1. THE EARLY YEARS: ORIGINS, ONEIDA SOCCER CLUB, THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE AND EARLY LEAGUES
The history of American soccer finds a prominent place in New England which was one of the 3 major hotbeds of US soccer for much of the earlier part of the 20th century, and the later part of the 19th. In fact, the team commonly called the first regular soccer club in the country was the Oneida Foot Ball Club which played undefeated for most of its seasons between 1862 and 1967, and played many of its games on the Boston Common, where a plaque memorials their presence.
When soccer first started in the United States, it was played primarily by schoolboy and college teams, and was largely an upper-class game. The Oneida soccer club, formed in Boston in 1862 is often cited as the first soccer club to consist of a regular roster of players, as opposed to the pick-up games commonly played at the time. It consisted of a group of Boston secondary school students from fairly elite public schools in the area (Boston Latin, Boston English, etc.). This club would play matches against pickup teams throughout the Boston collegiate community and went undefeated, and unscored upon during their entire four year existence. Apparently, teamwork, and familiarity with teammates was a significant factor in winning, and this was not lost on the public. The Oneida Football Club was the first soccer club anywhere outside of England, even predating the formation of Scottish teams. Clubs soon spread to other collegiate communities.
Collegiate play resumed on a regular basis after the Civil War. Rules varied widely among different schools and communities; Princeton played with 25 players, some people even played a game with innings, with a victory going to the first team to score a fixed number of goals (a la volleyball). In 1866, Beadle & Company of New York published a set of rules for both Association Football (soccer) and the “Handling game” (Rugby). The first intercollegiate game using rules resembling modern game was played on November 7, 1869 in New Brunswick, NJ between Princeton and Rutgers (Rutgers won 6-4). This game used the London Football Association’s 1863 rules which called for, among other things, 25 players, a field 110 meters x 70 meters, a 24 foot wide goal, movement of the ball allowed with all parts of the body (including hands, ball could be batted or held, but not carried or thrown). First team to score 6 points won. Interestingly, this same game is also generally recognized as the first GRIDIRON FOOTBALL game as well.
Soccer was also taken up at this time by Yale, Columbia and Cornell, and reintroduced to Harvard in 1871 in a hybrid form known as the Boston Game, a version which also allowed the throwing and carrying of the ball. At this time, football was still played by a number of different and conflicting rules. In 1873, inspired by the English Football Association’s rules unification, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers met in New York to draw up a uniform set of rules based on the London 1863 rules. They established 20 players on a team, a field measuring 400 feet x 250 feet, 25 foot wide goal, 6 goals to win, and a point scored by passing the goal past the goal posts. Carrying the ball was prohibited. Shortly after the first game under these rules, a Yale victory over Princeton, an English team, the Eton Players visited New Haven and played Yale, to whom they lost 1-2, in the first Anglo-American international match. Yale was persuaded to adopt the English custom of 11 players to a side, and subsequently argued for its universal adoption, which was generally achieved by 1880.
Meanwhile, Harvard had become more interested in the Rugby form of the game, and looked for competition against similarly oriented teams. When they happened upon McGill University of Montreal, who had also adopted those rules, the two teams played the first intercollegiate rugby match in 1874. The second of these games was played with an oval ball under English Rugby Association rules, and marks the evolution of soccer into the modern gridiron game. A fateful event which would forever change the fortunes of American soccer took place in 1875 when Yale Harvard and bridged the game gap to play a match under special concessionary rules, which included both goals and tries (later touchdowns), and a 15 man roster. Harvard won 4 goals to none and 4 tries to none. Yale reassessed their position after this humiliation, and decided to adopt the Rugby code. Princeton, who had watched the game as observers were impressed enough to follow suit. In 1876, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association using Rugby rules. Stevens, Weslayen and Penn soon followed, and by the end of 1876, the death knell had been signed for collegiate soccer in the US.
After the demise of college soccer, the game lay primarily in the hands of working-class communities, who were rapidly adopting the game, as the upper classes increasingly looked to rugby/gridiron. This was a trend in Europe as well as the US. As immigration increased, the new arrivals brought soccer traditions with them, and the game grew rapidly in the Northeastern industrial cities. The growth first took place in the West Hudson region of New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York City, soon spreading by the late 1870’s to Fall River, and New Bedford, MA. Pick-up games and loose informal teams soon grew into established clubs and led to corporate sponsorship finally the development of local and even regional leagues. The game spread to other parts of New England including Boston and Rhode Island, and into Baltimore, and in the 1880’s, into Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis, and finally Pittsburgh. The game was continually hampered by sociological forces– Baseball was seen as the American past-time, and many immigrants would attempt to Americanize themselves to assimilate, often switching to baseball from soccer which was seen increasingly as a sport only played by foreigners.
In 1884, a group of ex-British enthusiasts met in Newark and formed the American Football Association, the fourth national association to be formed. Besides attempting to coordinate the proliferating local and regional amateur leagues, the AFA established the first National Championship competition, the American Cup, which was first won by ONT (“Our New Thread”, brand name for the sponsoring sewing manufacturer in Kearny, NJ) in 1885. Before the cup’s suspension in 1898, the bulk of the champions were primarily from Southeastern New England, which had turned into the first true soccer hotbed in the country, with its “golden triangle” of Fall River, Pawtucket and New Bedford.
In its early years, it was dominated by New England teams, with victories going to the Fall River Rovers in 1888, and 1889, the Pawtucket Olympics in 1890 and 1894, Fall River East Ends in 1891-1892, and the Pawtucket Free Wanderers in 1893. In 1891, after their defeat at the hands of a New England all-star side in June, the Canadian team invited eight American players to join their team for an extensive tour of England, one that encompassed 58 games over 4 1/2 months against top English teams. The Canadian/American team managed 13 wins, 13 ties and 32 losses, providing the best exposure to English soccer any Americans ever had.
