceptionalism. Princeton University Press, 2014:105–108)

In addition to being hampered by its foreign roots, soccer (known as “football” in the US until the late 1910s, when “soccer,” an appropriation of the word “association” was added) suffered from fragmented leadership and a lack of an organizational body that advocated for the sport’s growth outside of immigrant communities. In 1884, the American Football (soccer) Association was formed in an attempt to standardize the rules for soccer in the northeastern region of the US, and by 1885, teams across different parts of the country competed for the American Cup, later known as the Challenge Cup and the Lamar Hunt Open Cup (Markovits and Hellerman, Offside: 108.) During the same period, a number of regional leagues were organized, including the American Amateur Football Association (1893), the American League of Professional Football Clubs (1894), the National Association Football League (1895), and the Southern New England Football League (1914). However, it was not until 1945 that the United States Soccer Football Association was formed, the first national governing body for the sport and its link to FIFA, the global administrative arm for soccer.[2]

Soccer’s ascendance during the mid-1920s glory years of the ASL suggests that it was very likely the third most important spectator team sport in the country, behind baseball and college football. Baseball had entered into its halcyon era with Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees gaining national attention, while professional football, basketball and hockey were either in their infancy or not widespread in terms of participation and audience. During this period, the ASL’s international influence was so strong that the Scottish Football Association convened a special meeting in Glasgow in the summer of 1925 to discuss the American “menace — ” the financial allure for players to leave Scotland to play in the US (Jose, Colin. The American Soccer League: The Golden Years of American Soccer 1921–1931. Vol. 9. Scarecrow Press, 1998:7.) In January of 1927, the Austrian, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, and Yugoslavian Football Associations leveled tampering accusations against the USSF, and requested that it be suspended from FIFA. The crux of these complaints possibly centered on former Hakoah Vienna players who defected to the Brooklyn Wanderers and New York Giants of the ASL following its US tour in 1926. (Jose, The American Soccer League: 13.)

Soccer as Political Refuge in the United States

If American soccer has had little to do with shaping the nation’s internal politics, it has provided a safe haven for players fleeing religious and political persecution in their home countries. On two occasions, first in the 1920s prior to the Nazi usurpation of German and central European soccer, and again in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, great European sides provided a windfall of top flight players for the US. In later years, beginning in 1999, a steady trickle of amateur Cuban soccer players have defected to the US after playing matches on American soil. The Cuban Adjustment Act passed by US Congress in 1966 and amended in 1995, has been referred to as a “wet feet, dry feet” policy wherein Cubans who make it to land are permitted to stay in the US, whereas those who are intercepted at sea are returned or sent to other countries. Between 1999 and 2015, over 30 players defected. The restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2016 by President Obama will obviously render the soccer/asylum link moot going forward.

For the Austrian Hakoah Vienna players who won the first Austrian professional league title in 1925, the ASL 1 proved to be a safe haven for a good portion of its team. While growing anti-Semitism in Europe directed at Jewish players and teams was certainly a factor that convinced many Hakoah Vienna players to defect to the US after its tour, another reason was the considerable success of the ASL. Such was the growth of the league that teams were able to pay top players like Bela Guttmann the equivalent of $4,200 annually, which was approximately three times the salary of an average private sector worker at the time. (David Bolchover, The Greatest Comeback, From Genocide to Football Glory, The Story of Bela Guttmann, Biteback Publishing, 2017: 48.) At the time, Hakoah players were in a unique socio-political position to exploit their talent for financial gain in New York City due to its enormous Jewish population and consequent popularity of a relocated Hakoah team.

The political windfall and international mobility facilitated by American soccer proved to be a lifesaving factor for at least nine former Hakoah Vienna players. Whether the players were able to circumvent immigration restrictions by having family members already living in the US, or whether the ESL/ASL facilitated their transition to the US is not known, but soccer served a vital role in providing a safe landing for many players who would otherwise have been killed in World War 2 had they remained in Europe.

Precisely as the ASL began to flourish, The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, a US federal law, (http://www.history.state.gov) imposed immigration limitations and outright bans for certain nationalities and religions to come into the US. The bill severely restricted Southern European and Jewish immigration. Considering the extensive support of immigrant Portuguese and Italian communities for soccer in its most important cities, particularly in the Golden Triangle region of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, this was a considerable setback for the sport. The fact that soccer was under assault from two fronts — Johnson-Reed and European soccer associations attacking the ASL for poaching their players — it survived sufficiently well in the US through the late 1920s. The stars of the ASL during this era would feature in a very successful run to the semi-final match versus Argentina at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay. [3]

Section 2 Historical Club Rivalries

The mercurial swings of professional soccer in the United States, have not — until very recently (circa early 2000s) — provided the context for entrenched club rivalries anywhere near approaching the fervor of those in Europe and South America. However during the 1920s and in regional, semi-professional leagues like the German-American/Cosmopolitan league in the New York region, ethnic rivalries are common and fierce, and have occasionally spurred violent incidents. In addition to team rivalries, soccer in the US has suffered from power struggles among competing organizing bodies, which for many years was a factor suppressing soccer’s growth.

