Soccer's Long History as America's Sport of the Future

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Much has happened in the last century. We harnessed the power of satellites so we can order delivery pizza without talking to anyone. We invented flying machines, then promptly figured out how we could kill each other with those flying machines. We poisoned our planet. We learned that smoking poisons ourselves. EZ-Pass was invented, thus marking the zenith of human ingenuity. One thing that did not happen, however: Soccer did not become America’s Next Big Thing, despite 100 years of people saying otherwise.

Here is a brief history of soccer as America’s next big sport.

SOCCER: AN ALTERNATIVE TO DEATH BY FOOTBALL

The first time soccer (or, as it was called then, “socker”) was seriously put forward as an American trend was in 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt strayed quite far from his Rough Rider roots by asserting people needn’t die playing American football. This coincided with an American tour by the English team, previewing several decades of good soccer teams coming to America for the privilege of beating us.

The following year, the Washington Post ran an article, “IF NOT FOOTBALL, WHAT,” that argued “socker” was no substitute for American football despite its adoption on several college campuses. The piece made some strong points about “socker” being the true football because “it is altogether a kicking game,” unlike our incorrectly named sport. However, the author noted this would be a major turnoff for most Americans, since we have quite the hand fetish.

Despite the Post’s metacarpals-based claims, soccer indeed experienced a bit of a boom, particularly in St. Louis. In “SOCCER AS MEANS OF GOOD EXERCIZE”—who says clickbait is a new phenomenon?—the Post Dispatch reported “new amateur clubs and leagues are being formed almost weekly.” Although soccer would remain atypically popular in St. Louis for most of the 20th century, it failed to spread far outside the city limits.

EXPORT WAR, IMPORT SOCCER

1916 U.S. Soccer Team, via Wikimedia Commons

About a decade later, America sent most of its able-bodied men to faraway, soccer-loving lands—but not to play soccer. So, a new theory of the sport’s impending popularity sprouted: WWI soldiers will be infected with soccer’s spirit and return to poison us all.

ADOPTION OF GAME AS ARMY RECREATION SHOULD GVE [sic] THE SPORT ITS BIGGEST BOOST,” reported the Detroit Free Press in 1918. The subhead continued the theme: “AFTER PEACE COMES GAME SHOULD BOOM.” As the article states, the government bought up much of the country’s soccer ball supply and shipped them to army camps, “doing all in its power to foster the game amongst its soldiers.” It’s not clear why the Army was so interested in soccer, although the usual pro-soccer arguments of inexpensiveness, ease, and fitness could have been reason enough.

Not much was heard from soccer again in the United States until 1950, when the U.S. experienced its greatest international victory, beating England in the World Cup by the score of 1-0. In 1955, the U.S. soccer booster otherwise known as the US Armed Forces was back at it: “OVERSEAS AIRMEN LEARNING SOCCER, MAY SOON BOOM SPORT BACK IN U.S.” This time, they had a plausible reason for supporting the game: foreign relations.

The idea was quite simple: rather than American soldiers reinforcing the colonial perception of our culture being forced upon others, they would learn from the locals instead. Instead of teaching others how to play baseball or basketball, the soldiers learned to play soccer. This practice was most commonly deployed on the Air Force’s European bases. Lt. Al Aspen Jr., coach of the Air Force European command’s all-star soccer team, told the Daily Boston Globe, “Ten years from now America will be a power in soccer.” Lt. Aspen was a bit off the mark: 11 years later, the United States did not qualify for the 1966 World Cup.

NASL COMMISSIONER PHIL WOOSNAM MAKES CRAZY TALK

NASL's International Stars, via Wikimedia Commons

The next era of soccer threatening to dominate the American way of life began in 1968, thanks to Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League Commissioner who, in his spare time, predicted we will all bow to Socclor, the God of American Soccer.

