Author: David Wangerin
Title: Soccer in a Football World
Publication Info: Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 2008.
Summary/Review: Following up on Beastly Fury, the story of the origin of the game of football in Britain, I wanted to know the history of soccer in my own country. Foreigners and Americans alike will claim that there isn’t any history to soccer in the United States, but the game does stretch back to 1863 when the Oneida Football Club played a pre-codified version of the game on Boston Common. The British version of Association Football arrived early but did not gain much acceptance at American universities who ended up taking to a modified version of Rugby instead. Soccer would find its adherents in patches across America especially around Kearny, NJ, St. Louis, MO, and Fall River, MA. From the 1910s to 1930s, a team sponsored by Bethlehem Steel would be known as being among the best in the country although attracted more attention when traveling than when playing in their somewhat remote industrial town.
Competition began to blossom with the National Challenge Cup (forerunner of the US Open Cup) in 1914 and the emergence of the first viable league in 1921, the American Soccer League (ASL). Wangerin illustrates that the ASL was a popular league, growing in success and attracting European players as well as developing local talent. But the ASL and soccer in general were done in by conflicts between the ASL and the United States Football Association and the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Soccer would be reduced to mostly pockets of amateur competitions played by immigrants for the coming three decades.
Investors in the 1960s decided to capitalize on the worldwide popularity of the game by creating two leagues that would eventually merge to form the North American Soccer League in 1968. The league grew slowly until the game changer of the New York Cosmos signing Pele preceded an unlikely surge in soccer’s popularity in the mid-to-late 70s. The NASL expanded way too fast and created an unsustainable model of signing expensive star players from Europe and South America that eventually lead to the league’s collapse. The best attempt to develop local talent in the NASL was in 1983 when the US national team actually played as a franchise, Team America, based in Washington, but sadly finished last. A more lasting legacy was children’s and youth soccer leagues resulting in many more Americans playing soccer than watching soccer.
After a brief fling with the hybrid sport of indoor soccer in the 80s & 90s, the outdoor game regained prominence with US men’s team qualifying for the World Cup in 1990 and hosting in 1994. Major League Soccer was born in 1996 and the US women’s team would gain sudden popularity in 1999 hosting the Women’s World Cup. By the 200os, the men’s national team were finding success and MLS was stabilizing if not a runaway success. Soccer may not be the most popular sport in the country but it has found its niche and left a lot of history behind.
Recommended books: The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World by Jere Longman, and Once in a Lifetime by Gavin Newsham.