This article was originally printed in the SASH Historical Quarterly in 1996, and is reproduced by permission of the author.
“I used to walk those gloomy textile neighborhoods in Philadelphia where the ethnics played association football on factor lots every Sunday.” — Ed Shils, sociologist
Ed Shils, University of Chicago sociologist, was referring to his early years in Philadelphia in the 1930s. We met when I worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Shils knew I grew up in Kensington, one of those “gloomy” neighborhoods and knew I had a passion for soccer. His comment was typical of the late 1970s, when the general public perceived soccer as an immigrant, foreign sport. Soccer’s 130-year-old history in America, at least until the mid-1970s with the coming of the “Pele Era,” indeed was strongly linked with ethnic influences. In some parts of the country, some people still hold that view, thinking of soccer as “that foreign sport.”
What has changed dramatically in the last two decades of soccer in the United States is its composition. On any weekend in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia and nearby Montgomery and Princes Georges counties in Maryland, thousands of youngsters, male and female, fill every foot of green field as they play soccer. Some 98 percent of the youngsters are born in the U.S., a phenomenon we see across the country. In our own D.C. Stoddart league, we’ve gone from 60 kids in 1979 to over 4,000 today, with the league offering a full range of soccer activities – house and travel teams, license coaching courses, referee training and a tournament. Even in Washington, a highly ethnic area (there are over 100,000 Salvadorans in the metropolitan area), less than five percent of the youngsters are foreign-born.
Whatever the current composition of soccer in the U.S., we can still talk about ethnic contributions of the past, the strong ethnic roots in the game, and the continuing ethnic legacy. As long as we remain a multi-cultural society, our soccer will continue to be influenced by people born outside our shores. No other major team sport in the U.S. can boast such a rich pluralistic tradition, one that reflects our country’s own diversity.
Let’s face it, soccer’s roots are overseas. We’re latecomers to the sport. We have learned from our predecessors, those who pioneered the game here and kept it alive in dark times, and who continue to influence the game today. In perhaps the single greatest ethnic contribution to soccer in the U.S., Pele, coaxed out of retirement in 1975 to play for the North American Soccer League’s famed New York Cosmos, revolutionized the public and media’s perception of soccer. According to Phil Woosnam, former commissioner of the NASL, Pele’s arrival “was the biggest factor in establishing the appeal and credibility of the sport… Pele changed the face of soccer in the United States. He filled the major stadiums and was responsible for the soccer boom.” Pele also helped turn soccer from a working-class sport into a suburban, middle and upper middle class phenomenon.
Ethnic soccer is no longer the single most dominant influence on the sport, as it was in the early part of this century. Even so, the ethnic contribution continues today, and that contribution is the focus of this paper.
IMMIGRATION PATTERNS AND ETHNIC SOCCER
Flocking to the Cities
In the opening sentences of his soccer history, America’s Soccer Heritage, the late Sam Foulds, soccer historian, remarked:
“The result of a soccer game is not the end of the world, and the history of American soccer is not exactly the history of America. However, the United States is a nation of immigrants, and soccer was a pastime of many of these people. It was a game that provided diversion, and sometimes unpleasantness, for large numbers of people who had come in search of something different. As is true today, most played without giving much thought to the future or to the past of the game. Soccer provided momentary joy or accomplishment and playing the game was most important.”
This theme of ethnic passion for soccer and enthusiasm in playing or watching it will be interwoven in this paper. We will see that soccer for many ethnic groups was more than a simple leisure-time diversion. For many, it was a ticket to the new world, their reason for coming here, and an avenue to economic opportunity.
My father, Jimmy Oliver, was one of Sam Foulds’ immigrants who played soccer. He arrived from Motherwell, Scotland, in September 1923. After clearing Ellis Island, he was on a train to Philadelphia, where he had a boyhood friend. By the first Sunday after his arrival, he had joined the Kensington Blue Bells Soccer Club, a Scottish club with a strong soccer background. The club found him a job, offered social and cultural supports in his new country, and looked after his needs until he was settled. All because of soccer and group cohesiveness.
My father was in one of the last great waves of immigration. Up to the 1900s, most immigrants had come from Northern and Western Europe. After 1900, more came from Southern and Eastern Europe — the Balkans, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Greece. All formed their ethnic clubs and founded soccer teams, especially in our great urban centers. As immigration slowed in the Great Depression and until after World War II, the German, Italian, Scottish and other ethnic clubs continued to welcome those who did make it over, and continued to run their soccer clubs. They became part of urban America’s story, contribution to the colorful fabric of America’s cities.
