When championships took a back seat to friendlies

Soccer, in the United States as well as elsewhere, can be roughly divided into competitive games and friendly games. At least in recent years, there has been no question that the competitive games are the really important ones. Friendlies (exhibitions in American English) between clubs like D.C. United and Newcastle United, or between countries like the United States and Ireland, can be exciting events, but there is no longer much doubt that games that count in league standings, like D.C. United vs. the Chicago Fire, or in World Cup standings, like the United States vs. Costa Rica, are the ones that really matter. This was not always true, however. Not only were friendlies once far more significant in European and South American soccer than they are now, they once were the tail that wagged the dog in American soccer.

For more than four decades, the American Soccer League was a dominant factor in American soccer, even though it was a relatively regional northeastern league for most of its existence. There was plenty of good soccer being played elsewhere, particularly in St. Louis, Chicago and California, but from the 1920s to the 1960s, the ASL did produce the largest share of the greatest players and greatest teams in American soccer.

There is a problem here, however. It would seem that the settling of the ASL championship should have been one of the premier annual events in American soccer, but very often over the course of the league’s history, it was a relatively secondary one. It had plenty of competition from cup tournaments, most notably the one that is now called the U.S. Open Cup but was once better known as the National Challenge Cup. But the events that really could put the ASL title race into the back seat were those friendlies.

This can be illustrated by the “American Soccer League Roundup” article in the 1949 issue of the U.S. Annual Soccer Guide and Record (better known as the “Bill Graham Guide”). The first paragraph of that article says:

“First to sponsor a visit by a foreign soccer team after the war, the American Soccer League in 1948/49 really bit off a big chunk. Two of the Spring visitors — Belfast Celtics and Scottish Nationals — were American League projects in conjunction with the USSFA. And all four other foreign teams to play here — Israeli, Newcastle, Kamraterna and Milano — played at least one or more games under ASL sponsorship. Little wonder that the ASL fan felt like a well-fed gent with five helpings of Thanksgiving turkey in his system by the time mid-July rolled around.”

The article continues on about the touring teams and finally, in the fifth paragraph, gets around to mentioning the fact that Philadelphia Nationals won the ASL championship that year.

A good bit of the reason for this heavy emphasis on the touring teams was financial. In the cases of both the ASL and the German-American Soccer League, which also brought in touring foreign teams, the friendlies raised large amounts of money to support the league’s domestic operations. But the reasons also were related to American soccer’s need to prove itself against foreign competition and to spectator interest. In many a spring, when the attention of fans (which in the case of the ASL mostly meant New York fans) might have been riveted on the final weeks of the ASL championship race, it instead was turning toward anticipation of that year’s visits from teams like Liverpool or Kaiserslautern or, in the most telling instance of all, Belfast Celtic.

Belfast Celtic is a forgotten team in world soccer today. It dropped out of the Irish League in the same year as its visit to the United States, 1949, and memory of it faded quickly thereafter. But it once was a big name. Prior to 1949, it had won the Northern Irish championship 11 times in the previous 16 seasons, including five in a row from 1936 to 1940. Many of the other European teams that visited the United States in those years are still as famous today as they were then. But Belfast Celtic, now long forgotten, got as big a build-up as any of them.

Belfast Celtic played 10 games on its tour of the United States in May and June of 1949. That in itself shows a difference between tours then and now. Today, largely because of the speed of intercontinental jet travel, most tours aren’t really tours. They tend to be quick visits for a game or two, rather than the 10- or 15-game tours of yesterday. But the Belfast Celtic tour did center around one particular game, the opening game on May 8 at Randalls Island in New York against a New York All-Star team, a combination of three ASL clubs, New York Hakoah, Brookhattan and Brooklyn Hispano.

A few weeks before May 8, the American Soccer League season had ended in a three-way tie. Philadelphia Nationals, New York Americans and Brooklyn Hispano each had finished the season with 22 points, on records of 10 victories, four defeats and two ties. A playoff was necessary. Philadelphia Nationals, who had the best goal difference of the three, were given a bye into the final. New York Americans then beat Hispano by 4-0 to join Philadelphia Nationals in the final.

Did the fact that the ASL championship was hanging in the balance take attention away from the Belfast Celtic visit? Perish the thought! The game between Philadelphia Nationals and New York Americans, the game to settle the championship that the nine ASL teams had been striving for since the previous fall, was held as a prelim to the friendly between Belfast Celtic and the New York All-Stars. And when the 90 minutes ended with the score 2-2, and the ASL title still undecided, the overtime to break the tie wasn’t played until hours later, after the Belfast Celtic vs. New York All-Stars game. The importance of the friendly was such that it couldn’t be tampered with. The settling of the ASL championship would have to wait.

This event, more than any other, illustrates the gigantic importance that was once was placed in American soccer on the visits of foreign touring teams.