Several elements have worked against the formation of important club rivalries in US soccer. Absent a continuously operating professional league playing at a high standard, teams have not played continuously and for a long enough to gain inter-generational adherents who pass on rooting interests. Ethnic affiliation, while sustaining soccer through its first century in the US, and briefly fomenting a notable ASL rivalry between Bethlehem and Fall River, has never translated into longstanding professional soccer rivalry in the US. Most ethnic groups have retained a rooting interest (even second generation and beyond) for the club and national teams their ancestors followed. Nor have class rivalries factored into soccer in the US in the way that it has in many countries. The type of entrenched rivalries spanning class and ethnic roots characteristic of European soccer have been largely expressed in the US through college football.[4]

Following soccer’s introduction to the US in the 1860s, club teams began to form, beginning with Boston’s Oneida Club in 1862, comprised mostly of secondary students from elite schools. Association Football (soccer) was given a boost when the rules for both it and “The Handling Game,” (rugby) were published in 1866 by the New York House of Beadle & Company. (Litterer, “The History of Professional Soccer in New England.” US soccer archives, 2010.) Although it is widely considered the first collegiate soccer game in the US, the Princeton versus Rutgers game in 1869 featured rules established by the English F.A. in 1863 that permitted the ball to be batted, but not thrown. Resembling a hybrid form of soccer and rugby, the Princeton-Rutgers game is also considered to be the first collegiate American football game. (Markovits and Hellerman, Offside: 71.)

College football in the US contains numerous long-standing, contentious rivalries that match international soccer for intensity, if not in terms of socio-political connections and influence. The groundwork for this was established in 1871 when Harvard University moved to adopt what became known as “The Boston Game” that permitted throwing the ball. Although a hybrid sport with elements of soccer and rugby was played at the intercollegiate level through the mid-1870s, by 1876 American football had become the dominant sport on campuses, albeit in a form that relied primarily on running and punting. Although intercollegiate soccer was played by a small number of colleges, it was not until 1959 that a formal, national intercollegiate tournament was sanctioned.

Soccer’s development in the US was therefore vested with its burgeoning immigrant population. Following immigration patterns, soccer developed strongholds in many northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and midwestern cities, along with a limited presence on the west coast. Between 1890 and 1916, the Roman Catholic population of the US increased from 6.2 million to 15.7 million, and the Jewish population increased threefold between 1905–1916, providing fresh talent from many European countries. (Bigalke, “Anything but Ringers”: 23.)

1870–1920 American Club Soccer-Early Organization

The marginalization of college soccer was a setback for the sport’s widespread acceptance by the middle class, but immigration and industrialization provided the impetus for it to take root in four regions: New England, Pennsylvania, New York, and the Midwest (Bigalke, “Anything but Ringers”: 2.) During the first part of the 20th century, soccer was second only to baseball in popularity in these regions. In 1889, the first inter-city soccer matches were played in New England by clubs in Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts. During the years leading up to the turn of the 19th century, immigrants tended to cling to their European roots and formed teams with distinct ethnic affiliations and identities.

In 1894, the first professional US soccer league was formed — the short-lived ALPFC (American League of Professional Football Clubs,) — by National League baseball club owners seeking additional revenue during the baseball off-season. With a reputation for avarice and mismanagement, team owners had virtually no knowledge of soccer, and were ill prepared to form a professional soccer league. During this period, other leagues were formed as well, including the National Association Football League (1906–1921,) and the Southern New England Soccer League (1907–1921.) (Markovits and Hellerman, Offside: 105–108.)

From a political standpoint, the 1894 ALPFC was damaging to the development of soccer, and reinforced the division between immigrants and native-born Americans with regard to sporting preference. The league’s near total reliance on foreign-born players contributed to soccer’s stigma as un-American. Indeed, the Baltimore franchise was effectively a wholly imported team that was exclusively comprised of top professionals from Manchester, England. Baltimore’s dominance led to carping from other teams, along with an investigation by American immigration authorities into the work status of its players.

Corporate Sponsorship Foreshadows Professional Soccer

By 1870, the burgeoning immigrant populations in Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts were supplying two things in abundance: skilled labor to support its textile industry and soccer talent. Along with Pawtucket, Rhode Island, these cities comprised soccer’s “Golden Triangle,” and gave rise to a succession of amateur, semi-professional, and professional teams that provided key talent for the 1930 US World Cup team that made the semi-finals in Uruguay. The two stars of the team, Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude, were born in this region, and they led the 1930 team that was comprised of predominantly American born players. [5]

Although most of the top American teams were concentrated in this sub-region of New England, Our New Thread, a team from Kearny, New Jersey, won the first national cup tournament, then know as the American Cup, later renamed the National Challenge Cup and today known as the Lamar Hunt Open Trophy. In the coming years through 1898 (until the American Cup was temporarily suspended,) most of the championship teams came from the Golden Triangle. Although soccer continued to be played by amateur and semi-pro leagues into the beginning of the 20th century, labor strife in New England and the 1898 Spanish-American War brought a temporary halt to soccer’s national competition.

The first American soccer dynasty was formed in the first decade of the 20th Century. In 1908, workers at the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Pennsylvania plant started a soccer team that by 1912 was directly sponsored by the company. Players for the team were directly recruited from Scotland and Ireland and work schedules were adjusted so that training could take place during the day. (Litterer, “The History of Professional Soccer in New England.”) In effect, its players were semi-professional, and as such, Bethlehem Steel arguably fielded the first non-amateur soccer team in the US. During World War One, Bethlehem Steel was one of the top teams in the country, reaching the Challenge Cup finals every year between 1913–1918. Prompted by the team’s success, Bethlehem Steel’s chairman Charles Schwab erected a 10,000-seat stadium that was frequently filled to capacity until the team moved to Philadelphia in 1922.

