American soccer’s missed opportunity: the first golden age

American soccer’s missed opportunity: the first golden age

AMERICA IS A COUNTRY WITH A GREAT PASSION FOR SPORT. They have the largest leagues for basketball, baseball, ice hockey and American football. However, soccer has never been the most popular of sports across the Atlantic. Even when they hosted the World Cup in 1994, soccer was the fifth most popular game in the States.

However, nearly a century ago, the New York Times ran the headline: ‘U.S. Favorite to Win World’s Soccer Title’. It was not an exaggeration, and nor was it satire. It was a level-headed analysis of the chances for success of a team in the last four of a major competition. Back in 1930, the USA were semi-finalists in, and serious contenders for, the inaugural FIFA World Cup.

The rules of American soccer were first codified and structured in 1862, with the formation of the Oneida Football Club in Boston. Much like in England, the early forms of the game were often violent and chaotic, and the creation of Oneida was the initial step towards the regional organisation of the sport. Soon mini-leagues were set up across the country, but mostly in southern New England where the new textile industries were based. Additionally, British migration was largely concentrated in the north-east in the 19th century, and this boosted soccer’s popularity.

In 1884, the American Football Association (AFA) was created as the administrative body of soccer in the country. To officialise their authority, the AFA created the American Cup in the same year. The American Cup quickly became the most prestigious trophy in the nation, as any team in the north-east was eligible for entry, regardless of the league they played.

The sport was quickly picking up popularity, and by 1885 two international matches between USA and Canada were proposed. Now considered unofficial, the first match garnered an audience of 2,000 people. In comparison, the only known figure from England’s first set of unofficial matches with Scotland was 650 people.

In 1899, the combination of the Spanish-American War and a deep recession led to the collapse of several athletic clubs and the suspension of the American Cup. By the time the AFA and the tournament had recovered from the crisis in 1906, there were rumblings of discontent among the amateur clubs.

By 1911, the AFA’s New England centric focus had created enough displeasure that an alternate governing body was created; the American Amateur Football Association (AAFA). The AAFA decided to create another cross-league cup – entitled the AAFA Cup – to rival the American Cup. To settle their dispute, the AAFA and the AFA turned to FIFA. Since a number of AFA members shifted sides in 1913, the upstart AAFA were granted FIFA membership based on their wider base of clubs.

In light of this approval, the AAFA reformed themselves as the United States Football Association (USFA) and rebranded their cup the National Challenge Cup. While the AFA and the American Cup continued to live on, they were now relegated to a secondary status. When a number of AFA members switched allegiances in 1917 and 1924, the organisation was left on its knees. The USFA decision to create a second cup competition in 1923 – the National Amateur Cup – would signal the death knell for both the American Cup and the AFA.

While this administrative battle for control of the domestic cups raged on, the everyday amateur sides were left with another dilemma. As both the AFA and the USFA did not organise a league, this task was left to regional clubs. The most successful and popular such tournament was the National Association Football League (NAFBL), founded in 1895. Although the Spanish-American War forced them to shut down in 1898 as well, it returned in 1906.

Despite the popularity of the sport, the larger teams in the NAFBL and other leagues were haemorrhaging money as they had to travel large distances to play small sides. Moreover, the leagues were unstable as many of the smaller clubs often folded midway through the season. By 1921, the larger clubs of the NAFBL and the Southern New England Soccer League banded together to form the American Soccer League (ASL). The ASL soon became the premier league in the nation, with the largest clubs and audiences. Some of the larger clubs even had average attendances of above 10,000 people.

While the creation of the ASL led to a financial and technical boost for the clubs, it put them at loggerheads with the USFA over the scheduling of the National Challenge Cup. Since the cup was designed to include any amateur team entry, the ASL clubs often had to travel large distances for relatively meagre gate receipts during their regular season. When the ASL threatened to boycott the National Challenge Cup in 1924, the situation was quickly resolved through USFA concessions.

Not only was the National Amateur Cup created to syphon off the smaller clubs, but the USFA also agreed to reduce their take of gate receipts from 33.3 percent to 15 percent. While this satisfied the ASL for a while, by 1928 the issue had risen again. When the ASL decided to boycott the National Challenge Cup for the following season, three clubs, led by Bethlehem Steel FC, ignored the boycott. With the help of the USFA, the three clubs decided to start a breakaway league called the Eastern Professional Soccer League. Thus began America’s ‘Soccer Wars’ that would forever destroy the sport’s reputation and popularity.

To understand the impact the breakaway league had on the fans, the reputations of both USFA and Bethlehem Steel FC must be considered. Although their decision to involve FIFA in their dispute with the AFA would prove to be a masterstroke for the USFA, it also tainted them with the reputation of being anti-American. They had overthrown an old American institution with the help of a foreign authority. To anyone with a passing knowledge of American mentality, especially at the turn of the century, it is clear that this action would make the common fan unhappy.

Secondly, the identity of the club that led the breakaway league, Bethlehem Steel FC, was important. Although they had been one of the most successful clubs in the history of both the NAFBL and the ASL, and drew huge audiences, their success was founded upon their importation of several talented players from the British Isles. The promised salaries of a $100 a week, split between footballing and factory duties, was far more than their European counterparts could offer. Therefore, the creation of the Eastern Professional Soccer League was at odds with the desires of the average American, regardless of the motivation.

A year after the creation of the breakaway league, both sides realised that the situation was not conducive to their interests. By 1929, they had decided to merge leagues to form the Atlantic Coast Soccer League, which would start the following year. This decision was taken because even the most successful clubs were struggling to make a profit, and they wanted to move forward for the sake of the sport. However, their petty arguments had forever damaged the popularity of the sport. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 meant that working class people could no longer afford to attend matches, and the tarnished understanding of soccer has since become its reputation; that of a foreign sport at odds with the beliefs of the common American.

Consequently, when the US national team, consisting of several British-born players, travelled to Uruguay for the inaugural World Cup, they were not representing a populist sport. Rather, they were making the final stand of American soccer’s first golden age. Their eventual third-place finish is the highest they have managed in the history of the tournament.

America has tried to revive the sport multiple times; in the 1970s with the NASL, in the 1990s by hosting the World Cup and the creation of the MLS, and in 2008 when they appointed Jürgen Klinsmann to the national team. However, these attempts can never recreate the opportunity American soccer had at the turn of the century. In the 1920s, it was the second most popular sport behind baseball. Today, it is fighting to be the fourth.

Tarutr Malhotra @sixthfebblog

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