This page is a detailed historical overview of United States soccer from its roots in the 19th century to the present day. NEW: The first sections, from 1609-1921 have been completely revised and extensed. Enjoy!
Various forms of soccer-style games have been around since Roman times, and the United States was the first British colony to start playing soccer-style games. Some form of football was played in the Colonies as far back as the establishment of the original Jamestown settlement in 1609. The rules are unclear, but they most likely resembled the sprawling Shrovetide games then popular in England. It was soon banned by ordinance as a reputed bad influence, and for the next two centuries appeared only in the least restricted of colonial communities. The first written accounts of football in the US centered on contests in the major colleges and universities of the Northeast. The freshman and sophomore classes at Harvard had instituted an annual intramural football contest in 1827, played on the first Monday of the new school year. These games were evidently quite rowdy, as the event was known as “Bloody Monday”. Princeton played something known as “ballown” in which the ball was hit with the fist as well as the foot. By the 1840’s, they had organized their games into intramural tournaments. Other forms of the game were played at Amherst and Brown. The game probably bore little resemblance to the modern game, and in fact the round (originally rubber) ball was not introduced until the 1850’s, and games were either pick-up or special annual events. The modern form of soccer originated in England in the early 1830’s. The sport grew among working-class communities and was seen as a way of keeping young and energetic kids out of trouble at home and in the school; they could let off steam and learn the values of teamwork (rampant individualism was considered a problem at the time).
The first football clubs were established in Sheffield in 1857, and soon they had enough to establish their own Football Association in 1867. Sheffield FA played London FA in 1861, one of the first regional matches. And eventually the need for a unified set of rules became obvious. This, prompted by many letters to the editors of the newspapers in the midlands, the near-north, and London regions of England, and led to a series of meetings, which culminated in the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863. This worked together to establish the first standardized set of Football rules which soon became the standard in England.
The next major development was the establishment of a knockout cup in 1871, based on the house competitions at Harrow School. These knockouts, in which most teams names are placed in a hat, and drawn out in pairs, then leading to a one-game knockout competition similar to the NCAA Championships, which culminates in a Cup trophy.
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 club, formed in Boston in 1862 may have been the first soccer club to consist of a regular roster of players, as opposed to the pick-up games commonly played at the time, although it is not clear whether they were playing soccer, rugby, or a hybrid game. 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. If the Oneidas were in fact playing soccer, then they would be the first soccer club anywhere outside of England, even predating the formation of Scottish teams.
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 style of play, 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, Wesleyan and Penn soon followed, and the end of 1876 had signed the death knell 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. The AFA also organized the first national team, which played two games against Canada (a 0-1 loss on 11/28/1885, and a 3-2 win in 1886).
Soccer grew at a moderate pace during the early 1890’s, spreading to Denver, Cincinnati, Cleveland and even San Francisco and Los Angeles by the end of the century. Corporate sponsorship had led to some leagues attaining semi-pro stats, and more and more teams were based on cultural and ethnic organizations rather than factories and corporations. The AFA favored the semi-pro clubs in its American Cup scheduling, and the New York clubs withdrew in protest to form the American Amateur Football Association in 1893. The game was slowly being reintroduced on a low-level basis in colleges. Finally, in 1894, the first attempt was made to establish a fully professional soccer league. Interestingly, this league was not promoted by any of the existing soccer associations, but was formed by a group of professional baseball owners from the National league, and was intended to fill the baseball stadiums during down time. The league even used The American League of Professional Football had six teams from major Northeastern cities, and made its 1894 debut with much fanfare, but attendance was low after the first week, partially to the scheduling of too many weekday games, and some managers used less than ethical measures to procure overseas players. The league collapsed among heavy financial losses during its first season.
It was not long before the powers that be attempted to follow on the ALPF’s footsteps at a more financially responsible level. The National Association Football League was formed in 1895 from premier teams of the New York City and New Jersey regional leagues, and struggled through four seasons. By this time, there was a waning enthusiasm exacerbated by the infighting among the various associations. Fan interest and participation were falling, and the NAFBL and the American Cup were both suspended in 1898. Other sports were becoming popular such as Polo and Boxing, and suddenly soccer did not look so important anymore. This would not last for long fortunately.
In 1904, US teams participated in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, with Galt Football Club of Canada defeated Christian brothers College 7-0 and St. Rose School 4-0 for the gold medal. This must have sparked some enthusiasm, as the St. Louis Soccer League went professional in 1906, the same year as the NAFBL and the American Cup were revived. By this time, New England was beginning to wane as the premier hotbed of the country and most American Cup winners would come from New Jersey/New York or Philadelphia. The revived National Association Football League, formed by a group of people from regional state and local leagues, consisted of teams, which had previously played in municipal leagues. Originally operating out of the New York-New Jersey area, it eventually added Bethlehem Steel, a powerhouse from eastern Pennsylvania, and the league operated until 1921. This was the first truly successful pro league in the US.
The formation of FIFA in 1904 left the USA on the outside looking in due to the lack of a truly national organizing association. However, the addition of Soccer as an official medal sport for the 1908 Olympics led to increasing interest in international competition (following the hugely successful 1906 tour by Pilgrim FC from England in 1906). FIFA would not recognize either the AFA or the AAFA as a legitimate national body, locked as they were in a bitter war. By this time, the AFA was allied with the English FA, but their actions angered many, and a number of key regional associations switched allegiance to the AAFA. Finally, after FIFA had rejected an American application for membership at their 1912 congress, the rapidly growing AAFA members met on April 5, 1913 and formed the United States Football Association, which was accepted by FIFA. The AFA threw in its towel at this point, but the American Cup until 1929. One objective of this new association was to end the struggle between amateur and professional soccer organizations for hegemony, a struggle that would last well into the 1960’s until the Association became more professionalized under the direction of Werner Fricker.
The ethnic influence affected the course of the game through the early 1900’s — it was still clustered mainly in working-class communities along the northeastern part of the United States, as well as some selected cities such as St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Leagues were mostly amateur and semi-pro, usually very localized and based on state associations. Eventually its growing success resulted in attempts to establish national leagues. At this time, due to the United States’s large size and the difficulty of transportation, there were no true national leagues, even major league baseball was entirely situated in the northeast and Midwest, although minor leagues operated all over the country. The same occurred with Soccer, with true major leagues earning that title mainly through their higher level of professionalism, rather than the amount of territory covered. Soccer went into a mini-decline around the turn of the century, which was reversed by the re-establishment of the NASFL and American Cup in 1906, and the decision of the St. Louis Soccer League to turn fully professional. The tide started to shift from New England to the New York/New Jersey region, as the NAFBL gained strength and the cup was won primarily by New York-based teams. The Southern New England Football league formed in 1914, out of some of the stronger of the local semi-pro teams in New England. By this time, soccer was also established in Eastern Pennsylvania, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, and had made its re-entry at several dozen colleges.
Probably the most important developments to follow the establishment of the USFA (Now the USSF) were the establishment of an official national championship tournament (the National Challenge Cup), which was first played in 1914, and the debut of sanctioned international competition. The Challenge Cup, open to any club that wished to enter, amateur or pro, was the first truly national competition, and did much to increase the prestige of the game. Now known as the US Open Cup, this is the oldest continuous team sport tournament in the country (outside of the World Series and Hockey’s Stanley Cup), but in later years, the cup struggled to be taken seriously by the ISL and NASL in the 1960’s.
By this time, the first true dynasties were beginning to emerge, among the Fall River Rovers, Bethlehem Steel, Kearny Scots and others. The NAFBL in its second incarnation was much more solid and soon stood out over the regional leagues, as did the SNESL. Important steps were being made toward the professionalization of the game. With the weakened American Cup still competing with the National Challenge Cup, a couple of teams went on to win the first “doubles” in the US, by copping both cups.
The balance of power shifted during this era from southeastern New England to the New York/New Jersey region, and New York based teams often took the American Cup home during the WWI period. Kearny sported several teams that were perennial contenders, including the Kearny Scots and Kearny Clark, with frequent competition from the Paterson True Blues.
On the professional front, the recognition by FIFA allowed the US to field an official National Team in sanctioned competition. Their first games, in 1916, included a 3-2 win over the new Swedish team, and a 1-1 draw with Norway. Sadly, World war I derailed the international tours, and the US did not field a national team again until the 1924 Olympics.
Three of the early dynasties of American Soccer were the Fall River Rovers, winners of the American Cup in 1888 and 1889, and Bethlehem Steel, who won the American Cup in 1914, 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1919 (finalist in 1920), and winners of the National Challenge Cup in 1915, 1916, 1918, and 1919 (finalist in 1917). Bethlehem won the first “doubles”, copping both cups in 1916, 1918 and 1919. In fact, Bethlehem won a “triple” in 1919, by virtue of also winning the NASFL title that year (followed by league titles the next two seasons).