Perhaps more important for soccer’s eventual social integration into American society was the burgeoning growth of the sport in St. Louis, Missouri. Promoted by the Catholic Archdiocese as a form of healthy recreation, soccer got a boost from church-sponsored teams that were instrumental in forming the St. Louis city league in 1903. Although the St. Leos team won the city league title every year from 1905–1914, it was the Ben Millers, a team comprised entirely of native-born American players, that established one of the first true interstate club rivalries with Bethlehem Steel’s entirely British-born squad. (Bigalke, “Anything But Ringers:” 26–28.) The rivalry culminated in a thrilling 1920 victory for the national cup title before a crowd of 12,000 at the Federal League baseball park in St. Louis.

Bethlehem’s rivalry with the Fall River Rovers was one of the most intense during the formative years of soccer in the US. The teams contested three consecutive National Challenge Cups during the late-1910s, with Bethlehem’s teams comprised of recruited talent from Scotland and England, and The Rovers’ teams primarily fielding native-born talent. During the 1916 final, there was a pitch invasion near the end of the final match in Pawtucket, Rhode Island after the Rover’s were not awarded a penalty shortly after Steel took a 1–0 lead from a penalty kick. Scotland-US strife surfaced again a decade later with accusations in Scotland about poaching its players for the ASL, prompting a FIFA-led investigation and ruling against the USFA.

Professional Soccer Emerges: The American Soccer League (ASL 1) 1921–1931

American professional soccer had its first enduring success with the formation of the American Soccer League in 1921 following an organizational meeting at the Astor Hotel in New York City. Its founding members were initially all east coast teams: Philadelphia Field Club (Bethlehem Steel sponsorship,) New York FC, Todd Shipyards (New York,) Harrison (New Jersey) FC, J&P Coats (Pawtucket, Rhode Island,) Fall River United (Fall River played with a variety of nicknames throughout is glory years, including United, Rovers, and Marksmen,) Holyoke (Massachusetts) Falcos, and the Jersey City Celtics who folded after a partial season. (Jose, Colin. The American Soccer League: The Golden Years of American Soccer 1921–1931. Vol. 9. Scarecrow Press, 1998.)

While soccer had clearly gained professional traction heading into the mid-1920s, a New York Times article from January 13, 1924 quotes Thomas Cahill, the Secretary of the USFA (United States Football Association) expressing the belief that in the not distant future, soccer would rank second only to baseball as the leading professional game. But his view was tempered with the recognition of the established sports pecking order: “However soccer is in no way trying to take the place of baseball in the hearts of the public. Baseball is the national sport, and such it will remain. Neither is soccer trying to replace football in the universities.” (Arlene Kelin and Christine Bent, ed., The Complete Book of Soccer and Hockey, the New York Times Company, 1980) p.10.

Cahill presided over a league with diverse ownership that included Horace Stoneham, the owner of the New York Giants baseball team, and Bethlehem Steel, a corporate giant that supplied the material for the supreme icon of the jazz age, the Chrysler Building. Stoneham had purchased the Giants in a deal brokered by Arnold Rothstein, a well-known gambler and organized crime leader with ties to Jimmy Walker’s corrupt mayoral regime, colloquially known as “Tammany Hall.” Stoneham, who had been thwarted in his 1922 attempt to secure an ASL franchise to play at the Polo Grounds — in part due to resistance from Paterson F.C., the 1922–23 ASL league champions — became interested in starting a new franchise to play at the massive, newly constructed Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. Paterson had secured an agreement to move his franchise to New York City and play at the Polo Grounds, and did not want his territory infringed upon. Whether Rothstein exerted financial influence over New York City officials to ease territorial restrictions is not known, but Stoneham was able to secure a franchise to play at Yankee Stadium for the 1923–24 season after another Astor hotel meeting during June of 1923.

During the mid-1920s, the Fall River Marksmen — named after its owner, Sam Mark — recapitulated the success of the Fall River Rovers amateur team from the previous decade, playing in a 15,000 seat soccer-specific stadium built by Mark. Featuring homegrown stars Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude (of Portuguese and French-Canadian extraction respectively,) the Marksmen dominated the ASL, winning the league title in three consecutive seasons between 1924–1926, and for three more seasons between 1928–1930. It was during this era that Fall River and the New Bedford Whalers were bitter rivals, playing before crowds over 10,000 and inspiring enough acrimony that New Bedford refused to play neutral playoff games at Mark’s Stadium, noting that any game played there was an away game for New Bedford. (Jose, American Soccer League: 10.)

Gonsalves and Patenaude also formed the nucleus of the 1930 US World Cup squad that travelled to Uruguay for the inaugural tournament, with Patenaude scoring the first hat trick in the history of the tournament in the US’s second game versus Paraguay. The team lost to Argentina in the semi-finals, albeit in a small tournament that featured just 13 teams. But in post-tournament friendlies, the US team registered a series of very respectable results versus South American competition, including a 4–3 win versus Santos of Brazil (the official score having been “adjusted” to 3–3 after the referee noted after the match that he was disallowing one of the US goals.)