By this time, the “golden Triangle” of Fall river, New Bedford and greater Providence was one of the major soccer hotbeds of the country, based on the working class immigrants who flocked to the area to work in the burgeoning industrial centers, the “golden triangle” region being one of the largest textile manufacturing centers in the US. The fact that the American Cup never attracted teams outside of the northeastern US did not detract from the region’s dominance, as soccer was largely confined to this part of the country during that era.
New England had an entry in the first US professional league, the American League of Professional Football in 1894, with the Boston Beaneaters (named after the NL baseball team of the same name (later to become the Braves), scoring a 3-3 record before the league folded.
Fall River Rovers also won the championship of the first Eastern professional Soccer League in 1909-1910, the only year that league saw play.
The two main pro leagues to form after the APLF were the National Association Foot Ball league in 1906 and the Southern New England Soccer League in 1907 (both leagues played until 1921). The NAFBL was primarily a New York/New Jersey based league, but New England based teams such as Bunker Hill FC, Essex County FC,
The Southern New England Soccer League was one of three pioneering pro leagues (along with NAFBL of NY/NG), and SLSL of St. Louis. Perennial teams included New Bedford Whalers, New Bedford Celtics, Fall River Rovers, Fore River (Of Quincy), and J&P Coates of Pawtucket. New Bedford FC won the league championship on standings in 1914-1915, and 1916-1917.
The class team of this era was the Fall River Rovers. In addition to their earlier triumphs, the Rovers played an unprecedented three consecutive US Open Cups (1916-1918), beating Bethlehem Steel in 1917, 109, and nearly beating Steel in 1918, where they had tied in the championship game, losing 1-0 in the replay. The star of the team was Thomas Swords (Hall of Fame, 1951), who also captained the US National team in 1916 during their tour of Sweden, with strong support from John Sullivan (who scored the US Cup winner in 1917), and Jack Albion.
The 1917 campaign was one of the classic finals of US Open Cup history. Fall River Rovers won a very hard fought 1-0 victory over the legendary Bethlehem Steel, who was by far the stronger team and actually played a dominating game with their experience, but Fall river held on with tenacity and got the score that counted.
Several years later, Fore River Shipyards, of Quincy Mass, played a hard-fought championship match in the 1920-21 US Open Cup finals, sporting 11 British-born players. This classic match was significant for marking the first rise to prominence of a Midwestern team, establishing the first true east-west showdown. This was also a native vs. import match-up, as the Ben Millers (who won 2-1) were all from St. Louis, whereas 11 players on Fore River were imported Brits. This was a fast-paced game, with Hap Marre scoring a shot inside the near post after a cross from the left by Robert Potee. Fifteen minutes later, John Kershaw tied it up for Fore River. The speed picked up after halftime, with Jimmy Dunn scoring the winning goal for Ben Millers in the 62nd minute.
2. THE GOLDEN ERA – AMERICAN SOCCER LEAGUE I 1921-1933
By the early 1920s, soccer was well enough established in New England to support a full-fledged professional league. The first American League began in 1921, at the dawn of the first “golden age” of American Soccer. The ASL started the same year as the NFL of gridiron fame, and for several years the leagues were close to par as far as quality of play, popularity and level of professionalism. Crowds of 10,000 or more were not uncommon and, for several years, many British players were lured to our shores because the ASL was able to pay better salaries than the English League whose poor compensation was legendary during this time.
Interestingly, the ASL and NFL did not compete directly against each other, as the NFL was based entirely in the Midwest until the mid-1920’s and the ASL was based along the east coast from Boston to Philadelphia. When the league formed, many of its members had come over from the NAFBL and the SNESL both of which folded just prior to the ASL’s debut.
New England based teams dominated the league throughout its existence, with the Fall River Marksmen winning championships three consecutive years (1923-4, 1924-5 and 1925-6), and again in 1929, 1930. The Marksmen also won the Lewis Cup in 1930 as well as the US Open Cup in 1924 and 1930. This gives the Marksmen the distinction of having been the first US team to win the “double” (top league championship and top cup in both 1924 and 1930), some 73 years before DC United claimed that they had been the first in 1997. Other less successful teams included Holyoke Falcons (1921), Hartford SC 1927), and Springfield SC (1926).
The National Amateur Cup often resided in New England, as well, with victories by the Fall River Defenders in 1924, Fall River Powers in 1928 (in a three way tie with Hudson Essex and the Chicago Swedish-Americans), and Raffie’s, another Fall River club, in 1930.
Among several successful New England ASL teams were the Boston Wonder Workers, who took the League Cup in 1928, the Lewis Cup in 1925 and 1927, and won the only edition the International Soccer League in 1926, an off season special schedule that involved players from the ASL and the Canadian National Soccer League.
J&P Coates of Pawtucket won the trophy in 1923, and the New Bedford Whalers won the coveted “double” in 1932. Finally, Todd Shipyards took the American Cup in 1924, although by then the prestige of that trophy was declining while Fall River SC took the Open Cup in 1927 and 1931. Perhaps the most successful of all were the Marksmen, who had been founded by Sam Mark, a local businessmen who had bought the Fall River United Club, and built them a new stadium just over the state line in Tiverton, RI, so they could avoid a Massachusetts Blue Law prohibiting them from playing Sunday games.
The Marksmen finished a strong third their first season before beginning their string of championships. The 1924-25 and 1925-26 seasons were close races, with the Marksmen barely topping Bethlehem steel by 44-38 and 66-63 respectively in the standings. (2 points for a win, 1 for a draw). The 1925-26 campaign was a two-way intramural dogfight between Fall River and New Bedford, with the Marksmen winning the campaign 72 points to 61.