The 1920’s were widely considered the first Golden Era in American Soccer. With the founding of the American Soccer League in 1921, there was finally a league with enough prestige to compete effectively for European players, and even perform on a par with the early National Football League.
During the 1920-1921 season, the Southern new England Football League and the National Association Football League were suffering financial difficulties. Although both leagues had powerhouse teams such as Bethlehem Steel, New York F.C., J&P; Coates and Fall River, both leagues were split among haves and have-nots, and the richer teams felt they were subsidizing the poorer ones to their detriment. They solved this dilemma by pulling the plugs on both leagues, with the richer clubs joining together to form the nucleus of a new league, the ASL. They intended this to be the first truly top class professional league in the US.
The ASL rapidly established itself on the strength of influential backers and committed administrators. Such companies as Bethlehem Steel, Robins Shipyards, and J&P; Coates were large manufacturing concerns with the financial clout to establish the league on a competitive level and bid successfully for the best players. In its inaugural season, the ASL featured Archie Stark with New York F.C., and Bobby Geudart, continuing a US history of successful native-born goalkeepers. Pete Renzulli joined Todd Shipyards, and Findlay Kerr began a long ASL career with Philadelphia F.C. Brooklyn Wanderers and Paterson Silk Sox joined the next year, expanding an already strong lineup, along with the Fall River Marksmen, founded by Sam Mark who built his stadium just across the state line in Rhode Island to avoid the Massachusetts Blue Laws which would have banned Sunday games.
The Marksmen would go on to become the most dominant team in US Soccer history, winning championships three consecutive years (1924-1926), and again in 1930 and 1931 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 first DOUBLES in US history (top league championship and top cup in 1924 and 1930). Sam Mark signed major players from England and Scotland, by offering better salaries than the often-stingy European clubs. His signings included hall of famer Harold Brittan, from Bethlehem Steel, fullback Tommy Martin and winger Tec White from Motherwell, and fullback Charlie McGill from Third Limark.
Bethlehem Steel followed suit, signing up fullback Jimmy Young of Dundee United, center half Tommy McFarlane, forward Daniel McNiven from Patrick Thistle, among others. McNiven immediately paid off, leading the league in goals for 1922-23, with 28. Meanwhile a new club, the Brooklyn Wanderers was owned and managed by hall of famer Nathan Agar, who also scored 7 goals as a wing forward. He would later be instrumental in attracting foreign teams to tour the USA playing ASL teams under their sponsorship.
In he fall of 1922, a unique event in US soccer history occurred as the Dick, Kerr Ladies, the famous English women’s team, toured the United States, playing against four ASL clubs. They eventually went 1-1-2 on the tour, their one victory against New York Field Club, 8-4.
During the mid 1920’s, the crowds for games were large, with 10,000 a not uncommon attendance figure. This was on a par with the NFL for much of the 1920’s. In 1925, the league expanded, adding the Boston Wonder Workers, and New Bedford Whalers, both of whom would earn distinction in the league. The Wonder Workers made an immediate impact by signing Glasgow veteran and Scottish international Tommy Muirhead from Ibrox to serve as player-manager. Then, using Muirhead as a contact, they stunned the world by signing Scottish international Alex McNab from Morton. McNab was signed for $25 a week to play and work at the Wonder Works factory. . Boston also caused some controversy by signing Johnny Ballantyne from Patrick Thistle, even though he had already signed with thistle. They also snatched Mickey Hamill, who had already been signed by Fall River from Manchester City, even though he had already played two pre-season exhibitions with the Marksmen. The result of this was an unprecedented amount of talent within the league. The 1924-25 season also saw Archie Stark set a world record for most goals scored in a season for a 1st division club, 67 in 42 games – a figure that stands to this day. This can be partially explained by the fact that soccer in the 1920’s was a much more open, offense-oriented game than today, played often with a formation of five forwards, three halfbacks and two fullbacks. Archie also scored an unprecedented five goals in an International for the US National Team in their 11/28/1925 victory over Canada.
By the mid 1920’s, the ASL had reached such a level of prominence that major foreign teams were enticed to perform major tours of the US playing against top ASL and other clubs. Sparta Prague and Vienna Hakoah, an all-Jewish side both toured the US in 1926, to record-breaking crowds. Hakoah’s first three games drew 25,000, 30,000 and 36,000 spectators respectively, culminating in the famous May 1 1926 match at the polo grounds in front of 46,000 spectators, a crowd record that stood until 1977 when three consecutive records were set by the Pele-led New York Cosmos. Pete Renzulli, then playing for the New York Giants remembered Hakoah controlling the ball for 87 minutes, but the ASL all-stars counterattacked on three opportunities, scoring each time to win 3-0.
In 1926, the success of the league led the ASL to help establish the first International Soccer League, which began play at the end of the 1926 ASL season, with three ASL and five leading Canadian clubs. The one season of the ISL showed clearly the superiority of the US clubs, and was an interesting experiment, but looked upon by most of the participants as an off-season excursion, and it was not continued. In 1927, the ASL shifted the focus slightly towards American players, with Davie Brown scoring 52 goals for the New York Giants, setting a record goal-scoring feat for American-born players, which stands to this day. The ASL experimented with rules changes, allowing substitutions for the first time. Also, goal judges similar to those in hockey were used. They also instituted a “penalty box”, with offending players required to serve their time by remaining behind their teams’ goal line. These changes were abandoned after this season. Touring teams included Uruguay’s Olympic team, who suffered their first defeat in three years at the hands of the Newark Skeeters. Meanwhile, Indiana Flooring was purchased by New York (Baseball) Giants owner Horace Stoneham. Since there was already a New York Giants in the ASL, he renamed his team the Nationals.
In 1927-28, the league adopted a split season. Philadelphia who had been recently bought struggled and was dropped from the season. In order to balance the unbalanced schedule the league abruptly dropped Hartford, another struggling team. This didn’t set well with some of the owners but was indicative of the structural and administrative problems the league was now experiencing. The season finished with a unique playoff situation complicated by the close finish of the top teams. Boston finished atop the 1st half standings with Bethlehem Steel and New Bedford Whalers tied for second. This required a special playoff game, won by the Whalers. At the conclusion of the 2nd half, New Bedford was in 1st place, followed by Fall River. Consequently, Boston, New Bedford (which had qualified in both halves), and Fall River were assured of playoff spots, while one spot remained open. This was settled by the third and fourth place teams from the 2nd half (Bethlehem Steel and New York Nationals) playing for the spot. Bethlehem won that game. The league then proceeded to the semifinals. These series were won by Boston defeating Bethlehem 3-1 and 4-0, and New Bedford playing Fall River to 3-1 and 0-4 scores (winning 5-3 aggregate). This set up a final between Bethlehem and New Bedford. But another problem developed: In its second game, Bethlehem with its goalkeeper injured, borrowed Brooklyn Wanderer’s goalkeeper Steve Smith without league authorization, and the league overturned the result, awarding the game to Boston. This resulted in a championship between Boston and New Bedford, the 1st and 2nd half winners, won by Boston. This season had lasted nearly nine months! Admission prices in New York City and Brooklyn were $1.10 for the cheapest seats, and $0.75 in Boston.
The following season saw the “Soccer War”. Although soccer was enjoying unprecedented popularity, a bitter dispute arose between the league, the USFA and a number of the powerful ASL clubs. The ASL clubs had long objected to the playing of National open Challenge Cup games during the regular season because it disrupted the regular season, and in 1924-25 had refused to allow its teams to enter the competition. This led to the ASL being suspended. Now in 1928, the ASL announced that it wanted the Open Cup competition, moved to the end of the ASL season, or its teams exempted until the season was over. The USFA refused, and the ASL ordered its teams not to participate. However, some ASL clubs wanted to participate, and Bethlehem Steel, Newark Skeeters and New York Giants defied the league and participated anyway. Bill Cunningham, ASL President instituted fines and suspensions on these clubs, who appealed to the USFA who ordered the league to reverse its actions. The league refused and was suspended by the USFA. The ASL continued to operate as an outlaw league, and the USFA worked with the three teams to form another league, the Eastern Soccer League, from the three ASL clubs and other clubs from the Southern New York State Association. This in turn led to a dispute between the SNYSA and the USFA, leading the SNYSA to team up with the ASL against the ESL and USFA. During all of this, the New Bedford Whalers jumped mid season to the ESL. The following season, no resolution was in sight, and both leagues took to the field with new Bedford jumping back to the ASL, disappointed in the quality of ESL play.