Markovits and Hellerman note that while the ASL was successful in smaller markets like Fall River, it failed to attract widespread attention and popularity in larger markets like New York and Boston. They additionally note the dearth of American-born talent in the league as a cause for the concomitant lack of American-born fans, although players like Patenaude, Gonsalves, and Archie Stark, were all prolific scorers and American players (Stark was born abroad, but emigrated to America in his early teens.) [6] Whether it was a failure to properly market these players to American sports fans or the fact that notwithstanding the talents of these and other native-born players, soccer (even among its most assiduous boosters like Thomas Cahill) was consigned to secondary status to baseball (and by inference the other leading sports of the time, boxing and horse racing,) a number of factors converged in the late 1920s that would suppress the sport’s development until the late 1960s.

However during the 1924–1925 season, a rift between the ASL and the USFA would foreshadow a bigger problem for soccer. The ASL began to withdraw from US Challenge Cup games during the season, preferring to concentrate on its regular season games. In 1928, behind Charles A. Stoneham, the owner of the baseball Giants and New York Nationals of the ASL, again proposed a boycott, which led to sanctions against the ASL by the USFA. The ensuing friction between the professional league and the federation became known as the “soccer war,” and spurred the creation of a rival league — the Eastern Professional Soccer League. While the ASL and USFA reconciled their differences in October of 1929, the stock market crash that occurred in the same month introduced an element of instability for the league, and its first iteration folded in 1931.

From ASL-NASL: Professional Soccer Recapitulated in the 1960s

The second iteration of the ASL was resurrected shortly after its demise in 1931, and while it lasted until 1983, the league was not as successful as the ASL 1, and was essentially a semi-professional league as none if its players earned a living solely playing soccer. A competing league, the German-American League, founded in 1923 with five clubs, grew to more than 50, mostly ethnic-based teams by the time it changed its name to the Cosmopolitan League in the 1970s (Markovits and Hellerman, Offside: 103.) The ethnic-based origins of the vast majority of soccer teams was rarely exclusive in terms of its players, a factor that may explain the lack of enduring club rivalries from this era. Teams like Maccabee Los Angeles that won four Challenge Cups in the 1970s and the Pancyprian Freedoms who won three Open cups in the 1980s included players from many nations.

A surging stock market and simultaneous employment boom reinforced a growing American “leisure class” that emerged in the mid-late 1960s. One byproduct of this was growing national appetite for professional sports. The National Hockey league prior to 1966–1967 consisted of only six teams, and the league had a strictly regional appeal until it expanded all the way to the west coast with teams based in Oakland and Los Angeles. Soccer, perhaps based on the fact that for the first time the World Cup final in 1966 had been broadcast on live television[7] in the US, attracted the attention of a wealthy cadre of professional sports owners that included Jack Kent Cooke, Lamar Hunt, Madison Square Garden, Roy Hofheinz, and R.K.O.-General. (Markovits and Hellerman, Offside, p.164.)

With 17 teams beginning play in 1968 after a merger between two competing leagues — the NPSL (National Professional Soccer League) and the USA (United Soccer Association — ) the NASL (North American Soccer League,) after a sputtering start that saw its team roster shrink to 5 in 1969, would become the first significant professional soccer league since the ASL 1. While the NASL was effectively a one-team-wonder starring Pele’s New York Cosmos and its theatrical and commercially successful 1975–1978 run, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and its brash star Rodney Marsh (who infamously had referred to Pele as “the black Rodney Marsh”) provided enough of a foil to create a brief but acrimonious rivalry during the mid-to late 1970s.

Major League Soccer 1996-Present

The most fervent modern day rivalry in professional soccer in the United States is the intercity derby between the three teams of the Cascadia region: Seattle, Portland, and to a somewhat lesser extent Vancouver, Canada. The three teams annually play for bragging rights based on the results of their games against one another, and the winner is awarded the Cascadia Cup. While the rivalry is spirited and largely based on the larger and more corporate Seattle Sounders versus the smaller and more regionally focused Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, there is not enough social, ethnic, or economic differentiation among the fan bases of the three teams to equate to an entrenched South American or European rivalry.

Section 3 Political Aspects of Football as Sports Spectacle

Except for brief periods, notably during mid-to late 1920s with the ASL serving as a safe haven for defecting Hakoah Vienna players and with the Nixon administration assisting in luring Pele from Brazil to the New York Cosmos of the NASL in 1974, it is difficult to ascribe any overt political role to soccer in the US. Soccer, principally due to its foreign origins, has served as a simulacrum of otherness — not an American sport and therefore inferior and oppositional to American values and traditions. While virtually every other team sport (and individual sport for that matter) in the US is left to fail or flourish on its own merits, soccer alone has the power to polarize sports media figures and fans.

In the modern era, the widespread influence of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans has drawn attention in both a positive and negative manner. The presence of large numbers of Americans with Mexican heritage has supplied players for every level of professional and amateur soccer in the US, and has created one of the great national team rivalries in the world between the US and Mexico. But immigrants and Mexican-Americans have frequently been overlooked by soccer, insofar as there are many players in urban communities who do not participate in youth club soccer, the primary feeder system for college programs, which in turn feeds into MLS and other professional playing opportunities. In a 1993 essay (Gardner, Paul. Soccertalk. Chicago, IL: Masters Press, 1999:164)

Paul Gardner ascribed this to Eurocentric coaching and a resistance to integrating Mexican-Americans into the soccer mainstream. This concern continues to the present, and it also relates to the wider concern that the “suburbanization” of soccer has prevented children from lower-income families to become interested in soccer. MLS teams have begun to address this oversight with the development of club-run academies that seek out young players who might otherwise not become part of the development system.