The Marksmen during this time featured such legends as Harold Brittan (Hall of Fame, 1951), Billy Gonsalves (Hall of Fame, 1950), Findlay Kerr, and Bill McPherson. Brittan scored 68 goals in 86 games during this three-year run. By the time Fall River returned to championship form in 1929, the team had new stars in Alec McNab , and Bert Patenaude (Hall of fame, 1971), as well as Dougie Campbell, Tex White and Werner Nilsen. The team came to a unique demise in 1931, when Mark merged it with the New York Soccer Club and moved the team to New York City, naming it the New York Yankees.
This led to one of the strangest team championships in sports annals. They had begun the US Open Cup qualifying campaign as the Fall River Marksmen, and appear in all US Open Cup records as the Marksmen, even though they were wearing New York Yankees uniforms by the time they won the championship series.
This happened in a classic David vs. Goliath fashion: Fall River won the first leg 6-2, and they tied 1-1 for the second, forcing a tie-breaker. Before this deciding game, Fall river played several exhibitions during which Alex McNab broke his arm, leaving only ten players healthy for the deciding game. To make matters worse, Chicago had the home field advantage for the deciding game.
Chicago started fast, but Fall River held firm, and Bert Patenaude scored in the 18th minute. In the second half, he was fouled just outside the penalty area and Gordon Burness scored on the free kick. So Fall River/New York was the first hyphenated team to win the championship. In an ironic twist of fate those Yankees were in turn absorbed by the New Bedford Whalers in 1932, and the Whalers folded shortly after winning the 1932 Open Cup. Thus ended an amazing era in soccer prowess in southeastern New England. Sadly, the Fall River region had suffered several major setbacks associated with the depression and collapse of the textile industry, and the professional soccer teams were caught in this downward spiral.
Several area players had prominent roles in the USA’s 1930 World Cup campaign. Billy Gonsalves, Andy Ault (Providence), Bert Patenaude (3 goals), and Tom Florie (New Bedford) (1 goal) all played on the US team. A later friendly against Brazil in August of that year, saw Patenaude score twice and Gonsalves score once in a hard fought 3-4 loss.
Andy Auld was a prominent player of the time, with a stellar career in the Rhode Island area, playing six seasons with the Providence Clamdiggers of the ASL I from 1924-1929. He played for the 1930 US World Cup Team, and returned to RI, playing several seasons for the Pawtucket Rangers. Tom Florie, an outside left, grew up in the Kearny-Newark soccer hotbed of New Jersey, and signed with the Providence Clamdiggers in 1924, scoring 22 goals in 38 games for them during the 1925-26 campaign, an impressive total for a winger. After five seasons with providence, he moved to New Bedford Whalers where he played until the ASL’s demise in 1932.
Florie played for many years subsequently with the Pawtucket Rangers, making the US Open Cup finals in 1934 and 1935, as well as the 1941 champions. He also earned 8 caps for the National team, including all games of the 1930 and 1934 World Cups.
Billy Gonsalves was probably the greatest player in the US for the first half of the twentieth. Born in Fall River, Gonsalves played in six states, beginning with the Boston Wonder Workers in 1927, with whom he won the first of his three ASL titles that year. In 1929, he transferred to the Fall River Marksmen, and that year began an incredible string of six consecutive US Open Cup championships with five different teams. The Marksemen repeated in 1930, followed by the Fall River Marksmen/New York Yankees in 1931, the New Bedford Whalers in ’32, Stix Baer and Fuller (St. Louis) 1933 and 1934, and finally Central Breweries (also St. Louis) in 1935.
By 1939 Gonsalves was playing for Chicago Manhattan Beer when they won the Open Cup, and won his final two in 1943 and 1944 with Brooklyn Hispano. He retired in 1947 after his fifth season with Hispano. Gonsalves’s 1930 and 1943 teams won the Doubles, as Cup champs and champs of the ASL I and ASL II respectively. He also played in all US games of the 1930 and 1934 World Cups.
Werner Nilsen was a frequent teammate of Gonsalves, in Boston, Fall River and St. Louis. He was also a member of two ASL champion teams and five US Open Cup winners, as well as playing in both US World Cup qualifiers in 1934.
Hall of Famer Bert Patenaude had a long successful career in New England and Philadelphia, starring in the 1930 World Cup, while leading US scoring in that campaign. His greatest feats were scoring 5 goals for Fall River in the first game of the 1931 US Open Cup final against the Chicago Bricklayers after also scoring 5 goals in a regular season game. He also scored 5 for Philadelphia in the Amateur Cup, and four goals in a 15 minute span in a US Open 1934 game against the St. Louis Ben Millers.
Fall River won that game 6-2 and Patenaude went on to win US Open Cups in 1930 with the Marksmen and 1934 with St. Louis Stix, Baer and Fuller. He also won the National Amateur Cup in 1933 with Philadelphia German-Americans.
Bill McPherson was a mainstay of the Fall River Marksmen for nearly their entire existence, playing 366 games between 1922 and 1931, His trophies include 5 ASL championships, and 7 US Open Cup titles, five with the Marksmen, and two more with Stix, Baer and Fuller in 1933 and 1934. He almost won another Open Cup in 1935 with the Pawtucket Rangers. McPherson formed one part of the famed “golden triangle” of McPherson, McNab and Gonsalves with Fall River, New Bedford and St. Louis Stix between 1928 and 1934.
The ASL teams from New England had always prided themselves on using local players, as opposed to some of the Philadelphia and New York/New Jersey teams who raided Europe (particularly the UK) for top players when they were able to offer better salaries.
