US Soccer History 3

Continued from Page 2

US soccer history generously reposted on my website, courtesy of Dave Litterer

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The Ethnic Period, 1933-1960

After the demise of the first American Soccer League, the game continued primarily on the semi-pro and amateur level, with many of the most successful teams being tied to ethnic communities and service clubs. Major amateur leagues included the National Soccer League of Chicago, the National Soccer League of New York, the new Jersey Soccer Association, the St. Louis Soccer League (by now reverted to semi-pro status), as well as numerous leagues in Southern New England and the greater New York and Philadelphia areas and other metropolitan areas. Soccer took a back seat as other sports shook off the depression and grew. Baseball was firmly established as the premier professional sport, as was Football as the main college spectator sport. Basketball continued as a series of regional semi pro leagues. Like Soccer, Basketball had established an American Basketball League in the 1920's, their first truly national league, only to see it fold during the early depression years to be revived as the ABL II on a smaller scale. Although Basketball took off after World War II, with the establishment of the NBL, and finally the NBA, soccer's new American League struggled to win a following outside of the local ethnic communities until the 1960's.

The second American Soccer League was started in 1933 as a complete reorganization of the remnants of the original league, but with a completely new lineup of teams. The league confined its presence to the New York/New Jersey/ Philadelphia region, and included mostly clubs long established at the amateur and semi-pro level, including old NAFBL standbys as Kearny Scots and Kearny Irish. The league in essence took the strongest teams from the local leagues and elevated them to a new competitive and financial level, although they were at best semi-pro both players holding other jobs to make ends meet. Former ASL I stars such as Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude continued their careers in the ASL II, joined by younger stars such as Fabri Salcedo (goal scoring leader in 1938, 1941, and 1946), Nick Kropfelder and Walter Bahr. The first dynasty of the ASL II was the Kearny Scots who won five consecutive league titles from 1937-1941. Some of the long-lived teams of the early years included New York Americans, New York Brookhattan and Brooklyn Hispano.

On the International front, the US again made an appearance in the World Cup. Although Italy wanted to accept the USA, they had submitted their entry late, and so had to play a qualifier against the winner of the North American competition. That winner was Mexico, who had previously beat Cuba. The qualifier was played in Roma on May 24, 1934, and even though Mexico did not yet have full international standing, it was a well played game from the US point of view, a 4-2 victory that established future Hall of Fame inductee Aldo Donelli as one of the best American players of the era. The World Cup itself was a quick exit for the US who got pounded 7-1 by host Italy. Donelli scored the only US goal, but it should also be pointed out that Italy benefited from immigration rules that allowed them to field three players who had previously played for the Argentine national team. The US was thereby the only tam to play against both Luis Monti of Argentina in the 1930 World Cup and Luis Monti of Italy in the 1934 World Cup. Raimondo Orso, another Italy player, had also played for Argentina against the US in the 1928 Olympics.

During this era, the amateur and semipro leagues remained almost on a par with the ASL, as can be seen by their frequent victories in the National Open Challenge Cup. St. Louis was particularly successful with Stix, Baer & Fuller winning in 1933 and 1934, followed by Central Breweries in 1935. Later, Morgan Strasser of Pittsburgh became a perennial in the national championships. One major attraction during this time was the ASL sponsored tours by major foreign teams. These included the 1930 visit by Sportivo Buenos Aires, Botafogo FC of Brazil in 1941, Audan S.C. of Chile in 1933, Charlton Athletic in 1937, Liverpool in 1946, and 1948, Atlante FC of Mexico in 1940, Maccabi of Tel-Aviv in 1927 and 1936, Manchester United in 1950, 1952 and 1960.and Glasgow Rangers in 1928. Although the foreign teams usually won the games, the contests were exciting and eagerly awaited by the fans as their best chance to see truly top-level soccer.

All of the leagues were hard hit by World War II, with many players serving several years in the war effort. Leagues compensated as best they could with depleted rosters and players moving up from the amateur ranks. After the war, there was a mini-boom among all sports in the US. In soccer, this was seen first by the return of players from the war effort, and also by the first modern attempt to create a professional soccer league on anything approaching a national scale. That attempt was the North American Soccer Football League, formed in 1946 by Fred Weiszman of Chicago, later replaced by Chicago White Sox General Manager Leslie O'Connor. This league included teams in St. Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Toronto. The league drew respectable crowds (in the 2,000-4,000 range) and several top-notch players including Gil Heron and Hall of Famer Nick D'Orio. The league only lasted two seasons due to financial difficulties, and the inability of some teams to show up for games during 1947. The Chicago Vikings won the National Challenge Cup in 1946, and they as well as the Pittsburgh Vikings continued to have success at the amateur level.