Soccer has only recently become sufficiently entrenched at the professional level to matter in the national sporting discourse. With the advent of widely accessible digital satellite television and internet access, soccer — as a global sport as opposed to a purely domestic product — has received reasonably strong ratings along with securing lucrative contracts from mainstream sport media networks. In 2015, the networks ESPN and Fox (in a rare collaborative effort) paid approximately $720 million over seven years for rights to broadcast Premier League matches in the US

A. Perception and Significance of Soccer Within a Given Society

Despite the fact that it has taken about a century and a half for soccer to become fully established in the US, it, along with rugby, was responsible for the creation of American football, the preeminent spectator sport in the country. As football became widespread at the collegiate level in the early part of the 20th century, soccer was marginalized and comparatively few colleges fielded varsity teams. Soccer did manage to survive and occasionally flourish in immigrant-rich urban areas during a century-long period spanning from the time of the 1869 Rutgers vs. Princeton match through the 1974, a watershed year for soccer with the arrival of Pele in America.

The political history of soccer in the United States is mostly a chronicle of insularity and neglect, rather than one of influence and cross-fertilization with its host nation and its indigenous sports. While the first professional soccer league in the US was the short-lived ALPFC in the 1890s, the sport was unable to attract consistent widespread appeal among native-born Americans until the NASL began to attract large crowds in the 1970s. In 1869, nearly a century after the founding of the United States, Rutgers and Princeton Universities played a soccer/rugby hybrid match somewhat informed by British FA rules. It would be another 125 years before the US hosted the World Cup, and even in the aftermath of the world’s most important sports competition, soccer continued to flounder at the professional level.

In a 1977 essay “Too Much British Influence,” Gardner describes what he believed to be a deadening influence on American soccer from British coaches and players either too old or not good enough for the top level abroad. Classifying imported talent into opportunists, has-beens, and mediocrities, Gardner concluded that this agglomeration of third-tier talent was insufficient to stir the imagination of the American sports public. This point is critical: a major impediment to soccer’s acceptance as the equal of other professional sports in the US has been the continuing reliance on a substandard product relative to its competition.

While the US has the world’s best sports leagues in baseball, football, ice hockey, and basketball, somehow the notion that Americans should be willing to be enraptured by mediocre soccer has been prevalent (with the exception of the ASL’s golden 1920s decade and the Pele era of the NASL) until the early-2000s. For many years, particularly between the end of the first iteration of the ASL in 1931 and the formation of the NASL in 1968, economics had dictated this conundrum: absent top level product there was feeble support for soccer, yet without significant investment in stadiums, managerial talent, and a defined season (the “crowding out” factor,) it was impossible to bring in top players in their prime.

During its prime years (1924–1928,) the ASL did bring in top players and played to such a high standard, that many players, either foreign players who honed their skill in the league or native-born American players went to Great Britain to play, and at least two ASL teams — the Hakoah All Stars and Fall River Marksmen — embarked on extensive tours of South America and Europe.

Markovits and Hellerman provide insight into how the sheer size of the US inhibited the development of soccer as a monolithic sports organization. They assert that the US is “simply too big, diverse, de-centralized and ruled by too strict a set of market-oriented and competition-encouraging anti-trust laws to make an all-encompassing, all-inclusive organizational pyramid possible.” (Markovits and Hellerman, Offside: 104.)

1970s — a flourish of political intrigue

In 1973, soccer had a brief moment of political glory when Pele was invited to meet with President Richard Nixon at the White House. Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used his office to help broker the deal that brought Pele to the New York Cosmos. Pele was guaranteed a salary of $1.4 million (within the framework of a deal worth nearly $5.0 million,) an astonishing amount at the time considering baseball’s best player, Hank Aaron, was earning $200,000 annually.

Kissinger’s attempt to consolidate soccer’s political franchise in the US was put in motion by the Turkish brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, the founders of Atlantic Records. Warner Communications, run by the media executive Steve Ross, acquired Atlantic in the early 1970s. Partly as an executive incentive to stay on with the company, Ross appeased Nesuhi, an avid soccer fan, by backing the Cosmos 1970 entry into the North American Soccer League.

In addition to being a business coup for soccer and Warner Communications, securing Pele’s services was also a political coup, inasmuch as Pele was a global icon and a de facto natural resource for Brazil. Kissinger was prevailed upon by Ross to approach Brazilian diplomatic channels to facilitate the deal. According to US State Department documents declassified in 2010, Kissinger visited Sao Paolo in 1975. [Football.com] Competing against soccer behemoths Juventas and Real Madrid, the Cosmos prevailed, and finally acquired Pele in 1975. (“CIA Declassified File: When Kissinger met Pele and Convinced him to Play Soccer in the US,” http://www.Foottheball.com.)

Although the NASL sputtered after Pele’s retirement and folded in 1985, the surge in interest in soccer during the mid-to late-1970s carried enough momentum to encourage Kissinger to lobby for an American World Cup in 1986. Perhaps foreshadowing influence peddling that led to conspiracy and bribery charges against FIFA in 2015, the Mexican government and Guillermo Canedos, a Mexican television executive and FIFA Vice President managed to bring the World Cup back to Mexico, a scant 16 years after it hosted the 1970 tournament. (Jessica Lopez, Remezcla, “the Untold Story of the Tangled Politics That Landed Mexico the 1986 World Cup, May, 2016.”)