Soccer enabled the newcomers to start a new life in the United States. They played soccer with their clubs on weekends, working in factory jobs during the week. They taught their sons the game and added to the growth of our urban neighborhoods.
The Portuguese found their way to the fishing and textile towns of New England, the Italian masons to New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, the German craftsmen and bakers to our large cities. They worked their trades, raised families, and organized and played soccer on weekends. In the age of industrialization, cities were the controlling factor in the new civilization — The Age of the Metropolis — providing our cultural pattern. So it was no surprise that as the major cities grew, ethnic soccer took root in the neighborhoods of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Boston and Baltimore.
“”At the century’s end, New York reported half as many Italians as Naples, as many Germans as Hamburg, as many Jews as Warsaw, and twice as many Irish as Dublin. Chicago’s streets were crowded with Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Slovenes And in varying degrees, much the same could be said of other urban centers from Boston to St. Louis.” (Roster Rhea Dulles, 1959)
The ethnic groups found urban fields, often grass and dirt lots next to factories. They founded leagues. They attracted large crowds in the days before the extensive use of the automobile, radio and television. They stayed in the cities, particularly along the eastern seaboard and in the Midwest, helping to create those foreign enclaves characteristic of all urban centers at the time. Soccer on Sundays was often their only outlet and chance for ethnic pride and expression of their culture.
Many ethnic groups clung to their old ways, to their cultural traits. For example, I recall the festivals of the German-American clubs in Philadelphia and New York, the Scottish games in Kearny and Metuchen, New Jersey, and the Ukrainian holiday celebrations — all included soccer matches, thus introducing young American players to their cultures.
The United States is indeed unusual in the world, with the capacity to absorb the immigrants while finding ways for the newcomers to continue to identify with their ethnic origins, culture and groups. They became “Americanized” and gradually assimilated, but held onto their soccer clubs, even when soccer was considered a “foreign sport.”
Changes in Immigration Patterns
In the 1950s, 68 percent of the immigrants and refugees still came from Europe and Canada. In the 1980s, by contrast, only 13 percent came from these areas. Four-fifths of our newest immigrants, since 1980, have come from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 essentially eliminated the pro-European bias in previous U.S. immigration policy. It also led, somewhat unexpectedly, to higher levels of immigration, some 16 million since 1965. The new law emphasized “kinship” and “family reunification” — visas for the relatives already here.
Anyone involved in urban soccer since 1965 will recall the dramatic increase in clubs and players from the Caribbean islands, El Salvador, and later from Korea and other Asian countries. Many Mexicans entering the U.S. every year flood the leagues in the Southwest.
The Latins have already added their influence to U. S. Soccer. In Washington, DC, we have Salvadorean leagues, top teams from El Salvador play regularly before large crowds at RFK Stadium, and many players are now joining our coaching ranks. Caribbean players and coaches are active in local leagues, in coaching, and officiating. We also have a Korean league, and more and more Asian youth are coming into our local youth teams.
The U.S. has an incredible capacity to accept and assimilate immigrants. It usually takes a generation or so, and sports like soccer have assisted the process as immigrant parents and players interact with our teams and leagues. In turn, the immigrants are contributing to our style of play, just as they have always done, and to the development of the U.S. player. Immigration has always infused our country with new ambition, ideas and energy. Our soccer today owes a continuing debt to the passion, enthusiasm and skills people have brought with them, wherever they come from or settled.
ETHNIC CONTRIBUTIONS TO U.S. SOCCER
Even though the ethnic influence on U.S. soccer has been the greatest in our urban areas, by the 1960s the older ethnic groups had moved from the cities to the suburbs, especially in the eastern and Midwest regions. They took their soccer clubs and leagues with them in a quest for less expensive land for their fields and clubs, and escape from our growing urban ills.
We can describe in generalized terms ethnic contributions to the pluralism of America’s urban and neighborhood life, but our focus is on how the ethnic groups helped to create a soccer culture in our country, how they kept the game alive, and how they laid the essential base for our soccer explosion over the last two decades.