The ‘Soccer War’
The golden era of US soccer came crashing down at the end of the 1920’s, a victim of both the Depression and the “Soccer War” of 1928-1929. The stock market crash and ensuing Depression had a devastating effect on the ASL, as many of the industrial sponsors of major teams, facing severe financial hardship, cut back or dropped their financial support, leaving the league in turmoil and near bankruptcy. But the more immediate adverse effect was the fallout from the Soccer War of 1928-1929.
The Soccer War was a momentous event in the annals of US Soccer History, one which not only served as a decisive battle for power between the United States Football Association and the American Soccer League, but also led to the end of the first golden era of American Soccer. The dispute centered on the objections of the American Soccer League to the playing of US Open Cup (National Challenge Cup) games during the league season.
The League claimed this disrupted the schedule and caused confusion among its fans, as well as creating an arduous playing schedule for the players. Although the immediate issue was participation of ASL teams in the Open Cup, the real underlying struggle was over who would be the controlling organization of soccer in the United States.
The League and the Association had come to loggerheads before, when the ASL pulled its teams from the Cup in 1924-25, an action which led to its suspension by the USFA. There was also lingering resentment over the fracas that ensued over the ASL’s signing in 1927 of a number of European players by offering them more lucrative contracts than their European counterparts were able to afford. This nearly led to the suspension of the USFA by FIFA, but the Association was able to forestall expulsion by agreeing to a number of sanctions and limitations. A number of ASL teams chafed under the new limitations and sought to free themselves from USFA control.
This time, however, when the League refused to allow its teams to enter the Cup competition, three teams, Bethlehem Steel, Newark Skeeters and the New York Giants defied the League and entered anyway. This led to their suspension from the ASL and a fine of $1,000 per team. The clubs then appealed to the USFA who gave a stern warning to Bill Cunningham, ASL president. When Cunningham took no action, the ASL was suspended by the USFA.
The ASL, unfazed, began the 1928-29 season as an outlaw league, minus the three suspended teams. The USFA then played a major role in the formation of the new Eastern Soccer League, which took in the three renegade ASL teams and several teams from the Southern New York Soccer Association. The New Bedford Whalers of the ASL joined the new league for a time, as well. This led to two rival leagues competing in the 1928-28 season, and also caused a rift between the SNYSA and the USFA, with the SNYSA allying itself with the ASL. Both the ASL and SNYSA applied directly for FIFA membership but were turned down. The whole affair led to a grim and contentious season with financial losses mounting on all sides.
By the summer of 1929, both sides were exhausted by the Soccer War, which had brought turmoil to the USFA and financial hardships to the EPSL and the ASL, both of which suffered from subpar play. The ASL was hit the worst, and capitulated in early October, recognizing USFA’s authority. With some allowances for saving of face, things basically returned to the pre-war status quo, with the original ASL reconstituted (as the Atlantic Coast League) and the USFA’s authority recognized by all.
Sadly, this would not be the last time that a major US league ran into conflict with USFA and FIFA, but for the time being, peace was restored. The economic climate had a longer-lasting impact on pro soccer. The immigrant communities were no longer the burgeoning sources of soccer talent they once had been due to the demographic changes and economic hardship brought by the Depression.
Although a new ASL started in 1933, it was on a much smaller scale, bypassing New England entirely, and US pro soccer’s golden age was over, not to be matched at a first division level until the creation of the NASL in 1967.
3. MID 20TH CENTURY: SOCCER LIES LOW IN THE 2ND DIVISION
The depression had a long-lasting negative impact on pro soccer — the immigrant communities were no longer the burgeoning sources of soccer talent due to demographic changes and economic hardship brought by the depression. Although a new ASL started in 1933, it was on a much lower scale, and US pro soccer’s golden age was over, not to be matched at a first division level until the creation of the NASL in 1967.
The second American Soccer League was built on the ashes of the ASL I, but operated on a much more modest scale. The league was focused primarily on the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia/Baltimore region with no New England teams until the late 1950’s.
There was also a New England division of the ASL which operated intermittently until the early 1950’s, but this league’s organization and commitment was consistently haphazard. New England teams operated mainly in local semi-pro leagues. The Boston Celtics were one of the longest running of the ASL-NE teams, as well as Providence Clamdiggers (winning the championship in 1936-37 and 1937-38).
Lusitano Recreation, Lusitano SC and the Swedish-Americans were perennial also-rans. Ponta Delgada played in the last incarnation of the league (1951-53), but performed surprisingly poorly given its stellar performance for many years in the local amateur leagues.
Cup winners were also fairly rare, with Pawtucket FC winning the US Open cup in 1941, and Fall River Ponta Delgada in 1947 (and finishing second in 1947 to the Chicago Vikings of the short-lived NASFL, and 1950 to St. Louis Simpkins). Fall River FC also won the National Amateur Cup in 1941 and 1942.
Ponta Delgada actually had something of a dynasty at the amateur level, winning the National Amateur Cup in 1938, 1939, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, and 1953. They were an archetype of the ethnic soccer club that typified so much of US soccer during the early to mid 20th century. They adopted the Fall River Marksmen stadium in Tiverton RI, also to avoid the Massachusetts Blue Laws, and played plenty of Sunday games. In 1947, they became the first club ever to win both the US Open Cup and the National Amateur Cup in the same year, defeating Chicago Sparta and St. Louis Carondelet respectively. The St. Louis game was a 10-1 blowout. As a result of the double victory in 1947, Ponta Delgada’s entire roster was selected as the lineup for the US National Team in their campaign in the North American Championships in Havana, Cuba that year. They were stunned by losses of 5-0 to Mexico and 5-2 to Cuba. Cuba would not be defeated by the USA until the 1998 Gold Cup in California. Their most famous players were Ed and John Souza (no relation). They, along with Joseph Rego-Costa, Manuel Martin and Joe Ferreira were members of the United States team at the 1948 Olympic Games, and the Souzas also played for USA in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, including the famous 1-0 triumph over England.
