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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.

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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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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How Austrian Soldiers Saved the 1964 Olympics
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Allsport Hulton/Archive

Although the Austrian city of Innsbruck has a well-deserved reputation as a winter sports mecca, it was dangerously low on snow and ice in the weeks leading up the 1964 Winter Olympics. So the organizers called in the troops.

Austrian soldiers went to work carving 20,000 blocks of ice away from the top of the mountain and then toting them down to make luge and bobsled tracks. In order to salvage the skiing events, the soldiers had to lug 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the tops of mountains down to the slopes that had been chosen for the various races. On top of that, they brought down an extra 20,000 cubic meters just in case anything bad happened to the first batch of snow.

And oh, how something bad did happen! Ten days before the opening ceremony, it started raining. As you probably know, rain and snow aren't the closest of chums, so much of the work that had already been done on the courses melted. The Austrian army again came to the rescue, though, taking to the slopes and tamping down the remaining snow by hand and foot. Thanks to this bit of resourcefulness, the games went on as planned.

Things aren't quite that tricky today, though. Artificially produced snow made its debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but the old "bring in some outside snow" tactic isn't totally dead. When the snow forecast for the Vancouver freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue Cypress Mountain looked grim in 2010, the organizers started trucking in loads of snow from other locations. Engineers then spread the snow on top of carefully situated bales of hay to give the slopes their desired shape. (How do you get bales of hay on a ski slope? You drop them from a helicopter.)

Of course, there's such a thing as too much winter weather for the Olympics, too. Snow and rain plagued the 1998 Nagano Games and led to lengthy delays and postponements for some events.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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