The immigrants taught us how to talk about soccer, the nuances, the terminology, and soccer history, lore, and colorful characters. They did this on and off the field, in meetings of soccer associations, in their newspapers and reporting on games, and in the old-timers’ stories. Even today, our soccer reporting lacks the verve of the overseas press and the various ethnic journals in the U.S. We are getting better, through our many soccer publications and local press (more sports reporters have played soccer than ever before), but we still have the American penchant of looking for statistics and reports on goals while ignoring the essence of the sport.
I recall an Italian reporter’s description of a 1982 World Cup game as “lung-consuming, heartbreaking, with a great inner strength and… a few geo-political quarrels.” Players are described as “slippery as Rossi,” “elegant and ironmade like Scirea,” or “unyielding like Zoff.” At the time, in contrast, Newsweek was reporting on the huge number of journalists, the English hooligans, the four Brazilian samba bands, and the low number of goals scored.
As I said in a previous article, “When we learn to talk about soccer in this loving, poetic, dramatic fashion, professional soccer will come alive here.” The ethnic soccer people taught us to look for style and flair in the game itself, rather than dry statistics and events extraneous to the game. They taught us the subtleties of the game, the buildups and quick counters, the 1 vs 1 matchups, and the movements off the ball rather than focusing on goals or scoring opportunities while missing soccer’s artistry, style and pathos.
The immigrants of the early part of this century wanted to continue their sport in a new country, to play it and to watch it as they had done at home. Where there was no soccer club, they started one. Where there was no league, they founded one. Thus, the Germans founded the old German-American League in New York in the 1920s. Immigrants were in most of the leading positions in the early professional leagues like the first American Soccer League (1921) and its successor ASL in 1933, or the National Soccer League in Chicago (1910) and the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League founded in the early 1920s. Phil Woosnam, a Welshman, was the first commissioner of the North American Soccer League (NASL). Gene Chyzowych, a Ukrainian, almost single-handedly kept the ASL alive in the late 1960s, advocating the use of American players: “St. Louis used all American boys. Delaware too… We cannot continue playing with Ukrainians, Italians and Portuguese; we have to open doors for Americans… The league should exist for the American kids.” Major League Soccer (MLS), established in 1996, has adopted this philosophy.
The advent of the NASL in the late 1960s helped to establish the credibility of soccer with the American public, and to redirect us away from the strong ethnic identification of the past. Much of the NASL’s talent came from overseas, but teams represented cities, not ethnic clubs or ethnic groups (e.g. the Philadelphia Ukrainians, Brooklyn Hispano or San Francisco Scots).
“Americanizing” the game meant divorcing names from this strong ethnic identification to Americanized nicknames (Baltimore Bays, Rochester Lancers, Washington Darts or Philadelphia Atoms). This principle of Americanizing soccer from the top for the public and media took hold, even as the ethnic legacy continued on the playing field in the NASL.
Pele’s arrival in 1975 with the New York Cosmos sparked national interest, community-by-community. His presence focused media and public attention on the NASL as a legitimate professional sport. Clive Toye, an Englishman, brought Pele to the U.S., while Woosnam continued to head the NASL. In a comic footnote on the Pele era, our 1983 delegation to FIFA to present our World Cup bid for 1986 consisted of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Henry Kissinger — all foreign born while representing the U.S.’s soccer interests.
The Ethnic Club: A Home for Soccer
The immigrants founded soccer clubs in urban America. These clubs, continuing the pattern from abroad, included reserve teams, junior teams and youth leagues. In my playing career, I have played with Scottish, Portuguese, Russian, German and Italian clubs — all focused on their soccer teams but also having broader cultural pursuits.
Consider the list of champions from any of the ASL seasons into the 1960s and you’ll find the Kearny Scots, New York Hakoah, New York Inter and Philadelphia Ukrainians, among others. Ponta Delgada of Fall River, German-Americans of Philadelphia, Schwaben of Chicago — all dominated the Amateur Cup ranks at one time.
The immigrants created a “home for soccer” through their fields and clubhouses, be it at Eintract Oval in Queens, New York, or Balboa park in San Francisco. They combined soccer and social life, they stuck together, they had group solidarity. As Manny Schellscheidt, famed Seton Hall coach, told me about coming over: “I wouldn’t be here without soccer — they helped me come over and get a temporary permit. They got me the Green Card, a place to stay, and a job.
According to Walt Bahr, former professional and soccer legend, the ethnic clubs boosted soccer during some critical times:
“After World War II, tens of thousands of Ukrainians fled war-torn Europe to come to America. They had outstanding clubs in New York, Philadelphia, Newark and Toronto, and raised our soccer to new heights. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, we found Hungarian soccer clubs with top players taking the league and national titles. Every time there is an upheaval in the world, the soccer-playing immigrants come over and our soccer has benefited.