John Souza in fact can be considered one of the three best American players of the first half of the 20th century (along with Archie Stark and Billy Gonsalves). He played for Ponta Delgaga during their 1946-1950 triumphs, and water the 1950 World Cup, joined the New York German-Hungarians, and took that team to a double victory in the US Open Cup and the National Amateur Cup. He also played in two of the USA’s games against Scotland, one game at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1949, the other in 1952 in front of 107,000 fans at Glasgow, Scotland. This game in which the US was trounced 6-0, was widely taken as Great Britain’s revenge for our world cup victory.
Despite these successes by Ponta Delgada and others, amateur soccer in southeastern New England had seen its best days. The sport had been long successful until the World War II years when it was badly decimated by the war effort. After this brief renaissance in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the amateur scene had largely fallen apart again by 1953. Teams continued play at a fairly low level, but never again would be consistent challengers in the national championships.
The colleges were a different matter. Although formal NCAA sanctioning did not occur until 1959, several unofficial championships were awarded by a succession of collegiate soccer organizations from 1904-1958: Intercollegiate Association Football league (1904-1925), Intercollegiate Soccer Football Association (1926-1940, 1949-1958), and the National Soccer Coaches Association (1941-1948). These are far from authoritative, especially those by the IAFL, which basically awarded league championships, and with college soccer existing mainly in the northeast until the 1950’s, they were hardly national. Nevertheless, New England was well represented, with top honors being awarded to Yale (1928, 1930 co-champ, 1935, 1945 co-champ), Springfield College (1937 co-champ, 1941 co-champ, 1942 co-champ, 1947, 1947, 1957 co-champ), Harvard (1930 co-champ), Amherst College (1941 co-champ, 1942 co-champ), and Connecticut (1948).
Ludlow Lusitano was a perennial powerhouse on the amateur scene, and the Lusitano club exists to this day, currently operating the Western Massachusetts Pioneers who began play in the D-3 Pro league of the USISL (United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues) in 1998. Ludlow moved up to professional soccer in 1955 when it joined the American Soccer League, finishing a respectable third their first year, only two points behind the league co-champs. They withdrew in 1958 after two sub-par seasons, to be replaced by Fall River SC, who climbed the standings, finishing third in 1962-63, before withdrawing suddenly. In 1964, the Boston Metros joined the league among considerable fanfare, and finished second in the league, in a close race with the Ukrainian Nationals of Philadelphia. They withdrew after that one season, to join the short lived Eastern Professional Soccer Conference, and had a mediocre performance during 1964-65, that league’s only season. The next season, 1965-66, the Boston Tigers and Hartford Kings brought the ASL back to New England. Hartford withdrew after two seasons, but the Tigers were still active in 1967 when big-time soccer returned to the country with the advent of the USA and NPSL (Later to become the NASL).
College Soccer had obtained NCAA sanctioning and championship tournaments in 1959, with Bridgeport making it to the first Final game, losing to St. Louis, 5-2. Connecticut lost in the quarterfinals in 1960, as did Springfield a year later, and Harvard in 1969, 1971 and 1972 and Brown in 1973. Other placeholders in later tournaments included Trinity (CT) in 1964, 65 & 1967, Bridgeport in 1964, 1966, Brown in 1968, 1975 and 1977, Connecticut in 1974 and 1976 and 1980. All of these were veteran teams going back to the rarified early days of college soccer. Although they continued to place well, the increasing domination teams from the Midwest and far west illustrated the steady spread of college soccer throughout the country during these decades.
4. THE FIRST SOCCER BOOM: NASL, WORLD FAMOUS STARS, AND THE DROUGHT OF THE 1980’S.
Many changes occurred in the sporting world in the United States in the 1960’s, both demographic, athletic and cultural. The spectator sport phenomena burgeoned among all sports. With the development of television satellites and better transportation as well as a general economic boom, people spent on games as never before and expansion hit all sports, starting with baseball and football, and eventually soccer and hockey. The great television success of the 1966 World Cup in the US attracted the interest of businessmen and investors and several groups coalesced around the idea of establishing a 1st division nationwide professional league. Done in the haphazard style that typified much of soccer management in this country we ended up with two rival leagues starting in the same year, 1967, with many cities sporting two rival teams.
Only one league got FIFA sanctioning, but the other league got a TV contract, and FIFA outlaw status. There were two scoring systems. The Boston Rovers of the United Soccer Association were actually the Shamrock Rovers of Dublin, who played under the Boston name during their off-season. All U.S.A. teams likewise were actually visiting teams playing in their off-season, and treated the USA as an exhibition tour. The Rovers finished last in the East and drew a paltry 4,000 fans per game. At the end of the season, red ink flowed like wine, and the leagues merged to form the North American Soccer League, the Boston franchise becoming the Beacons. They obtained a bona-fide roster this year, but finished last again, with a 9-6-17 record. They folded, along with most of the teams at the end of the season. New England was without division 1 representation until 1974.
By the 1967-68 season, New England teams were sprouting up in the ASL, with Fall River SC returning to the fold, along with Ludlow, now called the Astros, and Hartford, now called Hartford SC. The Boston Tigers finished second in the First Division. But the flurry was short-lived. Fall River withdrew, as did Boston and the Astros moved to Fall River to soldier on. The ASL suspended their season after the first half, moving to a summer schedule for 1969. By then, only the Astros remained, now playing in Boston.