The ASL and USFA, seeing the battle as a costly one that would leave no victor, reached an exhausted compromise – the ASL abandoned their partially competed fall 1929 season, and merged it strongest teams with the better ESL teams to form the Atlantic Coast League which took to the field in November 1929. This face-saving season was successful, but the league was never to enjoy the financial stability or prestige it had previously enjoyed, and the stock market crash of 1929 followed by the depression wreaked havoc on the manufacturing companies that formed the financial backbone of the league and soon many clubs were failing, with Bethlehem Steel folding in 1930 and Fall River Marksmen in the winter of 1931.
In 1930, the US participated in the first World Cup in Uruguay, and Atlantic Coast league teams dominated the roster. By now the roster included such hall of famers as Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves who performed well both in the World Cup and throughout the 1930’s.
The demise of Fall River Marksmen was the culmination of one of the more bizarre franchise transactions in the annals of American Sports. Sam Mark, suffering declining revenues, took a gamble and moved his club south to New York City, merging it with the New York Soccer Club on February 16, 1931, renaming the club the New York Yankees. At the same time, he made Mark’s Stadium in Tiverton RI available to other clubs. A group of investors, led by Harold Brittan, bought the Providence Gold Bugs and moved them to Mark’s Stadium, as Fall River F.C. Meanwhile, in the middle of the spring 1931 season, the New Bedford Whalers succumbed to financial losses, and merged the team with Fall River. The Yankees meanwhile, were only partially successful. Because they had started the Open Cop competition while still at Fall River, they had to complete the competition under that name, even though they were playing in the ASL as the Yankees at the same time! In the offseason, the new Fall River club failed, and Sam Mark, having failed in New York, moved the Yankees to New Bedford, obtaining the rights to the Fall River players along the way. As a result, his new club (also known as the New Bedford Whalers) was a combination of the old New York, Fall River and New Bedford teams. They won the 1931 fall season, but lost the playoffs, although they won the National Challenge open Cup.
The league struggled on through the spring 1933 season with substantial team turnover and reorganizations, before finally being reorganized out of existence in the summer. What had begun as an exuberant league a decade earlier, ended among the ashes of a fruitless turf war, the ravages of the depression, and the decline of the company-oriented soccer team
After the demise of the first American Soccer League, the game continued primarily on the semi-pro and amateur level, with many of the most successful teams being tied to ethnic communities and service clubs. Major amateur leagues included the National Soccer League of Chicago, the National Soccer League of New York, the new Jersey Soccer Association, the St. Louis Soccer League (by now reverted to semi-pro status), as well as numerous leagues in Southern New England and the greater New York and Philadelphia areas and other metropolitan areas. Soccer took a back seat as other sports shook off the depression and grew. Baseball was firmly established as the premier professional sport, as was Football as the main college spectator sport. Basketball continued as a series of regional semi pro leagues. Like Soccer, Basketball had established an American Basketball League in the 1920’s, their first truly national league, only to see it fold during the early depression years to be revived as the ABL II on a smaller scale. Although Basketball took off after World War II, with the establishment of the NBL, and finally the NBA, soccer’s new American League struggled to win a following outside of the local ethnic communities until the 1960’s.
The second American Soccer League was started in 1933 as a complete reorganization of the remnants of the original league, but with a completely new lineup of teams. The league confined its presence to the New York/New Jersey/ Philadelphia region, and included mostly clubs long established at the amateur and semi-pro level, including old NAFBL standbys as Kearny Scots and Kearny Irish. The league in essence took the strongest teams from the local leagues and elevated them to a new competitive and financial level, although they were at best semi-pro both players holding other jobs to make ends meet. Former ASL I stars such as Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude continued their careers in the ASL II, joined by younger stars such as Fabri Salcedo (goal scoring leader in 1938, 1941, and 1946), Nick Kropfelder and Walter Bahr. The first dynasty of the ASL II was the Kearny Scots who won five consecutive league titles from 1937-1941. Some of the long-lived teams of the early years included New York Americans, New York Brookhattan and Brooklyn Hispano.
On the International front, the US again made an appearance in the World Cup. Although Italy wanted to accept the USA, they had submitted their entry late, and so had to play a qualifier against the winner of the North American competition. That winner was Mexico, who had previously beat Cuba. The qualifier was played in Roma on May 24, 1934, and even though Mexico did not yet have full international standing, it was a well played game from the US point of view, a 4-2 victory that established future Hall of Fame inductee Aldo Donelli as one of the best American players of the era. The World Cup itself was a quick exit for the US who got pounded 7-1 by host Italy. Donelli scored the only US goal, but it should also be pointed out that Italy benefited from immigration rules that allowed them to field three players who had previously played for the Argentine national team. The US was thereby the only tam to play against both Luis Monti of Argentina in the 1930 World Cup and Luis Monti of Italy in the 1934 World Cup. Raimondo Orso, another Italy player, had also played for Argentina against the US in the 1928 Olympics.
During this era, the amateur and semipro leagues remained almost on a par with the ASL, as can be seen by their frequent victories in the National Open Challenge Cup. St. Louis was particularly successful with Stix, Baer & Fuller winning in 1933 and 1934, followed by Central Breweries in 1935. Later, Morgan Strasser of Pittsburgh became a perennial in the national championships. One major attraction during this time was the ASL sponsored tours by major foreign teams. These included the 1930 visit by Sportivo Buenos Aires, Botafogo FC of Brazil in 1941, Audan S.C. of Chile in 1933, Charlton Athletic in 1937, Liverpool in 1946, and 1948, Atlante FC of Mexico in 1940, Maccabi of Tel-Aviv in 1927 and 1936, Manchester United in 1950, 1952 and 1960.and Glasgow Rangers in 1928. Although the foreign teams usually won the games, the contests were exciting and eagerly awaited by the fans as their best chance to see truly top-level soccer.
All of the leagues were hard hit by World War II, with many players serving several years in the war effort. Leagues compensated as best they could with depleted rosters and players moving up from the amateur ranks. In 1945, the national governing body formally changed its name from the United States Football Association to the United States Soccer Football Association. After the war, there was a mini-boom among all sports in the US. In soccer, this was seen first by the return of players from the war effort, and also by the first modern attempt to create a professional soccer league on anything approaching a national scale. That attempt was the North American Soccer Football League, formed in 1946 by Fred Weiszman of Chicago, later replaced by Chicago White Sox General Manager Leslie O’Connor. This league included teams in St. Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Toronto. The league drew respectable crowds (in the 2,000-4,000 range) and several top-notch players including Gil Heron and Hall of Famer Nick D’Orio. The league only lasted two seasons due to financial difficulties, and the inability of some teams to show up for games during 1947. The Chicago Vikings won the National Challenge Cup in 1946, and they as well as the Pittsburgh Vikings continued to have success at the amateur level.
The 1950’s started off with a bang as the US National team returned to the World Cup and stunned the world by defeating England 1-0 on a goal by Joe Gaetjens. Outside of this triumph, the sporting boom largely passed soccer by, as the game continued to lumber on at the local club level, with new dynasties being established by the Ukrainian Nationals of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Americans, New York Hakoah and the Uhrik Truckers, all of whom won multiple league championships during this decade. The 1950’s culminated with a move that would foreshadow the coming soccer boom — the recognition of soccer as a sanctioned sport by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which proved to be a huge boom by pulling together the disparate college soccer conferences and providing a truly national championship for the first time. This move also spurred a continued boom in the college game as more and more institutions were encouraged to add soccer, or promote their club teams to varsity status.
The sport of soccer has always had a strong base among ethnic communities throughout the 20th century, but mainstream America largely ignored the sport. It continued to toil along through regional semi-pro leagues, and the low-key American Soccer League II. By 1960′ drastic changes had taken place throughout American society with the expansion of travel and communications. Spectator sports were rising in popularity and the advent of television attracted people to the sports as never before, and with the rise of cities outside of the Northeast there were increasing clamors for major league sports throughout the country.
In 1960, Bill Cox, a major promoter saw the potential for Soccer to join the bandwagon, and envisioned a truly top-level professional soccer league, and set out to create one. His league, the second International Soccer League was unique in that it consisted of existing foreign clubs, who played during their offseason as members of the ISL. This approach had positive and negative aspects. Because the clubs were basically playing off-season exhibition tours, they tended not to take the league very seriously, and often sent mostly reserve players as a way of keeping them in shape. On the other hand, some fairly significant teams participated, including Red Star Belgrade, Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, Dukla Prague, and Shamrock Rovers. This was also a unique opportunity to see a truly international collection of teams on a regular basis. One encouraging note was the surprisingly successful performance of the US club, which was basically a collection of ASL all-stars. The league played for six seasons, offering reasonably good soccer, although the league was largely ignored outside of the US. The league was able to avoid direct competition with the locally oriented American Soccer League, which continued its fairly low-key approach based on established franchises, with a new focus on developing quality American players. The ASL made its first move at the local level, reaching an agreement with the semi-pro German American Soccer League to play a combined season between the two leagues in 1964-65. When that failed, they expanded outward, increasing their presence outside of their Northeast Corridor footprint, to include teams in New England and later out to the Midwest.