The ethnic club structure was the forerunner of the thousands of community-based local soccer clubs which have sprung up since the Pele era. In most other U.S. team sports, teams tend to be organized by town or city recreation departments, Police Athletic Leagues, or other community organizations. In soccer, we find youth soccer clubs in every community, not driven by ethnicized senior teams as in times past, but as self-standing house leagues and travel teams supported by parents as volunteer organizers, coaches, managers and league officials. These parents continue both the club structure and spirit of volunteerism for soccer brought by the ethnic groups in a different era.
Ethnic Passion for Soccer
When I asked a coaching colleague recently about the ethnic contribution to U.S. soccer, he quickly said “their passion for the sport and for making a soccer game an event.” Bahr echoed this point: “The ethnic groups brought us a different level of soccer, along with their enthusiasm, loyalty and fierce passion for the game.”
Anyone watching a match between two ethnic-oriented teams in the period when I played felt the passion on the sidelines and on the field. Italians against the Germans, Greeks against the Turks — some of the old hostilities flared. Only recently have we as Americans come to realize the intensity soccer generates, from the spectators to the coaches to the players. These passions reached new heights as we witnessed how other cultures and nationalities celebrated their teams during the 1994 World Cup, with our own brand of hysteria reaching its peak in the U.S.’s 2-1 victory over Columbia. We had a further taste of soccer’s intensity during the summer of 1995 with the U.S. successes in the U.S. Cup, the Copa America in Uruguay and the Parmalat Cup at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Painted faces, musical instruments (mostly loud, ear rattling horns), flags, and dances through the aisles marked these games — and we’re still learning.
With more games on television, especially the European and South American championships, we can sense the passion and fervor in the stands and on the field. That passion, already caught by the young American players, their parents, and the fans, is slowly infiltrating the media consciousness. We’re not there yet. Most sports reporters and TV broadcasters, not having played the sport, still continue to look for the wrong things in soccer — the passion and poetry of soccer, fondly embraced by ethnic groups, hasn’t yet sunk it.
The Ethnic Influences on Skills and styles of Play
The immigrant players showed us how the game can be played, the high level of skills and tactics involved, the love for the ball, the speed of the game, and how far we still have to do to be a true soccer nation. Even England – born Ted Koppel, ABC broadcaster and soccer player at Syracuse University in the late 1950s, talked about skill levels in a post-World Cup 1994 interview:
“I played both left wing and inside left. I guess they would have described me as more of a finesse player than a hard-nosed player. And because I had learned to play in England, I had… what today would be considered as slightly above average skills as a dribbler and passer. I had far more ball control than the Americans. Those were the days when most American kids playing soccer thought all they had to do was kick the ball as far down as they could and run like hell.” (Sidekicks International, 1995).
I would venture that most ethnic players of the period had the same view as Koppel. My own early experience with organized soccer came at the lighthouse Boys Club in Philadelphia, where grizzled veterans from England and Scotland taught the English or Scottish game. We watched the pros and emulated their moves, just as a generation later kids would emulate the skills of a Pele, a Beckenbauer, a Bogicevic or a Chinaglia. As Schellscheidt told me, “Ed Kelly [Boston College coach] observed that when he played in the streets, all his heroes were there with him.”
The immigrants encouraged us to play on our own, to be comfortable with the ball, many times just joining the kids in tapping the ball around in the streets. Today, few kids venture to a field on their own without parent or coaching supervision. We’re organized, and soccer often is only one of many activities our over-organized kids get into. Ethnic players learned soccer on their own and even today you can see small groups of Hispanic, Caribbean or African boys and men just kicking the ball about on fields in our metropolitan area.
Ed Borg, former soccer official, recalled the learning experience he enjoyed by playing on different ethnic teams:
“I played with a Maltese team in the English style, three men back and long balls. When I went to the German-American League, I found tighter marking and more systematic play. On my Spanish teams, we had many more touches on the ball. So different teams, different styles — we learned from each.”
Bahr, with extensive overseas playing experience, thought the foreign players at the top levels “better than us in all aspects of the game. We never had the intense soccer environments you find overseas. If we can play against good competition, our game will get better. We’ll raise our level.” We need look no farther for proof of Bahr’s point than the dramatic development of the U.S.’s overseas players — Keller, Lalas, Wynalda, Caligiuri, Sorber, Balboa and others who have grown immensely from playing on foreign teams in high-level competition.