The Boston Astros were the most long-lived of the New England clubs, playing from 1969-1975, and were joint champions in 1975 after tying New York Apollo 2-2 and 1-1 in the two-leg series. They also missed the 1970 championship by two points in the truncated 1971 season by which the ASL had shrunk to five teams. After that disastrous season, the ASL rebounded and followed the NASL example by expanding their horizons, reaching the Midwest for the first time in 1972, and finally the west coast in 1976. This expansion brought in the Connecticut Wildcats and Rhode Island Oceaneers to provide interstate rivalries for the Astros.
Boston returned to the NASL with the Boston Minutemen in 1974; they won the Northern Division in 1974 and 1975, with John Coyne and Ade Coker among the league scoring leaders and an impressive 4-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Atoms (starring the legendary Eusebio) in 1975. However, they plummeted to last place in 1976, and fans abandoned the team (They had averaged over 9,000 fans their first year, falling to 4,400 and 2,500 respectively), and they folded after 1976. The Hartford Bicentennials debuted in 1975, and played for three seasons, but they were always a weaker partner in the league. Shep Messing was a local hero who made good, playing for a long career in the NASL and on the national team
But that was not to last, as the New England Tea Men were founded by the Lipton Tea company as part of the NASL’s major expansion in 1978.
The Tea Men featured an undervalued English gem in the rough, Mike Flanagan, who led the league in scoring with 30 goals and 68 points in 28 games. Midfielder support was provided by Costa Rican Ringo Cantillo who had many fantastic years in the ASL. The Tea Men averaged almost 12,000 fans, winning the American Conference East (NASL having emulated the NFL conference structure this season). They provided exciting soccer, and drew enthusiastic local fan support (many current Riders got their first taste of soccer watching Tea Men games). The season was highlighted by a 3-1 away triumph over the New York Cosmos (then boasting Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Bogecievic, Alberto and Brand on their roster) at Giants Stadium before 62,497 fans, and a 6-0 shellacking of the San Diego Sockers (who by the way finally folded just before the 1997 season as a member of the indoor CISL). The season ended with a heartbreaking 3-1 playoff game to Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (who gave us an own goal as a consolation prize).
Alas, this was the Tea Men’s pinnacle. They lost Flanagan after that inaugural season, and were doormats for 1979 and 1980, with attendance almost halved. Shortly after the 1980 season, the Tea Men moved to Jacksonville, Florida (finally expiring in the United Soccer League in 1984), and the dream was over.
The NASL didn’t last much longer as overspending on salaries and the lack of TV revenue caused such financial losses the league shrank to oblivion by 1984 (The ASL having folded a year earlier.
In this recent history an interesting footnote is the complete lack of success for indoor soccer — the only indoor franchise was the New England tea Men who finished last in their division for the NASL’s first indoor season in 1979-80. With indoor ruling during the bulk of the 1980’s, the pro scene was rather barren.
The period between the move of the Tea Men and the advent of the MLS and the New England Revolution was not a total loss, despite the dominance of indoor soccer and near demise of the Men’s National team after the disastrous 1986 world cup qualifying series.
By the early 1980’s, local colleges were distinguishing themselves in NCAA soccer. . Southern Connecticut State won the Div 2 championship in 1982, 1987, 1990, 1992 and 1995 (and losing in 1994), and Division 3 trophies went to Wheaton in 1984 and 1997, and Williams in 1995. Connecticut won the national title in 1981 On the women’s side, Connecticut made the finals in 1984, 1985, 1990 and 1997 and UMass lost to UNC in the 1987 game. Keene State, Plymouth State and Mass-Dartmouth have made the div. 2 and div. 3 finals. The college soccer boom continued throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s in men’s soccer. During the 1980’s there was a major change in conference alignment as the conferences for major sports opened divisions for many of the non-revenue generating sports, including soccer. Women’s college soccer had started in the late 1960’s, and teams began adding varsity teams with increasing frequency by the mid 1970’s. Although it would be a decade before growth was significant (only about 90 varsity teams existed by 1980), once the women’s game took off (thanks in part to Title IX), its growth would phenomenally fast. In the women’s tournaments, Connecticut made the semis in the NCAA’s inaugural tournament in 1982, , and both Connecticut and Massachusetts were regular final four participants through 1987 when Mass made it to the finals. Regional colleges had little success at Division II, but in Division III, Plymouth state advanced to the final in 1986, the first year of the division. They made good runs in 1987 and 1989, and Salem state advanced a couple rounds in 1990.
Although not winning national titles, Harvard and Brown made decent runs in the post-season tournament. In Division II, New Haven and Bridgeport saw good tournament runs, as did Division II Westfield State (3rd place in 1974) Mass Liberal Arts, Plymouth State, Brandeis, and Salem State.
The Boston Bolts were a founding franchise in the third American Soccer League in 1988, and they had a respectable 2nd place finish in ’89 in this Division 2 league, losing in the championship match to the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers 1-0, 0-2, 1-0 (Mini-game). When the ASL merged with the western Soccer Alliance in 1990 to form the APSL (Later the A-League), Boston was one of the teams making the transition, although they folded during the league’s 1991 consolidation following a disappointing 9-11 season.
Soccer returned at the 3rd division level when the USISL expanded nationally in 1993 when the Connecticut Wolves made their debut. This was followed next season by the Boston Storm, and Cape Cod Crusaders, and New England soccer boomed as the USISL steadily grew and finally absorbed the A-League in 1997. More recently, the Rhode Island Stingrays joined at the 3rd division level, and the W-League added the Lady Rays and Lady Wolves to complement the existing men’s teams. By 1997, the league boasted 7 teams in five NE states, and 4 teams in the W-League, including the class franchise, the Boston Renegades.