Well into the 1980s, FIFA maintained considerable skepticism with regard to the development of soccer in the US. This perception was changed during the 1984 Olympic soccer tournament that was organized by the Los Angeles attorney (and owner of the NASL’s Los Angeles Aztecs) Alan Rothenberg. The tournament final between France and Brazil at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles attracted a crowd of over 100,000, and paved the way for the US to host the 1994 World Cup.

With the arrival of Pele, soccer had part of what it needed to succeed in the US: star power. As a global megastar still in his early thirties, Pele had enough charisma on and off the field to fill or nearly fill the cavernous Giants Stadium, and he bootstrapped the entire NASL. The average attendance at Cosmos matches increased from 5,782 in 1973 to 47,856 in 1978, an astonishing number considering the New York Yankees’ home attendance that same year averaged 28,838. Pele led the way for other soccer superstars just past their prime, or in some cases, like his combative ex-Lazio teammate Giorgio Chinaglia, in their prime. Johann Cruyff, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, George Best, and Johan Neeskens all joined NASL teams and suffered through playing on early generation Astroturf fields and in American Football stadiums ill-suited for soccer.

In keeping with the soccer’s fragile status in the US, the surge in NASL attendance in the late 1970s did not translate into a permanent, successful professional league. It did however spawn a new generation of youth players. Pele and his cohorts did just enough to provide impetus for the U.S to pursue a bid to host a failed bid for the 1986 World Cup, but which did lead to a successful bid for the 1994 tournament.

By most measures, with the exceptions of a dreary final match between Germany and Brazil and a Columbian defender’s own goal that would later lead to a murder after his return home, the 1994 tournament was highly successful. With abundant hotel rooms and stadiums that while not soccer-specific, at least were filled to capacity or near capacity for most of the matches and adapted with real grass[8], the US proved to be a model host for the World Cup.

Section 4 Country-Specific Issues: Social Integration

Media Vilification of Soccer in the United States

The vilification of soccer, particularly among sportswriters and commentators, has been a thematic constant companion of the sport since its denouncement as foreign in the 1870s. Absent enough clout as a participant or spectator sport to garner consistent attention among politicians, sportswriters have taken on the role of inculcating a general distrust of soccer, and even after the success of the World Cup in 1994 and the stable growth of MLS soccer into the 2010s, there is a dedicated media constituency that reviles soccer. It can be argued that until Pele’s arrival in the NASL, soccer existed as an apartheid sport in the US, tolerated in a limited fashion and viewed as a foreign sport despite the success of many native-born players, particularly from New England and St. Louis. Even during the NASL’s Pele era, the success of the league can be ascribed more to an entertainment phenomenon versus the widespread acceptance of soccer at the professional level.

Dick Young, a sportswriter for the Daily News and one of its earliest media detractors, attended Steve Ross’s announcement of Pele’s signing at Manhattan’s 21 Club in 1974, but only to play the role of heckler. Young famously advised a younger colleague, David Hirshey, to stay away from soccer and considered it a sport played by “commies in short pants.” (Jonathan Mahler, New York Times, The City Column, “Disco Inferno: When the Cosmos Ruled the Town,” July 2, 2006.)

In addition to Young, a partial roster of American soccer detractors has included many prominent journalists and media figures, including Bob Ryan (Boston Globe,) Red Smith (New York Times,) Frank Deford (Sports Illustrated and National Public Radio,) Jeffrey Toobin (the New Yorker,) Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker,) Marv Alpert (MSG, NBC,) Jim Rome (ESPN,) Dave Eggers (Slate,) Tony Kornheiser (ESPN,) conservative political commentators Marc Thiessen, G. Gordon Liddy, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, and even the actor Alec Baldwin via the character Jack Donaghy on the television show 30 Rock. No other team or individual sport in the US has had such a polarizing effect on the media or general population. For its detractors, soccer’s global popularity places it in opposition to other sports. Criticisms of soccer include those focused on the actual playing of the sport: dull, lack of scoring, acceptance of draws as a result, along with those relating to the cultural and political aspects of soccer: foreign roots, the acceptance of diving and exaggeration of injury, and a collectivist mentality that implicitly rejects the (presumably American) imperative for individual achievement being linked to success.

In 1986, the Republican congressman Jack Kemp took to the floor of the House of Representatives to oppose a resolution supporting an American bid to host the 1994 World Cup. Stating that “Our football exudes democratic (sic) capitalism,” and “their football is European socialist,” Kemp later noted that he was just kidding. (Hertzberg, Henrik. “The Name of the Game.” The New Yorker (2010): 16.)