The 1950's started off with a bang as the US National team returned to the World Cup and stunned the world by defeating England 1-0 on a goal by Joe Gaetjens. Outside of this triumph, the sporting boom largely passed soccer by, as the game continued to lumber on at the local club level, with new dynasties being established by the Ukrainian Nationals of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Americans, New York Hakoah and the Uhrik Truckers, all of whom won multiple league championships during this decade. The 1950's culminated with a move that would foreshadow the coming soccer boom -- the recognition of soccer as a sanctioned sport by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which proved to be a huge boom by pulling together the disparate college soccer conferences and providing a truly national championship for the first time. This move also spurred a continued boom in the college game as more and more institutions were encouraged to add soccer, or promote their club teams to varsity status.

The 1960's: The Birth of the American Soccer Renaissance

The sport of soccer has always had a strong base among ethnic communities throughout the 20th century, but mainstream America largely ignored the sport. It continued to toil along through regional semi-pro leagues, and the low-key American Soccer League II. By 1960' drastic changes had taken place throughout American society with the expansion of travel and communications. Spectator sports were rising in popularity and the advent of television attracted people to the sports as never before, and with the rise of cities outside of the Northeast there were increasing clamors for major league sports throughout the country.

In 1960, Bill Cox, a major promoter saw the potential for Soccer to join the bandwagon, and envisioned a truly top-level professional soccer league, and set out to create one. His league, the second International Soccer League was unique in that it consisted of existing foreign clubs, who played during their offseason as members of the ISL. This approach had positive and negative aspects. Because the clubs were basically playing off-season exhibition tours, they tended not to take the league very seriously, and often sent mostly reserve players as a way of keeping them in shape. On the other hand, some fairly significant teams participated, including Red Star Belgrade, Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, Dukla Prague, and Shamrock Rovers. This was also a unique opportunity to see a truly international collection of teams on a regular basis. One encouraging note was the surprisingly successful performance of the US club, which was basically a collection of ASL all-stars. The league played for six seasons, offering reasonably good soccer, although the league was largely ignored outside of the US. The league was able to avoid direct competition with the locally oriented American Soccer League, which continued its fairly low-key approach based on established franchises, with a new focus on developing quality American players. The ASL made its first move at the local level, reaching an agreement with the semi-pro German American Soccer League to play a combined season between the two leagues in 1964-65. When that failed, they expanded outward, increasing their presence outside of their Northeast Corridor footprint, to include teams in New England and later out to the Midwest.

The World Cup in England in 1966 attracted quite a bit of attention among sports promoters and soccer enthusiasts, due to surprisingly high television ratings in the US. This was enough to inspire several groups of businessmen to try and cash in on this interest through establishment of a major 1st division soccer league. As is typically for US ventures, there was a great lack of agreement, and infighting, which resulted in the creation of two rival leagues of which only one received FIFA sanction. These leagues were inspired partially by the great growth in popularity of pro spectator sports throughout the country which had come about partially as a result of increased ease of transportation, improvements in communication, growth of TV and satellite transmissions, and most importantly, the general trend of prosperity the US had enjoyed since the early 1950's. A real cultural change was taking place with people having more disposable income, leisure time, and the country was rapidly turning into a nation of sports addicts. Participation in youth sports was up as well.

NFL (and AFL) football was simply exploding in popularity, the Super Bowl had just been inaugurated and the AFL-NFL merger had just taken place. Basketball was on the edge of a great wave of expansion nationwide. Baseball was enjoying a rapid climb in attendance with new teams, the major leagues had spread across the country in the late 1950's, and the NHL had just doubled in size. So it was natural that people would see Soccer as a potential for further expansion. The ethnic soccer communities thrives, mainstream American youths were starting to take soccer as an alternative to other more expensive and violent participation sports, and the youth advertising market was just beginning to be recognized.

Into this picture came the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League, the first modern attempts to create truly national, 1st division soccer in the US. Although the original American Soccer League of the 1920's was one of the stronger leagues in the world in its day, it was still a regional league, never extending out of the Northeastern US. The United Soccer Association was sanctioned by FIFA, and established themselves in 12 major US cities spanning the country. The NPSL, started by a rival group, was not sanctioned, and did not abide by FIFA player transfer rules. So the stage was set for a contentious and not very productive debut for the game. Both leagues almost went bankrupt. Fan interest, although initially high, quickly faded. TV ratings were terrible. Attendance was not bad for first-year leagues, but many owners were not prepared to keep the talent level up with their limited resources. In desperation, the leagues merged in 1968 becoming the North American Soccer League (but only retaining 17 of the original teams), but the second year was disastrous, with low attendance, no television contract, and massive financial losses by all teams. Only five teams survived to see a third season.