Schellscheidt added to this view: “Traditional soccer countries have a 150-year-old soccer environment. Kids could play on their own, ands they grow up as better players than the kids led by their parents. They become creative, defining their own vision of the game, and using their imagination.”
A distinct U.S. style in soccer continues to emerge. As kids, we played the style our fathers and foreign-born coaches taught us, usually a combination of the long ball, tough hard tackling, and occasional glimpses of finesse and dribbling skills. Our game and our thinking were slower than today’s game, played at high speed in both use of skills and tactics.
Since a soccer style represents individual personalities as well as personal traits, our multi-cultural nation will continue to be influenced in soccer by ethnic styles until our own distinct style emerges. As Los Angeles Salsa coach Octavio Zambrano put it in commenting on his club’s style:
“We are definitely a combination of Latin and European. We are not only a reflection of what our society is… We combine Latin kids from the city who are very adept technically and a tremendous amount of skill with Anglo-Americans and Afro-Americans who provide a different dimension. They are more explosive, more direct. This type of combination is a true example of what the American style is, or should be.” (Soccer America, April 5, 1995)
The soccer public’s sense of differing styles grew with the World Cup in 1994 as we witnessed teams and personalities up close, from the Irish two-touch, shot-on-goal approach to the possession game of the Italians and the Brazilians, from the all-out attacking style of the Dutch to the cautious, but highly effective quick counters of the Romanians. These teams and players taught our kids and our coaches new tactics, new skills, new moves, and above all the art of exquisite ball control. We had a new range of models to draw upon.
Can we encourage a distinct American style? Do we incorporate the style of an ethnic group such as the Hispanics? Or do we continue to assimilate and learn from the best of what the ethnic groups have to offer while developing a distinct American way of playing? Steve Sampson, former U.S. national men’s team coach, offered us a glimpse of an emerging style with his attacking, direct play in recent tournaments. Sampson had instituted tight marking and maintaining shape in defense, backs and midfielders constantly overlapping and moving into attack, forwards unafraid to take opponents on, and speed combined with greater vision and tactical awareness of the next move.
Ethnic Contributions Kept the Game Alive
Ethnic groups and clubs kept soccer in the U.S. alive during some dark periods and helped to lay the groundwork for the soccer revolution sparked by Pele’s arrival in 1975. Pele may have served as the flashpoint for the soccer revolution, but the ethnic groups provided the bulk of skilled soccer players and organizers, along with spectators, up to the Pele era.
Sure, we had strong American youth teams in the 1940s and 1950s (Philadelphia Lighthouse, St. Louis Kutis), Americanized professional teams (Philadelphia Nationals, Philadelphia Americans), public and private school programs dominated by American-born youth, and growing numbers of college teams with American players. But without the ethnic leagues and clubs, without the continual influx of the immigrant players and coaches, our sport would not have had the foundation on which the Pele phenomenon and the NASL could build. It might even have died.
Without the ethnic influence, the quality of our soccer would have been considerably lessened. Would we be playing soccer with the quality and speed we find in the American game? We don’t know. What we do know is that the immigrants brought their game, planted it firmly in our sports psyche alongside our indigenous sports, and laid the basis for soccer’s growth for generations to come.
The Downside to the Ethnic Influence on Soccer
Despite the massive ethnic contribution ethnic groups have made to U.S. soccer, there have been some downsides. Let’s look at a few:
A “Foreign Sport”. The continued identification of soccer as a “foreign sport” by our sportswriters and the public may have slowed the growth of soccer here. In a recent paper on soccer’s “marginal” status among America’s sports, the authors argue that the identification of soccer as “working class” and “foreign” dulled the sport’s appeal to the American middle class. They compare soccer to Baseball, a U.S. derivative of the English game of “rounders,” and to American football, taken from the English game of rugby, both of which became rooted in the middle class while discarding the foreign label “Markovitz and Hellerman, 1995).
We are still fighting the identification of soccer as foreign. I saw in one newsletter recently “Tips on naming Teams,” where the writer indicated that “names should not allude to a team’s ethnic makeup or nationality.” The perception of soccer as a foreign sport plagued us as long as we played, and may still be around, slowing our development.
The act that soccer is ruled by FIFA (Federation International de Football Association) may also be contributing to the stereotype of soccer being foreign-dominated.