Soccer detractors have long characterized it as a sport played by those who are not good enough to play American sports. But in the 1970s an American player, Kyle Rote Jr. of the NASL’s Dallas Tornado won three competitions on the ABC network show “The Superstars,” that featured top athletes in a variety of sports competing in a decathalon-type competition. (USSF website, “Where are They Now?” April 5, 2013,) (http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2014/03/17/12/22/where-are-they-now-kyle-rote.) The versatility and overall athleticism required by soccer was on full display by Rote Jr., but the show may have been a bit too early in terms of garnering major media attention.[9]

Soccer detractors in American sports media have also provided a working foundation for political commentators like Beck, Ann Coulter, and former congressman (and American Football star) Jack Kemp by delineating aspects of soccer that are contrary to American “values.” Curiously, one of the most cited negative qualities of soccer — as noted by Dick Young to David Hirshey — is that it embodies a leftist (read egalitarian) ethos, as opposed to the rugged individualism prized by American sportsmen. Paradoxically, relative to American football, soccer is far less structured and uses far fewer set plays. Indeed, the improvisational nature of soccer and the interdependency among the players on the field requires that all its participants must play the ball and make decisions, a quality in football that is almost entirely vested in the hands of a single player — the quarterback on offense, and, to an extent, the captain on defense (typically a linebacker.)

Viewed in this respect, soccer detractors have actually inverted the political vocabulary. American football’s mechanistic qualities and strict adherence to a playbook (along with its less than subtle ties to the military) can be viewed as being closer to collectivism than soccer, in which a positive outcome relies on teamwork plus moments of individual brilliance. Soccer is also a sport in which possession of the ball is continuously contested; there are no “turns” in soccer. In this sense as well, Soccer is closer to the American virtue of creating one’s own success, rather than “giving” an opponent an opportunity without them earning it (turnovers do occur in American football, although they occur at most several times per game.)

Deford, in a New York Times anti-soccer screed [New York Times Sports Section, Ian Thomsen, New York Times Sports, “the US Professional League: a Dream or Disaster?” October, 1992.) was quoted as saying the soccer has “Zero chance of succeeding (in the US.) Every chance it had, it failed.” He further stated that soccer “is a very unappealing sport to watch. And every time you say that the soccer people all say ‘you don’t know anything about it.’” The phrase “soccer people,” is highly revealing insofar as he infers that there are two types of people in the world: soccer people and non-soccer people, and that the US has historically rejected soccer and its “people” (presumably “foreign” people and their sympathizers.) In his 2017 retirement speech, the 78-year-old Deford took one more shot at soccer saying, “Well someone had to stand up to the yakety-yak soccer cult.” While it is not unusual for a sportswriter to disparage soccer, the fact that Deford, a highly respected journalistic with an intellectual bent, has harbored such a vitriolic view of soccer for so long is revealing with regard to the sometimes inexplicable opposition the sport has encountered in the US.

This sentiment — the foreign nature of soccer — is explicitly noted by Ann Coulter in a series of anti-soccer blogs in which she alluded to soccer as “un-American” prior to the 2016 World Cup in Brazil. Indeed the tradition of soccer-bashing in the US — dating back to nativist anti-soccer sentiment in the late 19th century coinciding with the spread of baseball — has existed for so long and is so widespread, that it can be suggested that being anti-soccer is a pre-condition, at least in certain conservative political circles, with being “pro” America. Coulter expanded on her “un-American” equivalence by asserting that no one whose great grandfather was born here (US) is a soccer fan.

Soccer’s inferior political and social status in the US has historically contributed to a sense of self-doubt and circumspection, even among journalists who support the sport. The distinguished legal scholar and journalist Jeffrey Toobin, in a 2006 New Yorker article (Toobin, Jeffrey. “Un-American Activity: The World Cup and Our Problem with Soccer.” The New Yorker (2006).) referred to soccer in the US as a “niche product,” and as the “Canada” of American sports regarded with indifference as opposed to contempt. Prophesizing that soccer would continue to remain in professional sports purgatory somewhere “behind hockey and ahead” of bowling, Toobin resorts to a common sports journalistic tack: relating soccer to other sports to make it more comprehensible for general readers. He further perpetuates one of the most common myths relating to youth soccer in the US: that good high school athletes desert soccer to play football and basketball. [10]

Diving (flopping) as a Cultural and Political Signifier in Soccer

Recently, soccer vilification has been given new life through increased exposure to diving in the modern professional game. Coincident with far more extensive television coverage of top tier professional soccer, diving has come to the attention of fans and professional observers as a means of gaining an advantage and often determining a game’s outcome. Diving (also known as simulation in official FIFA terminology) in the box by attacking players is a particularly vexing problem insofar as awarding a penalty can determine the outcome of a match. [11]

David Asa Schwartz, a Communications Professor at Augustana College in Illinois, has published a study of flopping (Schwartz, David Asa. “Soccer as un-American activity: a thematic analysis of online US media and flopping in the world’s game.” Soccer & Society (2016): 1–18.) He analyzes four constructs culled from studying media criticism of diving/flopping in soccer:

  • Creation of a moral and ethical problem by virtue of a player’s intent to deceive by flopping
  • US soccer players placing America “at risk” when they flop
  • The need for Americans to accept flopping if it desires to become a successful soccer nation
  • Americans lack of understanding flopping and its role in soccer (less prevalent than the first three.)

Underlying all these potential affronts to American sporting and cultural values is an implicit message: that soccer threatens the political construct — held by many in the United States — that by virtue of its wealth, ideology, and military might it is impelled to save the world from itself. Among detractors, the fear is that a foreign game has attempted to impose undesirable values onto American sports, as exemplified by flopping. The corollary fear is that soccer’s foreign-derived influence is inverting the American premise that it alone among nations is entitled to export cultural, political, and sporting influence.

