This article was originally published on September 12th, 2018.
In the summer, Russia played host to soccer’s most illustrious trophy the FIFA World Cup. 32 countries came together for a month-long soccer party.
However, one country to miss out was the United States.
So, how does the third most populous country, with the highest global wealth, fail to be invited to the party of the year?
The reason the U.S. never made it to the party in Russia, can be traced back to a hot October night, in the Caribbean island of Trinidad.
Bruce Arena's USMNT took to the field that night, needing only to tie with their hosts, to achieve their ticket to the World Cup.
However things didn't go to plan, the small Caribbean nation famously scored twice in the first half, damaging American hopes of qualification.
With all the advantages the U.S. has over its continental competitors, how can the country possibly fail, in its bid for qualification?
The question divided the American soccer community. At first sight, many blamed the countries player development system or Bruce Arena's tactics. However, the issues in the men’s American game runs deeper into the sport's history.
Soccer is often overlooked by many Americans, as a sport that is not ingrained into the American culture. It is not unheard of for the sport to be described as “a game for immigrants” or as “the foreign sport”.
If you grew up in the U.S., you may have been made to believe that soccer had never thrived in the country.
However, the truth is that soccer had, at one time, been well on its way to popularity in the U.S., before coming to a screeching halt. Soccer would watch other sports took over the American consciousness.
The USMNT has failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup on eleven occasions. However, this is not because soccer is not as American as apple pie. If you look at America's historical results at World Cup results, you would see success. In the inaugural FIFA World Cup, in 1930, America finished third. Not bad, for a country that considers soccer “the foreign sport”.
The historical success on the world stage has not been matched in recent years by American soccer. However, if you consider all of the facts America becomes the best in the world. Moving from the men's game to the woman's, the U.S. national team's results are far superior to that of the men's team.
Since the Woman’s FIFA World Cup started in 1991, the US Woman’s National Team’s results are far superior to the men’s. America has seen its woman’s team finish at least third in every tournament it has entered, this includes the USWNT being crowned World Champions on three occasions.
The failure of the USMNT is not due to culture, but down to the American men’s game. When you start looking at the history of soccer in America, you begin to see a lost Golden Age of American soccer.
In the 1920s, soccer had a large following in the U.S. It may not have been as popular as baseball, however, this was also the era of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The top American soccer league had tens of thousands of fans and featured some of the world's best players. In the competition to supply the nation with post-October entertainment, soccer was in direct competition with the fledgling NFL.
In 1926, 46,000 people flocked to see the New York Stars take on the Austrian team Hakoah Vienna, at the Polo Ground, in Upper Manhatten. The game would finish 3-0 to the Stars. The impressive part of this story is that on the exact same day Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees had a season-high attendance of 42,000. A whole four thousand people less than the soccer game.
The 1920s may have been the golden age of American soccer. But we have to look all the way back to the 1860s, to better understand America's relationship to the sport. In 1863, rules for soccer were established in the UK. Helping to build the game of soccer that we are all familiar with today.
In 1875, America saw a divergence from these British soccer rules. When Yale invited Harvard to take part in a more rugby-style game. Yale using rules they had learned from McGill University in Canada. The game morphed into the sport of American Football, which became an instant hit. Ivy League colleges such a Princeton quickly picked up the new sport. Moving from competing in the British style game to the American style one. This became the first split between American and European football culture.
As college football started to grow across the country, soccer was still being tested with U.S. audiences. The American League of Professional Football (ALPF), the first of its kind in the U.S., launched in 1894. Created by owners of National League baseball clubs, for the sole purpose of drawing more revenue, from their empty stadiums during the baseball offseason. As owners were so desperate for attendance, they didn’t even bother creating unique identities. The New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, and Baltimore Orioles all played in the ALPF.
Owners were so unconfident in the league’s success, that many of the clubs ended up using their baseball managers as coaches for their soccer teams. Performances on the field suffered, due to the gimmicky nature the owners created. The league did not even manage to finish its first season.