On the college scene, the men’s teams made less headway at the top level. Vermont made it to the third round in 1989, Dartmouth in 1990, Yale in 1991 and 1992 and Brown in 1995. In Division 2, the region boasted a mini-dynasty as In Division 3, there was no dynasty, but good runs were made by Babson, Western Connecticut State, Williams (losing in the final in 1993), Tufts (3rd round in 1994), before the national title returned to New England in 1995 courtesy of Williams. This gave New England 2 men’s national titles that season.. Southern Connecticut took it all in 1990 and again in 1992, and lost the title game in 1993, and made it to the semis in 1994 before returning to the top in 1995, with their third national title in 5 seasons. In women’s soccer, Connecticut lost to North Carolina in the 1990 Division 1 final, while Massachusetts, Connecticut and Hartford were tournament regulars throughout the first half of the 1990’s. Often they would be eliminated by North Carolina on their way to their annual national championships. Again, there was no success in Division II among local outfits, with the division generally devolving to an annual battle between Barry, Adelphi and Franklin Pierce. Plymouth State was a regular tournament participant in Division III through the early 1990’s, reaching the finals in 1993, while Mass-Dartmouth reached the final in 1991. Amherst College advanced a round in 1995, but overall, the women didn’t do as well in post-season play in this region. Perhaps that can be due to the Women’s game developing equally quickly throughout the country; the women had no historical legacy in new England to provide momentum as the men did.
5. THE SECOND GOLDEN AGE: WORLD CUP ;94, MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER AND THE FUTURE
With the awarding of the World Cup to the USA for 1994, the national team experienced a renaissance in interest and performance. An extensive series of friendlies and tournaments were scheduled to provide the young US team with badly needed experience and exposure to larger audiences. This led to the discovery by the USSF of a large fan base in New England, starting with a friendly against Ireland on June 1, 1991, a hard fought draw played in front of an amazing 51,273. Wynalda scored the USA goal in the 68th minute, and the US went on to win the Gold Cup in Los Angeles the following month. The next game was a stunning 2-0 upset of England on June 9, 1993, deemed a “national disgrace” by the London tabloid media. Lalas and Dooley filled the net in that game. This was followed by a 1-1 draw against Greece in New Haven. Foxboro was one of the nine sites selected for World Cup 94. Six sellout crowds saw some of the most exciting games of the tournaments, starting with a 4-0 romp on 6/21/94 by Argentina over Greece (in their first ever world cup game). On 6/25, Maradona was a key factor as Argentina came from behind to beat Nigeria (winning 2-1). Shortly after the game, Maradona tested positive for drugs, leading to his banishment by FIFA. On June 23, South Korea and Bolivia fought to a scoreless tie, and on June 30, Nigeria sent Greece packing with a 2-0 victory as they advanced to their first round of 16. Nigeria and Italy met in the Quarterfinals on July 5, nail biter, which became Roberto Baggio’s coming of age, as he rescued Italy from almost certain defeat in the 89th minute to tie the game, and scored the winner on a penalty in overtime, giving the eventual Cup runner-up a 2-1 victory. Italy returned to Foxboro on July 9 to defeat Spain in a quarterfinal match, 2-1.
The success of the World Cup made Foxboro stadium a popular site for the national team, and was selected as one site for the 1995 USA Cup. The USA’s first match, against Nigeria on June 5, 1995, also marked the debut of Sam’s Army, a supporters club which had come to life on the Internet, and become a reality on the turf this legendary day. After being denied the right to stand and make noise at their assigned seats, most of the Sam’s Army contingent took over the empty end zone seats, and steadily attracted a crowd that turned to over 200 souls who snag their hearts out and lifted the USA team to a surprising 3-2 victory. Since this day, the National Team has played at least one game per year at Foxboro, including a 2-1 victory over Ireland on 6/6/96, an exciting draw against Mexico 4/20/97 (a world cup qualifying doubleheader with the Revolution’s home opener), and the final US World Cup ’98 qualifier against El Salvador on November 16, 1997. The Yale Bowl in New Haven CT was the site of friendlies against Brazil and Greece in the early 1990’s. The Women’s National team had appeared in friendly matches against Norway and Canada in Medford and Worcester in the 1990’s, but finally hit the big time in Foxboro with a high profile match against Mexico in September 1998, a convincing 9-0 thrashing. Foxboro Stadium was a venue for the historic 1999 Women’s World Cup which broke attendance records, and drew over 50,000 for a doubleheader featuring the Americans’ 3-0 victory over North Korea.
The Internet denizens helped Sam’s Army flourish and soon offspring groups formed to support the teams of the up and coming Major League Soccer, the new 1st division league that was promised as a condition of the US being awarded World Cup ’94. By the time the New England Revolution made their debut at Foxboro in April of 1996, the supporters club, the Midnight Riders were already veteran organizers and old friends, and had established good connections with team management and most of the players, including pop icon Alexi Lalas and fellow national team members Joe-Max Moore and New England native Mike Burns.
The birth of the Revolution realized the dream of top level soccer for the long suffering fans of New England who had endured a void of 16 years since the untimely departure of the Tea Men. Although the fans continue to suffer long and hard under the somewhat unpredictable performance of the team, their support has been among the best in the league, and reflects the broad, deep and multiethnic roots of the New England soccer community, and their loyalty through the tough times (and that of the other fans) reflects well on a region of the country that has been an integral part of American soccer since the beginning.
In the college ranks, Hartford made the quarterfinals in Division 1 in 1996, while Connecticut reached the semis in 1999 and won the national title in 2000. In division II, Southern Connecticut State made good semifinal runs in 1996 and 1997, winning the national title in 1998 and 1999, while New Hampshire College made an appearance in 1999. In Division III, Amherst College made it to the semis in 1997, and Williams made appearances in 1998 and 2000. Tufts won the Division III title in 2000. On the women’s side, Tufts won the Division III national title in 2000. In Division I, Connecticut, Hartford and Massachusetts continued to be the dominant teams. Connecticut lost to North Carolina in the 1997 final, and made a decent run in 1998 along with Dartmouth. Massachusetts was a continual also-ran, never advancing beyond the third round.