The World Cup in England in 1966 attracted quite a bit of attention among sports promoters and soccer enthusiasts, due to surprisingly high television ratings in the US. This was enough to inspire several groups of businessmen to try and cash in on this interest through establishment of a major 1st division soccer league. As is typically for US ventures, there was a great lack of agreement, and infighting, which resulted in the creation of two rival leagues of which only one received FIFA sanction. These leagues were inspired partially by the great growth in popularity of pro spectator sports throughout the country which had come about partially as a result of increased ease of transportation, improvements in communication, growth of TV and satellite transmissions, and most importantly, the general trend of prosperity the US had enjoyed since the early 1950’s. A real cultural change was taking place with people having more disposable income, leisure time, and the country was rapidly turning into a nation of sports addicts. Participation in youth sports was up as well.
NFL (and AFL) football was simply exploding in popularity, the Super Bowl had just been inaugurated and the AFL-NFL merger had just taken place. Basketball was on the edge of a great wave of expansion nationwide. Baseball was enjoying a rapid climb in attendance with new teams, the major leagues had spread across the country in the late 1950’s, and the NHL had just doubled in size. So it was natural that people would see Soccer as a potential for further expansion. The ethnic soccer communities thrives, mainstream American youths were starting to take soccer as an alternative to other more expensive and violent participation sports, and the youth advertising market was just beginning to be recognized.
Into this picture came the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League, the first modern attempts to create truly national, 1st division soccer in the US. Although the original American Soccer League of the 1920’s was one of the stronger leagues in the world in its day, it was still a regional league, never extending out of the Northeastern US. The United Soccer Association was sanctioned by FIFA, and established themselves in 12 major US cities spanning the country. The NPSL, started by a rival group, was not sanctioned, and did not abide by FIFA player transfer rules. So the stage was set for a contentious and not very productive debut for the game. Both leagues almost went bankrupt. Fan interest, although initially high, quickly faded. TV ratings were terrible. Attendance was not bad for first-year leagues, but many owners were not prepared to keep the talent level up with their limited resources. In desperation, the leagues merged in 1968 becoming the North American Soccer League (but only retaining 17 of the original teams), but the second year was disastrous, with low attendance, no television contract, and massive financial losses by all teams. Only five teams survived to see a third season.
As a survival method they remained low-key and slowly built themselves up through the early 1970’s. Although the league’s intentions were noble, they were simply ahead of their times. They made too big a splash without the ability to promote the game to an audience that just wasn’t quite there yet. But the low-key approach allowed them to slowly build the league towards viability which still maintaining a presence on the US sports scene. With the addition of the New York Cosmos, and a number of west coast teams Clive Toye felt the time was right to make a statement when he signed Pele in 1975. Although a few other major stars had already been signed, this truly was a shot heard around the world, despite Pele’s recent retirement. This act finally got the media to take notice; the league attendance went up, media attention both at home and worldwide gave the league a new air of respectability. The attention snowballed in a positive way this time, through 1976 and 1977. As attendance climbed and more world stars were signed, vital media attention drew record numbers of fans, culminating with 77,691 for a 1977 playoff game between the Cosmos and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Giants stadium. This was a truly golden era.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the National team was a minor effort, almost an afterthought. A few games were played here and there, usually centered around the quadrennial attempts to qualify for the World Cup finals. But national team squads were assembled at the last minute, with very little opportunity for training or practice. The lack of regular head coaches didn’t help, and the team typically suffered quick elimination. A fair number of US national team players had playing spots with NASL teams, but with the NASL dominated by international players, the Americans mostly wermed the benches. In 1974, the United States soccer Football Association changed its name to become the United States Soccer Federation.
A key development through the 1970’s was the rapid growth of soccer as a youth participation sport. Soccer was relatively inexpensive as well as democratic — it did not require specialists, tall players or behemoths as many of the other sorts did, and youth soccer did not have the overly competitive stigma and the political mudslinging that was plaguing Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. The parallel growth of the NASL, and youth (as well as adult) soccer really portended a golden era for the sport in the US, which unfortunately was premature at least from the professional game’s point of view.
Once again, the league was a little ahead of its time. Although large crowds were attracted to many games and several teams, the league was spending well beyond its means for international stars, who although skilled, and popular, and bringing much recognition, simply cost too much to be supported by the existing fan base (in 1977 averaging league-wide about 13,400 per game). But the league was doomed to fail because of its inability to control player costs, which simply bankrupted one team after another until the league’s demise in 1984.
The reasons for the failure were many; going beyond the sheer tide of red ink with forced so many teams under. The NASL had no television contract (a few teams had local TV and radio), unlike the other major sports that could count on TV revenue to finance the salaries. The NASL also was a rogue league, not following FIFA standards, refusing to honor transfer agreements, play in continental tournaments, instead simply raiding players from other countries. Unlike other countries, also, the national team was almost nonexistent, and there was no national following for that team. Finally, the NASL had no viable minor league system or college developmental system to supply it with homegrown talent, and many fans could not have more than a superficial attachment to teams with mostly international stars who only stayed 1-2 years. The flood of international stars by some major teams forced the others to follow suit when they really couldn’t afford to. This also had the effect of marginalizing the US players who were primarily bench warmers and substitutes, despite a quota system which required an increasing minimum number of US players on the field at all times, and a minimum number on the rosters.
On the other hand, the internationalizing effect of having all these stars was very positive, and exposed Americans to a very high level of play, showing them what a beautiful sport it is. This really planted a seed in many people, particularly the youngsters who saw games and finally had pro stars to root for, and were inspired to continue with soccer through their college and adult years. Many of the current US players were introduced to the game through the NASL, many others are now eager MLS fans, and actively coaching teams while their own children play in the youth leagues and high school.
This growth of youth, amateur and college soccer was not enough to save the NASL, which, lacking a major television contract after the ABC deal of 1979-1980, simply could not generate enough income, despite high attendance, to cover the cost of the imported players. From 1980-1984, teams folded each year due to financial losses, and the league finally expired in early 1985 after only two of the 9 remaining teams posted a bond for the new season. The long-running ASL II, which had expanded into the Midwest in the early 1970’s, the west coast in the late 1970’s and the south in the early 1980’s had called it quits the previous year, although a few teams formed the nucleus of the short-lived United Soccer League which played in 1984 and 1985, shutting down abruptly due to foreclosure halfway through the 1985 season.
After the demise of the second American Soccer League in 1983, the USL, created from the ashes of the failed American Soccer League II, barely survived financial losses from their first season, as four teams bravely continued the fight in 1985. However, the league folded abruptly in bankruptcy just before the start of a planned second half of the season. Meanwhile the Western Alliance Challenge Series (Later the western Soccer League II) began with teams in San Jose, Victoria, Seattle and Portland, playing an abbreviated 7-game season. Victoria folded after the season. With three teams remaining in this single low-level outdoor league, US outdoor professional soccer reached its nadir. For the first time, the US was in danger of being without a fully professional outdoor league since 1905. With the indoor game flourishing and a healthy rivalry developing between the MISL and the upstart American Indoor Soccer Association, the general consensus was the future of Soccer in America lay with indoor soccer, rather than the outdoor game. The US National team reached a humiliating low as they were pounded out of contention for the 1986 world cup. The team went almost two years before playing their next game, and there was little enthusiasm for keeping the team going after this debacle. Many analysts saw outdoor soccer as being fundamentally an alien game to the psyches of American sports fans who wanted more action, and higher scoring. The outdoor game was seen as too strategy-driven, and not well suited to television broadcasts with the lack of natural breaks in the action for commercial breaks.
The mid 1980s were a gloomy time for outdoor soccer in the US. With the demise of the NASL in 1984, and the abrupt end of the United Soccer League in 1985, only the Western Soccer League, which had just finished its first season, remained playing outdoor soccer, with four surviving teams. The best chance for the sport to flourish in the United States had gone up in a sea of red ink and failed dreams with the demise of the NASL, yet the seeds had been planted for future growth. Many fans had gotten their first taste of first-rate pro soccer and wanted more. The surprisingly large crowd at soccer matches in the 1984 Olympics held at Los Angeles, despite the almost total lack of media coverage, showed that a large market existed for soccer as a spectator sport. Another important event, which went almost unnoticed at the time was the inauguration of the Women’s National Team in 1985, which started on a very modest scale, but would steadily rise to gain world attention by the end of the 1990’s.