As a survival method they remained low-key and slowly built themselves up through the early 1970's. Although the league's intentions were noble, they were simply ahead of their times. They made too big a splash without the ability to promote the game to an audience that just wasn't quite there yet. But the low-key approach allowed them to slowly build the league towards viability which still maintaining a presence on the US sports scene. With the addition of the New York Cosmos, and a number of west coast teams Clive Toye felt the time was right to make a statement when he signed Pele in 1975. Although a few other major stars had already been signed, this truly was a shot heard around the world, despite Pele's recent retirement. This act finally got the media to take notice; the league attendance went up, media attention both at home and worldwide gave the league a new air of respectability. The attention snowballed in a positive way this time, through 1976 and 1977. As attendance climbed and more world stars were signed, vital media attention drew record numbers of fans, culminating with 77,691 for a 1977 playoff game between the Cosmos and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Giants stadium. This was a truly golden era.

A key development through the 1970's was the rapid growth of soccer as a youth participation sport. Soccer was relatively inexpensive as well as democratic -- it did not require specialists, tall players or behemoths as many of the other sorts did, and youth soccer did not have the overly competitive stigma and the political mudslinging that was plaguing Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. The parallel growth of the NASL, and youth (as well as adult) soccer really portended a golden era for the sport in the US, which unfortunately was premature at least from the professional game's point of view.

Once again, the league was a little ahead of its time. Although large crowds were attracted to many games and several teams, the league was spending well beyond its means for international stars, who although skilled, and popular, and bringing much recognition, simply cost too much to be supported by the existing fan base (in 1977 averaging league-wide about 13,400 per game). But the league was doomed to fail because of its inability to control player costs, which simply bankrupted one team after another until the league's demise in 1984.

The reasons for the failure were many; going beyond the sheer tide of red ink with forced so many teams under. The NASL had no television contract (a few teams had local TV and radio), unlike the other major sports that could count on TV revenue to finance the salaries. The NASL also was a rogue league, not following FIFA standards, refusing to honor transfer agreements, play in continental tournaments, instead simply raiding players from other countries. Unlike other countries, also, the national team was almost nonexistent, and there was no national following for that team. Finally, the NASL had no viable minor league system or college developmental system to supply it with homegrown talent, and many fans could not have more than a superficial attachment to teams with mostly international stars who only stayed 1-2 years. The flood of international stars by some major teams forced the others to follow suit when they really couldn't afford to. This also had the effect of marginalizing the US players who were primarily bench warmers and substitutes, despite a quota system which required an increasing minimum number of US players on the field at all times, and a minimum number on the rosters.

On the other hand, the internationalizing effect of having all these stars was very positive, and exposed Americans to a very high level of play, showing them what a beautiful sport it is. This really planted a seed in many people, particularly the youngsters who saw games and finally had pro stars to root for, and were inspired to continue with soccer through their college and adult years. Many of the current US players were introduced to the game through the NASL, many others are now eager MLS fans, and actively coaching teams while their own children play in the youth leagues and high school.

This growth of youth, amateur and college soccer was not enough to save the NASL, which, lacking a major television contract after the ABC deal of 1979-1980, simply could not generate enough income, despite high attendance, to cover the cost of the imported players. From 1980-1984, teams folded each year due to financial losses, and the league finally expired in early 1985 after only two of the 9 remaining teams posted a bond for the new season. The long-running ASL II, which had expanded into the Midwest in the early 1970's, the west coast in the late 1970's and the south in the early 1980's had called it quits the previous year, although a few teams formed the nucleus of the short-lived United Soccer League which played in 1984 and 1985, shutting down abruptly due to foreclosure halfway through the 1985 season.

After the demise of the second American Soccer League in 1983, the USL, created from the ashes of the failed American Soccer League II, barely survived financial losses from their first season, as four teams bravely continued the fight in 1985. However, the league folded abruptly in bankruptcy just before the start of a planned second half of the season. Meanwhile the Western Alliance Challenge Series (Later the western Soccer League II) began with teams in San Jose, Victoria, Seattle and Portland, playing an abbreviated 7-game season. Victoria folded after the season. With three teams remaining in this single low-level outdoor league, US outdoor professional soccer reached its nadir. For the first time, the US was in danger of being without a fully professional outdoor league since 1905. With the indoor game flourishing and a healthy rivalry developing between the MISL and the upstart American Indoor Soccer Association, the general consensus was the future of Soccer in America lay with indoor soccer, rather than the outdoor game. The US National team reached a humiliating low as they were pounded out of contention for the 1986 world cup. The team went almost two years before playing their next game, and there was little enthusiasm for keeping the team going after this debacle. Many analysts saw outdoor soccer as being fundamentally an alien game to the psyches of American sports fans who wanted more action, and higher scoring. The outdoor game was seen as too strategy-driven, and not well suited to television broadcasts with the lack of natural breaks in the action for commercial breaks.

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