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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.


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.


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'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 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.


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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.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”


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