Youth soccer had gained a firm foothold in mainstream America, and the youth game was growing by leaps and bounds. Spearheaded by national organizations such as the United States Youth Soccer Association and the American Youth Soccer Organization, soccer participation skyrocketed, soon eclipsing all but the most established sports in youth participation. This was partially due to accessibility and lack of expenses. Soccer did not require great strength or size, and the outlay for equipment and uniforms was minimal compared to sports such as hockey and football. With two competing organizations (USYSA and AYSO), options were available both for people who preferred a more recreational game (AYSO) and those who preferred a more competitive situation (USYSA). Many parents who had gotten their first taste of the game at NASL matches saw soccer as a viable vocation for their children, and the growth of the youth game has continued to this day. For the future, many children who first attended soccer at NASL matches are now eager fans of MLS, and active participants in local soccer programs as parents or coaches.
For much of the 1980’s, the indoor game was the main event. The MISL benefited from a large infusion of talent as highly talented players joined from the NASL, several of whom became preeminent players throughout the decade. Gary Etherington, Steve Zungul, Keith Furphy, Dale Mitchell, Juli Veee, Jim McAlister, Alan Willey, Steve David, Clyde Best, Paul Child, and Karl-Heinz Granitza among others continued their careers well into the 1980;s with the MISL. In addition, Dave Brcic, Rick Davis, Ty Keough, Hugo Perez, Fernando Clavijo, and Frank Klopas combined their starring roles in the indoor game with stints on the US National team. Several stars of the 1990’s and the MLS got their start in the MISL, including Preki, Cle Kooiman, Peter Vermes, Hector Marinaro (NPSL), Ted Eck, Chad Ashton, Goran Hunjak, Iain Fraser, and Shawn Medved.
The rivalry between the MISL and the AISA heated up in the 1980’s once these two leagues were clearly established as the primary professional leagues in the US. By now, all existing outdoor leagues (The Western Soccer League and the Lone Star Soccer Alliance, formed in 1987) were operating at a basically semi-pro level, and all the top stars were indoors.
US Soccer officials had for a long time seen the hosting of a world cup in the united States as a last hope for establishing outdoor soccer in the country. The USSF had been promoting this idea for many years, most notably during the waning days of the NASL, when a serious bid for the 1986 World Cup was made, after the original host, Columbia was disqualified. This gambit nearly succeeded. The success of the NASL proved that a large fan base existed, as did the high numbers of Americans with strong ethnic ties to their ancestral countries. A natural fan base would exist not only for the American team, but also for many of the other teams that would most likely make the cut. The US was second to none in terms of infrastructure with an overabundance of large stadiums, albeit ones with less than ideal gridiron field configurations, many containing Astroturf fields. Despite these drawbacks, the US made it to the semifinalist stage, and it was felt they were rejected in favor of Columbia, primarily by skepticism about the US market, and the financial problems of the declining NASL. It was felt the World Cup would never sell in the US because of the lack of success at the professional level. Less than a year after the US lost their bid, the soccer competition at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles broke all records for the Olympic competition, making Soccer the most heavily attended competition in the entire Olympics. This despite an almost complete lack of coverage in the US media.
Another major problem hampering US efforts was the disarray of the National team. With a disappointing performance in the Olympics, the demise of the NASL, the disastrous 1986 World Cup qualifying performance, and a general lack of leadership, the National team almost became dormant in the mid 1980’s, playing only two full internationals in 1986, and a mixed bag of games in 1987, starting with a disappointing 0-2 loss to Canada in their first Olympic qualifier, but finishing with a respectable performance in the Pan-American games. Clearly, the National team was in danger of becoming irrelevant if it continued to miss out on qualifying for major international tournaments, and it could not afford to continue in this manner.
The outdoor game achieved a modest revival after 1986. The Lone Star Soccer Alliance made its debut in 1987, with teams in Texas and nearby states, and the Western League continued its slow growth, extending down the west coast into California. These two leagues operated at a modest, basically division 3 level. A more ambitious effort was the third American Soccer League, which had as its goal the return of 1st division soccer in America. This league, operating along the east coast in major cities, was able to attract some of the more prominent American players, including a number on the National Team, and drew crowds comparable to the final years of the ASL II. Finally, another small, almost unnoticed event that would later become significant was the meeting of some western arena owners who, looking for a sport to keep their rinks open during the off-season, joined together under the leadership of Francisco Marcos to form the Southwest Indoor Soccer League. This low-level indoor league would grow in increments through the rest of the 20th century to become a major cornerstone of the entire US soccer structure by the end of the century.
USSF knew that it needed a major showcase event in the US to promote the sport to the top level, and hence, it spared no effort in 1987-88 when it bid for the 1994 Cup. Despite the recent travails of the National team, FIFA officials were impressed by the size and potential of the US market and saw it as an opportunity to open new markets. The USSF stressed these factors, as well as the success of the 1984 Olympics, and produced an impressive set of proposed venues for the competitions. Most importantly, it committed to establishing a bona-fide first division professional league to be in operation by the time the cup was held. The US was also helped by the overall weakness of the competing bidders; Brazil had enormous stadiums, which looked good on the surface but in reality wee dilapidated and poorly maintained, and Morocco had only two stadiums that met FIFA requirements. Werner Fricker, then the USSF President, had learned from the mistakes made in the previous bid. The result was the awarding of the 1994 World Cup to the United States on the condition that they establish a 1st division professional league. After the USSF made a slow start in organizing the tournament, FIFA became disenchanted, seeing Fricker as too provincial, and without the business acumen needed to carry off a project of this magnitude, and so in 1990, they promoted Alan Rothenberg to run against him for USSF President. Rothenberg, who had headed the US Olympic Soccer program, was an experienced international lawyer with experience in dealing with the soccer bigwigs and professional organizations on an international level, and who understood that the World Cup was big business and needed an organization to match.
If the Americans were to make an appropriately impressive appearance as hosts of the 94 Cup, it would have to do a substantial amount of development. The team had been in disarray for years, and US players were hampered by lack of experience. In the NASL, the Americans were generally bench-warmers and substitutes, despite quotas requiring an increasing minimum number of US players to be on the roster and on the field at all times. The colleges, from which almost all National team players came, simply did not provide adequate playing time due to the constricted fall playing season and the inability of college players to play on amateur teams outside of the collegiate season. The indoor leagues, which provided most of the professional soccer employment, did not prepare players for the type of game they would play in the Cup. In fact, it was almost a completely different style of game, and this experience was of little value elsewhere.
The first task at hand was to provide adequate high-level competition for the players who would make up the core of the team. The ASL and WSA provided a decent enough level of play for Americans to land playing spots abroad, but were far from sufficient to train a team for a respectable position in the World Cup. It was essential that an opportunity for consistent, long-term high-level competition be made available for National team players, waiting for the new League was not an option. To address this issue, the USSF developed a National team Training Program, in which players were contracted full-time to the National Team as salaried members, and would play year-around with the team. From this point on through the 1994 Cup, most roster players were contracted full-time with the USSF. When the Training Program started, the National team consisted of a hodge-podge of players from the ASL III, the WSA, the indoor MISL, various colleges and amateur teams. Pretty soon, most National team players were contracted full-time to play for the National Team, giving them for the first time extensive playing at a competitive level.
In 1988, a group of US Soccer veterans, led by Chuck Blazer and Clive Toye, established a new American Soccer League (the third one) with the aim of re-establishing professional soccer using a financially conservative approach. The American Soccer League, Salaries and expenses were kept low enough to prevent the salary wars that ruined previous leagues. The league operated with ten teams on the east coast of the US, extending from Boston to Miami. It fit in well with the rest of the pro soccer scene with a minimum of conflict- the season didn’t overlap with the indoor season, allowing players to compete year around in both seasons, and it complemented the Western Soccer League (now Alliance) which was now well established throughout California and the rest of the west coast.