The outbreak of World War I, seen sports culture in Europe slow down allowing American soccer to catch up. This led to the first truly promising league, the American Soccer League (ASL), in 1921. The ASL featured teams from all over the Northeast United States. Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel, the two most famous clubs in the ASL, finished first and second in the standings most seasons. The league produced such talents as Bert Patenaude, who scored 118 goals in 124 matches, for the Marksmen.
The success of the ASL, lead to the league enticing top talent away from clubs in Europe. ASL focused on importing talent from the Scottish and English leagues. Luring players with wages that reached $50 a game and $50 a week for working in their factories. This was significantly more than players could receive back in the UK. ASL owners ignored the fact that many foreign players were under contract, provoking an outcry on the far side of the Atlantic.
In 1925, the Scottish Football Association convened a special meeting, in Glasgow, to protest the "American menace." Forcing FIFA, in 1927, to compel the secretary of the ASL to appear before its congress, in Finland. Where they demanded that American teams stop ignoring international contracts.
The liaison to FIFA and governing body for soccer in America, the United States Football Association (USFA), decided to agree to the sanctions. The FIFA sanctions began to highlight the differing ideologies of the two organizations. Even by looking at the names of the organizations, the differences become clear. Neither could agree on what to call the sport, USFA choosing football, and ASL choosing soccer.
ASL owners saw that the only thing from keeping soccer from mainstream American acceptance was the sense that soccer was too "foreign." ASL teams wanted to Americanize the game by adding new rules. These include introducing substitutions, determining league position by winning percentage rather than by the European points system, and adding playoffs at the end of the season. The ASL chose to introduce some of these changes against USFA objections, many turned out to be ahead of their time. The ASL allowed player substitutions as early as 1926; the World Cup finally came around in 1970.
In the summer of 1928, a proposition was made by ASL team owners, to undermine the USFA. Starting by removing its teams from the USFA's National Challenge Cup competition. Followed by the development of a midwestern division of the ASL and end of playoff system. This would determine the true US soccer champion, by replacing the National Challenge Cup.
As the ASL started to put their plan into motion, they ordered its clubs to withdraw from the National Challenge Cup. Three ASL teams still chose to compete Bethlehem Steel, the New York Giants, and the Newark Skeeters. In return these three 'rebel' teams were kicked out of the ASL. Which the USFA responded by suspending the ASL, starting the ‘Soccer War’.
The ASL still decided to continue playing without the approval of the USFA. The ASL continued without the three teams they removed the previous season. In response, USFA decided to bankroll their own league. Using the three 'rebel' teams and several semi-professional New York teams informing the Eastern Soccer League (ESL).
Support for the USFA from other national federations began to strengthen the ESL. The economic disadvantages of being an outlaw league convinced the ASL to find a solution. Civil wars are never fun and by the time the 'soccer war' was resolved, America was hit by the stock market crash. By now fans were disillusioned, angry, and hideously confused.
The sport never truly recovered in the eyes of American audiences. With many of the teams folding during the depression. The ESL and ASL were replaced by the joint Atlantic Coast League. A scaled-down, semi-pro version, with smaller budgets and no attempts to recruit European talent.
The U.S. would enter a soccer dark ages, up until the short-lived leagues such as the NASL. Which saw the return of international talent such as Pelé, in 1975. However, soccer was stuck with the stigma as a foreign sport.
The Women's Game
For the women's game, a small fan base and lack of private development have not been a problem.
The development of women's soccer has been behind the men's game across the world. In the absence of significant league business, federal programs such as Title IX dragged the woman's game forward. Mandating schools to have a woman's team where ever there was a men's team.
Therefore for the men's game, there should be no reason to only find excuses in coaches or the player development system. As the reason that there has been a lack of success. Look at the 'soccer war', as the thing that broke the sport.