Lack of Media Attention. Since the public perceived soccer as a foreign sport, the media paid little attention to soccer in my playing days. It was easy to ignore. Today, soccer is still relegated to the back pages of the sports section or to a blurb even when the event is big-time — Copa America, NCAA Finals, or MLS signing international stars.
In the 1950s, outstanding foreign teams played in Philadelphia, new York and Chicago. The stands would be packed with Germans watching Kaiserslautern, Italians watching A. C. Milan or Brazilians watching Santos, all contributing to the public perception of soccer as a foreign sport. The foreign label still haunts us: local media gleefully reported that one-third of the 39,000 fans witnessing the U.S.’s 4-0 rout of Mexico at RFK Stadium in the summer of 1995 at the US Cup, sported the green shirts and tri-color flag of Mexico. Ethnic fans have always supported international matches, but usually when their national or club teams are playing. One of the major questions facing the MLS organizers, therefore, is the stability of this ethnic fan base. Placing a Campos in Los Angeles, an Etcheverry in Washington DC, or a Valderrama in Tampa Bay may help draw some Hispanic fans, but will they stay supporters after these international stars are gone? “Ethnocentrism” may have supported the league and club structure in the U.S. over the first half century, but it may work against us in developing a full-fledged pro league if we ignore the true base of long-term fan support – the American players, coaches, officials, parents, and families who have come into the sport in the last two decades.
Bad press has also come from the ethnic passions that have occasionally inflamed the soccer fields, with reports of fights, near riots and shootings coming out of ethnic games. The U.S. Park Service banned Salvadorans from a major venue after a shooting in 1995 after a game in Washington, DC. Similar stories can be found in other urban areas, leading some reporters to link soccer with world terrorism and ethnic conflict abroad. It reinforced negative images.
Ethnic Soccer as Male-Dominated. Ethnic groups did not encourage girls to play soccer. Understandable, as soccer was not perceived by them as a sport for females. The thinking was: would you want your daughter, sister or wife to rough it up, get knocked over, butt heads, sprain an ankle, slide through mud, or collide with a keeper when she would watch the match in the safety of the stands? But 40 percent of our youth players in the U.S. are female, and women are flocking to women’s leagues and co-ed recreational teams. All this is fueled by our egalitarian attitude toward sports in general, Title IX and the growth of women’s soccer programs in our colleges, and the success of our U.S. women’s national teams and top women’s college teams in providing role models.
Up to the mid-1980’s, girls had few female role models, just the men playing. Girls came to soccer late and on their own, often playing on teams nominated by boys. Parents with no history of the sport simply asked why their daughters couldn’t play this team sport their husbands and sons seemed to enjoy so much. And as recreational soccer programs for girls grew, parents put pressure on the schools and colleges to adopt this low-budget, high-participation, low-risk sport. The upshot is that despite the continuing ethnic stigma against the female soccer player, girls are coming into the sport in great numbers and the women’s game is taking hold nationally and internationally. The success of the Women’s Olympics and the Women’s 1999 World Cup tell us that women have arrived in soccer.
THE ETHNIC LEGACY SURVIVES
Soccer in the U.S., especially at the youth level, has been thoroughly “Americanized” — from the leagues, the clubs, the endless tournaments, the coaches and the USSF coaching schools, the high schools, the colleges and our US National men’s team (Although a few players are foreign, with several players having learned the game from an immigrant father). The U. S. women’s team is 100 percent American-born.
Still, the ethnic influence remains strong in our soccer. Perhaps it always will, so long as the U.S. remains a multicultural, pluralistic society, so long as immigrants continue to arrive with their sport, and so long as opportunities exist for immigrants and their offspring to contribute to America’s way of life.
We continue to see the ethnic influence in a number of areas. Foreign-born coaches still bring their knowledge, skills, tactics and enthusiasm for the game. As Director of Coaching for Washington, DC, I get several calls a week from people with accents who want to join our coaching ranks. Ethnic coaches are in our youth leagues, coaching our high school and college teams, and hold the majority of head coaching jobs with our new Major league Soccer franchises. Nevertheless, in proportion to the thousands of coaches in the U.S., the foreign-born coach makes up a tiny minority.
The most pronounced ethnic influence may be at the higher levels of play — in the NPSL, the World Indoor Soccer League, the A-league, and the USL. It seems that the higher the level of soccer, the more that Americans are perceived to be deficient in the game from both a playing and coaching perspective.