The ASL and the WSA provided critical in supplying talent to the National team until it could get its Team-in-Training program off the ground. Such stars of the 1990’s as Steve Trittschuh, John Harkes, Brian Bliss, Peter Vermes, Bruce Murray, Tab Ramos, and Marcelo Balboa got their starts here. The leagues, recognizing their complementary nature wisely avoided destructive fights and agreed to a merger in 1990, with the dream of building themselves into the new 1st division league envisioned by the World Cup organizers. In fact, the league operated at a fairly impressive level with a number of future National Team members on their rosters, before they were taken away by the USSF Training Program. The two leagues played separate regular seasons in 1990, while under the aegis of the new parent organization, the American Professional Soccer League. This league was recognized by FIFA as the official 2nd division league for the United States, but celebrations were premature, as financial disasters almost led to the demise of the league after their first season. Nine teams survived to continue in 1991, which actually provided a long-term benefit, as the smaller league enjoyed a considerably higher level of play, with the weaker teams rooted out and weaker players relegated to the SISL.
Almost unnoticed during this renaissance was the decision in 1989 by the regional Sunbelt Indoor Soccer League, (Francisco Marcos’s renamed SISL) to play an outdoor season. The outdoor league involved 8 teams who chose to supplement their indoor league with an outdoor season, to provide all-year playing opportunities. Little did people know that this humble beginning would grow to become the primary source of development for players in the US.
By the end of the 1989 season, it looked as though American soccer would grow as a low-level series of regional leagues. In fact, many people made the argument that the proper way to develop professional soccer in the United States was by building it up at the grassroots level, before building a 1st division league. In fact, a fairly well organized series of regional leagues existed, both for the indoor and outdoor games. On the indoor side, the SISL had 15 teams, extending from Houston, Texas to Denver, Colorado, to Phoenix, AZ, to Little Rock Arkansas. The AISA operated primarily in the Midwest, with the MISL playing nationwide, but primarily on the east and west coasts. For outdoor soccer, the ASL III operated along the east coast, the WSA along the west, and the SISL in the south and southwest. Proponents of this strategy felt that these leagues would grow, and eventually establish themselves as nationally prominent, possibly merging and forming a hierarchical divisional structure. Other people felt that this process would take too long, and possibly stagnate, and that a new league would have to be established from the onset as a full-fledged 1st division circuit, with promotion and budgets to match. These two schools of thought predominated the arguments and discussions when it came time to start the work of establishing the professional circuit that was promised to FIFA by the organizers of the 1994 World Cup. This was to become one of the major continuing battles between different factions at the USSF during the early 1990’s.
The indoor soccer wars were starting to take their toll by now. The MISL was increasingly challenged by a growing AISA and to ward off further losses of star players, raised salaries significantly. Although this helped them keep most of the better players, it took a big hit at the bottom line, despite their unprecedented success on the field. The league was hugely popular, with good television contracts, players on the national team, and frequent crowds of more than 10,000. The St. Louis Steamer, in particular was a major success story, with sold out crowds, fan promotions, spectacular multimedia displays and the like. They succeeded through creating an EVENT, not just playing a match. Their tactics were a precursor to those for indoor soccer in general, and more significantly, for many of the types of successful promotions in other established US sports, particularly baseball, with the elaborate new stadiums full of family-friendly events, promotions and activities that provide an entire day’s worth of entertainment for the budget-conscious families of the 1980’s.
The AISA, although lacking the major stars, was a more viable institution, through aggressive cost cutting and careful financial controls. Despite their generally lower profile, (attendance averaged less than 4,000 into the early 1990’s), they avoided the financial pitfalls that eventually consumed the MISL. By 1988, the MISL was in severe financial straits, and nearly folded. The league did survive, but lost many of its strongest franchises, including Chicago Sting (a veteran of the NASL), Cleveland Force (an original franchise), the St. Louis Steamer (their greatest success story), Tacoma, and Minnesota (another NASL survivor). They did continue with seven teams and a shortened season, but were never the same after that, and finally the MISL folded in 1992. The NPSL, by contrast, despite having lost four teams from a premature expansion two years back, continued their slow, incremental growth, signing some of the stars from the MISL teams who folded, and for the first time started expanding out of their Midwestern stronghold, and re-establishing themselves in Chicago, their major TV market.
The US National Team surprised the world by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in 1989 by upsetting Trinidad & Tobago while on the brink of elimination with an amazing victory at Trinidad. This team of underdog players from the ASL, WSL, MISL and USSF Development Program, may have been lucky more than anything else, especially considering their mediocre 1988 Olympic Performance (2 draws and 1 loss, albeit one draw was against host South Korea). They had tied many of their qualifying games, and been able to avoid playing Mexico altogether, which certainly would have doomed their effort. The team prepared for the cup with an impressive series of games in the spring of 1990 including victories against Finland, Iceland, and Poland. The most eagerly anticipated game was against the Soviet Union, which drew 61,000 to Palo Alto CA, for a close 2-1 loss. The cup itself showed the US as basically outmatched, however they nearly forced a draw with host Italy, only allowing a goal late in the game, nearly tying the game in the 70th minute. Such an upset would have been stunning had the US been able to keep the tie. The other losses (1-5 vs. Czechoslovakia and 1-2 vs. Austria) were less impressive.
In 1991, Bora Milutinovic was hired to coach the US team, and he immediately embarked on a program to develop a playing style relying heavily on a tenacious, controlled defense, an area which had long been neglected. During his tenure, the US began to win more games than ever before, and increasingly, against fairly impressive competition. The team consisted mostly of players contracted full-time to USSF, and Milutinovic launched the team on an extensive schedule of Internationals against other countries. The US drew against Mexico in March, and won the inaugural Gold Cup, the North American championship, held that year in California. The final was a close fought affair against Honduras, a game forced into penalty kicks after a scoreless draw. Previously the US had beaten Mexico in the semifinals. Meanwhile, the US achieved a world class accomplishment which went sadly overlooked, their taking of the championship at the 1991 Women’s World Cup.
The outdoor game in 1992 saw the consolidation of the APSL, and the expansion of the SISL outdoor league into a 21-team league with a new name, the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL). At the same time, issue of the future 1st Division League grew ever more contentious as different groups fought and vied for the honor. The APSL, led by Richard Groff, the USISL, led by Francisco Marcos, and even the MISL Indoor league, all lay claims to being the premier soccer league most suited to rise to the top, and these were joined by Rothenberg’s own plans for a new league. The fight over FIFA designation revolved around several factors. Beyond the personal issues between the various parties, were differing philosophies about the best way to grow soccer, from a top down well financed method favored by the Rothenberg group to a bottom-up grassroots method, favored by the APSL and USISL parties, or the claim by the MISL to be the highest profile league in existence at the time. Unfortunately, the fight led to many conflicts with leagues working to undercut each other, which led to more setbacks than anything else for the cause of US Soccer. Eventually, the Rothenberg group prevailed, on the basis of promises of investor capital, sponsorships and good prospects of television deals. Their new league was then christened Major League Soccer.
The US National team played their most ambitious year ever in 1993, with 34 games played that year, ranging from the new USA Cup (with games against Germany, and Brazil, and another shot heard ’round the world, a 2-0 upset of England), the Gold Cup ’93, with four straight victories followed by a 4-0 loss to Mexico in the championship before 120,000 in Mexico, the largest crowd ever to watch the US team. This year also saw a series of exhibitions against major world teams dubbed the “World Series of Soccer”. Primarily designed to provide playing experience, this series included games against Germany, Brazil and England (also serving as the USA Cup), Columbia, Russia (doubleheader), and Denmark. Although the US went 1-2-4, they drew impressive crowds for these games, providing hope for the future MLS. The schedule got even busier early in 1994 as preparations were completed for the World Cup. The final game of the warm-up was a thrilling 1-0 victory over Mexico two weeks before the World Cup. This game was played before 92,504 fans, most of them Mexican.
The 1994 World Cup was, simply put, the biggest event ever in American soccer. All eyes were on the US to see if they were capable of hosting a world class event, and from an organizational viewpoint, it far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, drawing a record 3,600,000 spectators, and averaging a record 67,000 per game, almost double the average attendance for the recent 1982 World Cup. Even better, the competition provided some of the most exciting games in the series, although this was tempered somewhat by the lackluster finale, which had to be decided by penalty kicks. The USSF Training Program had paid off, with the US giving a respectable performance, which took them beyond the first round for the first time since 1930, holding #1 Brazil to a scoreless tie into the 70th minute of their Round of 16 Game. They accomplished this with a tenacious defense that held the opponents to 4 goals in 4 games.
The event garnered unprecedented press coverage in the American Media, and though the naysayers vented their disparagement towards the game, many other people discovered the game for the first time, and were primed for the arrival of Major league Soccer two years down the road. The naysayers also were denied their day when their hoped for hooliganism and violence failed to materialize; in fact there was not once incident of serious violence during the entire cup. Finally, several US players became household names through their feats and performances, including Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones, Eric Wynalda, Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas and others. Finally, major American Soccer players were recognized in the streets and by the mainstream sports audience.