Flopping-induced political jitters began in England long before they reached an apotheosis in the United States. With the 1995 Bosman Ruling freeing up teams to fill their rosters with EU players without being subject to quotas based on domestic origin, English teams began to feature more Europeans than ever. In a Cabinet Magazine article (Healey, Luke. “Drawing the Foul: Diving and Visuality in Contemporary English Football.” In Football and the Boundaries of History, pp. 13–30. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017,) Luke Healy quotes the London Times from June, 1994 describing the German international player Jurgen Kohler “executing a nine-point dive in the accepted German manner.” Foreign influence in the English game brought about the same attack on purported English domestic sporting virtues: honesty, toughness, and a turn-the-other-cheek mindset that many sportswriters have recapitulated in the US nearly a generation later.

A Place to Play: The Wait is over

From the time that the 15,000-seat Marks Stadium was built in Tiverton, Rhode Island in 1922, it took another 77 years for the Columbus Crew to build a professional, soccer-specific stadium in the US, the 20,000-seat MAPFRE field. The dearth of appropriate facilities for soccer can be interpreted as both a cause and effect for its suppressive effect on the development of the sport. Indeed, a substandard pitch nearly sabotaged the Pele experience in the US. Following one of his first games with the Cosmos, he noticed a green slime washing off his legs, and thinking that it was some sort of fungus as opposed to artificial turf dye, he nearly went home.

For purists, the NASL was doomed to failure simply due to the fact that all of its teams played in stadia designed for football and/or baseball. Except for the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies during the halcyon days for the league between 1975–1980, no teams drew enough fans to enliven vast stadiums with 60,000–100,000 seating capacity. Even with the Cosmos, average league attendance never exceeded 15,000 for the history of the NASL.

Artificial turf presented an even more vexing problem. Many NASL teams played on turf, including the Cosmos, and the product was vastly inferior to modern turf. It was extremely abrasive and unforgiving when a player fell, and it made it difficult to play balls into space, a shortcoming that was anathema to players who relied on touch and skill. Turf was also frequently laid on top of a concrete subfloor that made the ball bounce much higher than foreign players were used to.

With the completion of the 25,000 seat Orlando City Stadium in 2017, MLS has 17 soccer specific stadiums among its 20 franchises, with two teams, Seattle and Vancouver playing in multi-purpose facilities that attract very large soccer crowds. In 2016, the Seattle Sounders of the MLS drew an average of 42,636 fans per game, on par with top Premiership teams. In contrast to the NASL from the previous generation, even the least supported clubs in the MLS draw nearly 20,000 fans per game, and are frequently sold out.

Having permanent, dedicated soccer stadiums in every region of the country is the byproduct of a long and arduous struggle for respectability in a nation that has had a fractious history with the sport. That the US has been late to the global celebration of soccer will be a distant memory for future generations.

[1] Zach Bigalke, “Anything But Ringers: Historical Sketches of the Soccer Hotbeds that Produced the 1930 U.S. World Cup Team,” Research Paper, 2014, University of Oregon Scholars Bank; Bigalke analyzes the four key regions of early soccer development in the US.

[2] Markovits and Hellerman in “Offside,” provide an extensive analysis of how American Football became the sport of choice for the middle class, while baseball was the predominant immigrant sport. The ensuing “crowding out” effect in American colleges and universities combined with the perception of soccer as foreign in the US inhibited its development for several generations.

[3] Bigalke in “Anything But Ringers” notes that the majority of the players on the US 1930 World Cup team were native born or arrived in the US at a young age. The American result at the 1930 World Cup still stands as its best ever result, and it may have stood a chance against Argentina in the semi-final if not for some violent incidents and dubious officiating.

[4] Peter S. Morris, “Football in the USA: American Culture and the World’s Game, (paper,) http://homepage.smc.edu/morris_pete/resources/Papers-and-Presentations/footballintheusa.pdf, 2004. American Football and soccer culture began to diverge significantly with the rise of the National Football League in the 1920s.

[5] Zach Bigalke in “Anything but Ringers” provides a detailed survey of the US 1930 World Cup roster, along with an interesting demographic analysis of key soccer markets in the first “golden” era for US soccer between 1920–1930.

[6] It is somewhat of a paradox that the two greatest American players of the 1920s were American and that this did little to promote the sport more widely. Having reached the 1930 World Cup semi-finals with a largely U.S.-born team, it seems that there would have been an opportunity to build on that achievement.

[7] In fact, the broadcast was shown with a slight delay

[8] The Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan used an artificial turf incorporated with grass suited for a covered stadium

[9] With the emergence of Gyusi Zardes as a US international, the stigma of soccer not attracting elite athletes is beginning to wane. Zardes turned down multiple offers to play college football in order to stay in school and play college soccer at UC Bakersfield.

[10] Surprisingly for a writer as erudite as Toobin, he falls victim to one of the hoariest soccer clichés in America: the compulsion to relate soccer to an American sport (in effect dumbing it down) for American readers. The subtext is that soccer is too foreign to digest directly, and unless a baseball or football analogue is provided, there is no chance that a reader can possibly comprehend anything about the sport. In 2006, for an article in the New Yorker, this betrayed a naiveté about soccer’s position in the US.

[11] During the 2017 Confederations Cup, Video Assistant Referees (VARs) are being used to confirm or reject on-field calls for penalty kicks and fouls. Perhaps this is a step forward in terms of diminishing the impact of simulation in soccer.