As you may recall, the NASL had its moment in the sun which, in retrospect, was just the reflected glow from the great eternal sunshine of Pele’s spotless mind. Still, this led Woosnam to say all kinds of crazy things: the United States would contend for the World Cup title in 1990 and be the “center of world soccer” (the U.S. finished last in its group, losing all three games), or the NASL would catch the NFL in popularity by 1985 (the NASL folded in 1984). Woosnam also believed “there’s little doubt the American fan will someday achieve the same emotional frenzy as his counterpart in Brazil and England.” It’s a testament to his “good job, good effort” mentality that this was one of his more accurate predictions.

Woosnam was not the only one to harbor such grandiose visions of American soccer’s future. In 1981, the Boston Globe ran an article about youth soccer’s popularity in New England, in which they interviewed Peter Giannacopoulos, a man largely described by the Greek he shouts at his youth soccer players. Like Woosnam, Giannacopoulos also believed “the American kids coming along now are better than their European counterparts.” If only that were true at the time.

THE BACKLASH

The Face of American Soccer in 1994, via Getty

The decade after the NASL’s collapse was a dark time for American soccer. Optimists became skeptics, skeptics became naysayers, and naysayers basked in their own sense of self-righteousness. For sportswriters, this meant anyone who had previously voiced opposition to soccer as The Next Big Thing became insufferable epicenters of bad logic.

In 1994, Anthony Day of the Los Angeles Times expressed doubt “American audiences can be brought to like a game not susceptible to statistical analysis.” Because Americans love to calculate batting averages and completion percentages, Day thought, they would never embrace a game that rendered their wrist calculators useless. Still, Day promoted soccer as a “rich smorgasbord of styles and tactical concepts,” which would almost surely be lost on the “natives in short pants,” as the Wall Street Journal described American soccer fans in 1989.

Reporters mocked the optimistic youth participation statistics from the 1980s and early 1990s as false alarms. Phil Hersh, a Chicago Tribune columnist, wryly noted: “And wait, here’s a news flash: According to reliable sources, more than 230 million Americans polled last week admitted knowing that a soccer ball is round.” In 2002, the New York Times ran “SOCCER IS STILL NOT A PASSION IN THE U.S.”—as close to “Nothing Continues To Happen” as you’ll ever see in a headline—where Ira Burkow goes on to provide as apt a description of America’s dismissiveness towards soccer as one can find:

“The fact is, while soccer has become popular with some moms and a ton of tots, it seems to lose spectator interest when the children reach adulthood…[baseball, football and basketball] are in our blood the way soccer is for most of the rest of the world...we would need a sports transfusion to change, but regardless of how far the American team advances in this World Cup, the paramedics still appear a long, long way off.”

It just isn’t our thing, they all say.

MODERN TIMES: SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE

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By the time the 1994 World Cup was awarded to the United States, most observers were permanently skeptical of the game’s American hold. Major League Soccer was created as a condition of the 1994 World Cup’s arrival, not purely out of existing interest in the sport. 

The league’s controlled, steady rise, like an old man rising from a tepid bath, was American soccer’s direct response to the NASL’s errors. Don Garber, Commissioner of MLS, is the anti-Woosnam: calculating, reserved, cautious. In an interview for the New York Times in 2007, Garber spoke in business buzzwords: "[MLS] continues to grow in value, which speaks to the investor community that believes soccer has a long-term value as a sports investment.” No “the MLS Cup will be God’s beverage cannister” predictions here.

Just because such brazen predictions aren’t coming from Garber doesn’t mean they aren’t coming at all. “HAS NBC SPORTS FOUND THE SECRET OF SELLING SOCCER TO U.S. TV VIEWERS?” asks The Hollywood Reporter, for instance.

However, there is some reason to believe that this time really is different. Gone are the days where Jack Bell could write a column about satellite TV bringing soccer to the masses, as he did in 2003; we have the internet now, making the game easier to follow than ever. Perhaps, for the first time in American soccer history, there’s more than just youth soccer participation stats to make soccer fans optimistic. Google recently published a report on soccer’s growth in the United States over the last four years, and it is as convincing an argument as American soccer has ever had.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe soccer finally is the Next Big American Thing. If it’s true, then we’re only a century behind.

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May 30, 2014 - 9:00am
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