After the Cup, came the business of preparing the National team for the next step, and putting together Major League Soccer. The first step was taken by the USSF which, sensing the American offensive weaknesses, sacked Milutinovic, and hired Steve Sampson as the new head coach. Sampson was assigned to build on the defensive core that Milutinovic had built, and fortify it with a powerful, attacking offensive capability.
By 1995, there were major changes occurring throughout all aspects of US Soccer. The National team had sent out upon a program of building on the world cup success and preparing for the next step. Major League Soccer set about the task of securing owner investors, sponsors and television contracts and signing players. The APSL, now retitled the A-league won recognition from FIFA as the United States’ Division 2 league, and the USISL won designation as the third division league. With Major League Soccer recognized as the 1st division league, the USA finally had a working divisional system for the professional game. More importantly, the leagues finally decided to work together and cooperate in maintaining this system.
The A-League and USISL worked out an agreement to act as a farm system for the MLS, and the MLS reached an agreement with the indoor NPSL regarding scheduling seasons and sharing of players. Avoiding the future women’s basketball disaster, players were allowed to compete in both outdoor and indoor seasons. For once, the different major soccer powers were not fighting and trying to undercut each other. Only the two-year-old indoor Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL) was on its own, but it kept largely to itself and did not try to interfere with the overall cooperation. The A-League was a small, unwieldy league with 7 teams spread across the entire country and Canada, but the USISL, which had committed itself to the bottom-up grassroots development strategy now had 85 teams in small to medium sized cities nationwide, and had split itself into professional and amateur divisions. The amateur division is known among fans as an unofficial “4th division”.
The College game had been growing steadily, and was one of the largest college varsity sports. This was most evident in the rapid and sudden growth of women’s college soccer. The women’s game was really starting to come into its own both at the collegiate level and with the women’s team (despite the disappointing 1995 World Cup final loss to Norway). This resulted in the USISL establishing a national women’s league, which rapidly grew to over thirty teams, eventually splitting into elite and amateur divisions.
Major League Soccer established a unique single entity corporate structure with teams managed by Investors, existing as separate franchises, but with all player signings and salaries managed by the central league office that also handled player allocations and approved trades. This proved critical in the formative stages as the league ensured parity in the initial team lineup. The owner investors invested to the tune of $75,000,000, which was designed to cover expected operating losses for the first five seasons of the league. Ten corporate sponsors were signed up, and television contracts were signed with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and Univision. To promote the development of American players, the teams had a limit of five foreigners per team, and 15 Americans. In addition, there was a salary cap of $1,250,000 per team and a maximum player salary of $175,000 (excepting sponsorship deals with 4 allocated marquee players per team). This ensured Americans would have adequate playing time to develop their talent and avoid the mistakes of the NASL with regard to spiraling salaries for foreigners with Americans warming the bench.
The MLS signed marquee players and held tryouts for others, establishing a signee list of over 250 players when the February 1996 draft took place. This player pool was a mixture of foreign stars, US National team players (The USSF Training program was shut down, to be replaced by MLS), US stars playing abroad and in the A-League, as well as other A-League players, USISL players, a few amateurs, and some indoor veterans from the NPSL and CISL. In addition, a collegiate draft was held as well as a supplemental free-agent draft after the draft from the Player Pool. Overall, the quality of players signed was better than many had expected, with a surprising majority of national team members signed to the league. This included many who had been able to land playing positions overseas as a result of their reputation and World Cup performances.
The National Team played a series of exhibitions, before having an amazing performance during the summer, winning the US Cup against very strong opponents, and then stunning the world by making it to the semifinals in the Copa America, defeating Argentina 3-1, Mexico 1-0, and nearly tying World Cup champion Brazil (who ultimately won 1-0). Argentina had foolishly rested some of their starters, expecting the US game to be a cakewalk. This upset showed the world the Americans were to be taken seriously. This triumph led to Steve Sampson being named permanent coach, and he had turned in the best performance ever for an American born coach, putting to rest the myth than Americans were incapable of bringing coaching success to the national level.
The Internet became a major factor in American Soccer at this time. Netizens took to the internet early and congregated in newsgroups, email lists, and web pages sharing information, collecting statistics and creating informational forums to counteract the dearth of soccer coverage in the media. This year also saw the birth of the first supporters club for the national team. The idea actually took root during the 1994 world cup when three fans at the 1994 world cup were accidentally introduced when Mark Wheeler, a doctoral student at Carnegie-Mellon, spilled his soda on Marc Spacone, a coach at SUNY-Buffalo, who was with his friend John Wright. The three of them got to talking and bemoaned the fact that even on their home turf, the team had to face stadium crowds that were mostly rooting for their opposition, an effect of the still strong ethnic component of the game in the US. They hatched the idea of a club whose members would go to all national team home games, sit together with logo shirts, drums, instruments, songs and cheers, and work to develop a strong tradition of American fans wildly supporting the American team in the European tradition (minus the hooliganism and poor sportsmanship). The club was conceptualized, organized and promoted on the soccer internet groups, and Sam’s Army was born. Their first game, the beginning of the US Cup 1995 was a resounding success, and Sam’s Army has appeared at every game since, with crowds ranging as high as 900 for a game. Sam’s Army now has over 5,000 members nationwide, and even overseas.
1996 was the year of Major league Soccer, which had a very successful first year. Although it was clear soccer had a long way to go, the league drew much better than expected, quality of play was above predictions and fan response was enthusiastic, and financial losses were less than expected. The MLS’s financially conservative approach had paid off. The USISL established a Select league of top teams with the intent to petition FIFA for 2nd division status, which was provisionally approved. After the season they changed their approach, and instead merged the select league with the A-League, taking in A-League teams and the league name along with FIFA’s recognition. This was also the year for the Olympics, hosted by Atlanta. Although the men didn’t do as well as hoped, the women’s team won the inaugural Olympic Women’s Soccer competition with unprecedented crowds, including 76,000 for the final, demonstrating emphatically that the women’s sport was coming of age at the top levels. This success gave the US organizing team (which had won the rights to host the 1999 world cup) leverage to force FIFA to agree to have the event be a full-fledged affair in large stadiums coast to coast, rather than the low-key regional affair preferred by the FIFA old guard. Meanwhile, World Cup ’98 qualification was underway, and the US won a spot in November 1977, with a convincing win over Canada. This was the first time since 1989 the US had qualified without help (Mexico had been disqualified for using illegal players). This helped silence the naysayers, as the US would have qualified even if the North American region hadn’t received a third allocation.
The following year was mixed for US soccer. The National team gave a very disappointing World Cup performance against very tough competition, but the real reason for the losses was dissension between players and coach Sampson, leading to his resignation and some unhappy players. MLS struggled with falling attendance and flat TV ratings, but the quality of play had improved substantially in each season, and the two new teams, in Chicago and Miami did very well. On the developmental front, the USSF established a new A-League team, US Pro 40, which consisted of the best of the college and ODP recruits, would play together to develop skills and be the cream o the new talent for the MLS and ultimately the National team. This was established in tandem with the new USSF Project 2010, designed to build the National team to the point where they can compete for the World Cup championship. US Pro 40 had a surprisingly good debut year, and even better year in 1999, and was very effective in promoting players to the MLS (All Project 40 players were signed by MLS teams). This ambitious plan, although possibly overoptimistic did indeed provide finally a comprehensive development plan for soccer at multiple levels, and a true blueprint for the development of the National team. Meanwhile, an abortive attempt to launch a women’s professional league, the National Soccer Alliance failed, but did provide inspiration, and caused the USISL to seriously consider a plan for eventually turning their elite division into a fully professional league.
The year 1999 had many major success stories, but above all, this was the year for Women’s soccer. The buildup for the 1999 Women’s World Cup had gone better than the best expectations, and the US tore up the opposition on their “road to the cup”. The team connected with youth players and the general public as no other had ever done, and attracted an entire new female audience to the game. More importantly, they did so with a heavy dose of altruism, good sportsmanship, respect for the audience, professionalism and skill that is sadly lacking in so many of professional sports these days. They not only provided inspiring role models for young girls, but also more importantly to young boys, who looked across the gender divide to see a moral example truly worth following. The cup in short was the greatest women’s sporting event ever, garnering unprecedented world attention, averaging 38,000 fans per game (even surpassing the 1982 MEN’s World Cup), and providing a world-class level of performance. Not only by the US, but also by many other countries, the elite level of women’s soccer has simply been exploding as a large number of countries developed to a world-class status.