The 1995 debate on who would succeed Bora Milutinovic as U. S. national team coach spilled over to the media. The USSF struck out in its quest first for Carlos Quiroz of Portugal and then Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil, both of whom turned them down publicly. One New York Times sports headline read: “National Coach, Yes. American Coach, No.” In the midst of the controversy, Steve Sampson, former coach at Santa Clara and assistant to Milutinovic in World Cup 1994, quietly made his presence felt as interim national team coach with a stirring string of victories for the U.S. at USA Cup ’95, Copa America (a surprising fourth place finish), and the Parmalat Cup.
The debate over whether the post should go to Sampson or to a foreign coach with “international experience” went on until August 3, when the USSF announced at a press conference that Sampson would shed the interim label and be named full-time coach of the U.S. national soccer team. Sampson, the federation’s third choice, was seen as lacking experience at the international level, but his success on the field and good rapport with the players convinced the federation.
Many Schellscheidt called the search a quest for “a coaching savior.” Walter Bahr thought “our problem is with the level of our players, not the coaches… We need attractive, creative players and the coaching situation will take care of itself.” Both Schellscheidt and Bahr warned about the soaring expectations that would come with a foreign coach’s appointment. Desmond Armstrong, former national team player and ABC-TV commentator, was even more blunt over the controversy:
“We need an American coach so the public will see it as an American sport, not continue the image of soccer as a foreign sport. Let’s look for a solution internally, not outside.” (New York Times, June 18, 1995).
Sampson talked about the difficulty a foreign coach might have in becoming acclimated to the American player’s mentality and culture:
“Foreign coaches may not understand the American culture and the American personality. By the time they learn, qualifying for World Cup 1998 in France will be upon us. You can’t impose a system on us you have to use the talent here and base the system on your players… The coach should have a long-term commitment to work with the youth teams, developing a system of play that by 2006 will let us complete with anybody at any level and win.” (Washington Post, June 15, 1995).
Naming Sampson meant the long era of ethnic influence on our soccer and the perception that it is a foreign sport was waning. No other major sport in the country, except ice hockey, would have entertained such a notion. Such a search would not even have been considered in Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Spain, England or in other strong soccer nations. It is our national team.
The recent successes of the U.S. tea, especially the 3-0 win in the Copa America against Argentina, Sampson’s appointment and the achievements of American players abroad gave credibility to American players and coaches. Our future in soccer depends on developing the American player with great skills, who is comfortable with the ball under pressure, and who is tactically ready to take on the world’s competition. That’s a winning combination when combined with the American player’s fitness, speed and fighting spirit.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
We are catching up in soccer. We are playing at a higher level. Our players are emerging on the world scene. Just as the ethnic kids were left alone to play and learn the game, we have to let American kids grow and learn through the game. We are fortunate that the best young athletes are coming into soccer. Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago White Sox owner, was recently quoted as saying: “Our problem in baseball is soccer. The kids don’t play baseball anymore.” Football coaches advise youngsters to play soccer “to become good athletes,” and then come to football in their teens. But we want more. We want what the ethnic groups wanted, kids who love the game, who have “a feeling for the game,” as Dutch coach Rinus Michels calls it.
Schellscheidt and Bahr, both Hall of Famers, believe our players will reflect America’s pluralism, combining the best of each culture’s style. They believe our differences in soccer are our strengths, and these differences, combined with our uniqueness as Americans – our athleticism, our never-say-die spirit, our determination, and our coachability — can help us to move into the upper echelons of world soccer.
Ethnic groups will continue to contribute to our soccer, as in the MLS, but I think we now know what we are doing. We no longer have to depend on immigration to support soccer. Soccer is rapidly becoming part of our culture, or as advertising executive Jon Mandel said recently after negotiating between TV and baseball: “For a long-term opportunity, call soccer!”
Whatever soccer’s gains in the U.S., we should remember the contributions the ethnic groups made to our sport — keeping it alive, the leagues and the clubs, the quality and style of play, the players themselves, and above all, the passion and feeling they brought to the game.
Soccer is the world’s game, and we are part of that world. There will always be an ethnic contribution to our soccer. The legacy doesn’t end. We will continue to welcome and learn from the ethnic influences, integrating what is best from other lands and cultures into our own soccer environment. We will have a better opportunity to create a strong national soccer identity and program by accepting what is best in others, then doing it our way — that’s always been a winning combination.