Although the Revolution often broke the fans’ hearts, at the lower divisional levels, there was somewhat more success. After the A-League merged with the top division in the USISL in 1997, it grew substantially, giving New England two Division 2 clubs, the Worcester Wildfire (Became Boston Bulldogs in 1999) and Connecticut Wolves, along with several Division 3 teams: New Hampshire Phantoms, Cape Cod Cubs, Rhode Island (Pawtucket) Stingrays, and by 1998, the Western Massachusetts (Ludlow/Springfield) Pioneers, run by the venerable Lusitanio Club, and the Vermont Wanderers (later Voltage). Later as the so-called 4th division Premier League of the USISL (renamed in 1999 as the USL), expanded into the Northeast, Vermont (and later Cape Cod) was relegated to the USISL’s PDL (Premier league), giving the area full vertical representation. The W-League added companion teams for New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and eventually added the Sirens to Springfield, MA. Foxboro Stadium was a regular stop for the men’s national team, opening the USA Cup’95, at a match which was the debut of the Sam’s Army supporters group. They also hosted England where the US pulled off a stunning 2-0 victory in a game that reminded many of their amazing upset at the 1950 World Cup. They also had high-profile World Cup Qualifying matches against Mexico and El Salvador in 1997.
The men’s teams (Revolution et al) had middling success through the 1990s, sometimes playing poorly, and drawing mixed crowds, but the Boston Renegades and Springfield Sirens were the class acts of the W-League, winning league titles in the late 1990’s, and often leading the league in attendance. Even the Revolution began to rise, breaking .500 for the first time in the 2000 season and bringing hope to its long suffering fans. Another ray of hope, besides the continuing popularity of Foxboro Stadium as a venue for national team games, was the inauguration of the Women’s United Soccer Association, as the nation’s first Division 1 professional women’s league. The Boston Breakers, who would debut at Boston University’s Nickerson field (the former Braves Field of baseball fame), provided top-class women’s soccer to the region, led by national team stars Kate Sobrero and Tracey Ducar, and opened a whole new page in the history of the game in New England.
In the 21st century, the Revolution made a triumphant return to the top as they won their division and battled their way to the MLS Cup final, which just happened to be taking place at their home field. As a result, a new record for the largest soccer crowd ever in New England was set as over 61,000 turned out to see the Revolution take the Los Angeles Galaxy into overtime before succumbing to a Golden Goal.
The Breakers were a mediocre team through the first two years of the WUSA, but found their stride in 2003, winning the regular season title, although they were eliminated on penalty kicks in the playoff semifinals. Regrettably the league folded a few months later, so we’ll never know if they may have continued their success. In the United Soccer Leagues, teams began a slow decline – The Boston Bulldogs and Connecticut Wolves were relegated to the D3Pro League, and eventually folded, and Cape Cod Crusaders were relegated to the PDL. But the WPSL’s New England Mutiny built itself into a perennial contender, quickly overshadowing the W-League’s Springfield Sirens who eventually folded.
Foxboro, MA remained a popular venue for the Men’s and Women’s national teams, hosting the Netherlands for a major friendly in 2002, holding key qualifying matches for the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, as well as being a major venue for the 2003, 2005 and 2007 Gold Cup competitions. Hartford welcomed the Men’s team to their new stadium for a qualifying shutout win against Trinidad & Tobago in 2005, and a friendly against Latvia the following year. Foxboro Stadium was a primary venue of the 2000 Gold Cup, with the US playing Brazil twice there, the second match being the Title game where the US pulled off a 1-0 win for the Cup.
The Revolution continued to make waves, making it to the final of the 2001 US Open Cup, however, that game was played in New Britain, CT where it drew a much smaller crowd than it would have managed at Foxboro. They built up a mini-dynasty, making it to the MLS Cup in three consecutive seasons, but always just falling short, losing to the Galaxy in 2005, and to Houston Dynamo in 2006 and 2007, the first match going to penalty kicks. As the decade progressed, New England-Based teams in the United Soccer Leagues continued to fade, as did the top two tiers of the league. Cape Cod folded in mid-decade, and Rhode Island followed in 2009, while Western Mass, New Hampshire and Vermont settled into the amateur-level PDL, but the region did gain teams in the National Premier Soccer League in Boston, Maine and New Hampshire.
Things looked a little brighter on the women’s side. Gillette Stadium was a venue for the 2003 Women’s World Cup, holding several matches including the USA’s thrilling 1-0 victory over Norway in the quarterfinals. The Boston Renegades continued to perform respectably in the W-League, although Vermont, Connecticut and Western Mass eventually folded. The major women’s action had moved to the Women’s Premier Soccer League. The New England Mutiny were a powerhouse from day 1, winning their division numerous times, and making it to the title game in 2004 and 2007, perennially beating the Boston Aztecs in the regional rivalry. As the first decade closed out, Bay State Select, Connecticut, and Maine had joined the fray. The news however, was the 2009 return of the Boston Breakers as a charter franchise in Women’s Professional Soccer, where they made a modest start towards reclaiming their success of the WUSA years.
New England doesn’t dominate the national scene the way it used to, but perhaps this is inevitable due to the loss of the region’s pre-eminence due to its position as one of the cradles of the national game. But the region is still unique in the sense that it has a concentration of professional and college teams seen nowhere else in the country. Even though its prominence is reduced due to the diffusion of the sport across the land, that isn’t a bad thing, and New England still retains an important position as the game’s cultural birthing ground and still maintains a prominent role to this day.