In 1995, at most 6-7 teams were world class, in this cup, almost the entire 16-team field deserved to be there. With the large pool of nations rapidly developing their programs, the world-class roster should be at least thirty nations by 2003, and the World Cup field may need to be expanded. Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry, and many others become household names this year. Some hold world career records and are still in their prime. The US U-17 team had an impressive performance in the U-17 world championship, making it to the semifinals. This was a very positive sign, as it showed the first fruits of the Project 40 and Project 2010 efforts, and the payoff was coming even more quickly than hoped with several bonafide stars making their presence felt. Finally, the MLS D. C. United won the CONCACAF champions cup and defeated Vasco de Gama of Brazil in the Confederations Cup.
Elsewhere, it was a period of consolidation, and more importantly, finally, stability. The MLS held their own, renewed sponsors, and TV contracts, and the USISL (Now renamed USL – United Soccer Leagues), solidified their three divisional leagues (A-league, D3Po League and Premier Developmental League), expanded their women’s leagues and launched a new nationwide Youth league (Meanwhile their Indoor division was silent for the first time since 1986). Good signs included several very successful new franchises in major cities, expansion of the amateur Premier league to the Northeast, expansion of the farm club system with MLS, and raising franchise standards to weed out weak teams. For the first time ever, the top league in the US had gone four straight years without losing or moving a franchise. The US Soccer Hall of Fame opened an amazing new high-tech exhibition building which includes interactive games, internet-based records, player bios and data, voluminous displays, meeting spaces, and climate-controlled archives rooms and will soon house indoor soccer fields to go with its large outdoor soccer campus which is a major venue for tournaments. New leadership was the watchword at all levels, as FIFA, the USSF, MLS, and the three USL Leagues all got new directors/presidents. It is expected that this new blood will enhance the innovations and development necessary for the game to keep on the road towards becoming the pre-eminent sport in the United States. Finally, the National Soccer Hall of Fame opened their new museum building in Oneonta, NY, providing a first-class showcase for the greats of US soccer history.
At the turn of the Millennium, there were more developments, most of them good. Major League Soccer finally found its focus under leadership of new commissioner Don Garber. He initiated changes to bring the league in line with world standards, allowing ties after overtime, adopting the international game clock with time kept by the referee, and greatly expanded the league’s marketing efforts while also making a final push to find investors for the remaining league-operated teams. Although attendance continued to lag, now finally concrete steps were being taken to ensure the long-term survival of the league. USL continued a period of consolidation in its Division 2 circuit, creating a stronger, more compact league. Finally, in the 2000-2001 interregnum, one could for the first time see some true stability; almost no teams folded at this level, while several more dropped to more appropriate levels. All USL leagues showed increased attendance.
The US Men’s team had their best performance ever in the 2000 Olympics, moving out of pool play for the first time, and nearly winning the bronze. This was another watershed of a sort, being the first time that players with MLS experience would participate, and the successful performance showed MLS in a very good light. The women would see the steadily increasing competition among other nations and were forced to settle for the Silver. In another first, the Los Angeles Galaxy qualified for the World Club Championship, by defeating Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
The period from 2001-2004 saw a number of positive developments for the American game. The Women’s United Soccer Association was launched in 2001, and immediately established itself as the premier women’s league in the world. Their rosters included virtually all of the National Team players who were not still in college, as well as a goodly portion of the top international stars. The league did better than expected at the gate, and although the early games showed the typical struggles of a new league, quality of play rapidly increased. The WUSA continued to provide first class women’s soccer for three seasons, but took on enormous financial losses. This combined with disappointing TV ratings and lack of sponsor revenue led the league to suspend operations shortly after the 2003 season, although the league arranged a series of exhibitions for 2004, with hopes to re-launch in 2005.
The National youth teams had disappointing runs in 2001, but both did better in 2003, getting well out of the qualifying rounds at the 2003 youth championships. A somewhat bitter event was the Olympic team’s failure to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. But the big story was the Men’s National team and their performance at the 2002 World Cup, in which they came 1 goal short of making the final four, in a close loss to #3 ranked Germany, after defeating Mexico in the Round of 16. The Women unexpectedly got to host the 2003 World Cup after the games were moved out of China due to the SARS crisis. The tournament was a big success again, although on a more modest scale than in 1999, but like with the Olympics, the US felt the effects of the rapidly improving women’s game, losing in the semifinals.
Major League Soccer continued to make slow but steady improvements, with a marked improvement in attendance in 2002, and steadily improving quality of play. They focused less on attracting international stars, and more on developing younger players. Although Project-40 withdrew from the A-League, it continued to find success as a means for tagging top prospects, several of which went onto major success in the league and with the national team. A substantial portion of the US World Cup squad consisted of MLS players, and their performance made the world take MLS seriously as a quality league. After the World Cup, MLS increasingly became a launching point for American players who would move to prestigious European clubs, and quite often, make a major impact there.
Tim Howard became the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United, and the 2004 season would see the debut of 14-year old Freddy Adu, the youngest player ever to debut in a US pro soccer league. Several developments pointed to long-term strength for MLS, as more investor took control of league teams with expansion franchises tentatively awarded to Cleveland and San Diego for 2005. The league also signed a five year TV contract in 2001. Finally, a first class soccer-specific stadium opened in Los Angeles in 2003, with other stadiums confirmed or in proposal stages at Dallas, Chicago and New York.
The Indoor game saw some consolidation as the NPSL morphed into the new single-entity Major Indoor Soccer League II in 2002, and absorbed the World Indoor Soccer League the following summer. A new phenomenon was launched in 2003, with a highly successful tour by Manchester United and several other top European clubs. Although not sponsored by MLS, the tour saw sellout crowds at some of the largest US Stadiums, leading MLS to expand their overseas training tours for the 2004 season.
The USL saw continued consolidation with increasing strength in their 2nd Division A-League, and great expansion in their Super Y-League, although some of their west coast teams defected to help form the new Men’s Premier Soccer League. The USL also renamed their leagues, with the A-League becoming the USL Division 1 and the Pro Soccer League (Div. 3) becoming “USL Division 2”. The W-League consolidated somewhat in 2004, but the Women’s Premier Soccer League continued to grow. The US Men’s Olympic team failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics buyt the women’s team won the Gold medal, a fitting sendoff for several female players who retired later that year.
MLS enjoyed a good year in 2004, with increasing attendance, two more stadiums under construction and new teams on the way in Los Angeles (Chivas USA) and Utah (Real Salt Lake). Increasingly, MLS clubs established reserve squads who played in USL’s amateur division, and during the 2004 season, MLS announced that all clubs would establish reserve teams playing their own parallel season for 2005. A steady stream of US players were landing starting spots at prominent European clubs, including Tim Howard who won a cup title with Manchester United. Fortunately, the influx of young talent was enough to keep these losses from being too keenly noticed. The US again showed its prowess at World Cup qualifying, as the team won the Hexagonal, formly establishing itself and Mexico as the two preminent teams in North America. Unfortunately, their success did not extend to Germany where an unprepared squad lost all three pool play games leading to an embarrassing early exit. Indoor soccer saw a continuing decline, with the new MISL folding in 2008. Several teams joined together with semi-pro teams in a new league (entually renamed the MISL), but the indoor game was no longer a significant part of the US soccer scene.
The latter half of the decade saw increasing activity, from the establishment of the Superliga between MLS and Mexico, increasingly strong US performances in the CONCACAF Champions league, the World Cup and Women’s World Cup, Copa America, and the U-17 and U-20 world cups. Although the men flamed out in World Cup 2006 despite great promise, and bombed in the Copa America, the women put on a good show at the 2007 World Cup, settling for 3rd place, and won Gold at the 2008 Olympics. The U-17 and 20 teams made the quarterfinals of their respective world cups, and David Beckham made a big splash at his debut with the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS. Amateur soccer expanded greatly courtesy of the NPSL and WPSL, now securely established across the country. MLS continued to improve its youth development system as reserve squads and youth academies were established among more teams. Another Gold Cup victory and two semifinal appearances in the CONCACAF Champions League made up for the US failure at Copa America.
As the decade ended, MLS continued to expand into new markets. Building on the success of the Houston Dynamo, they added Toronto FC in 2007 which was an immediate hit, followed by the Seattle Sounders in 2009 which averaged nearly 40,000 fans per game, numbers not seen since the NASL era, and Philadelphia whose new stadium was already too small by the time it opened in June 2010 (previous home games had averaged almost 25,00/game). By this time, there was no shortage of well-heeled investors eager to land their own franchises, and the league soon awarded franchises to Portland, Vancouver and Montreal, three cities with long histories of great fan support. The league was increasingly earning reknown as a breeder of young talent, the flow of young players to Europe for successful careers was a mark of the continuing strength of the US soccer talent pool, something unimaginable during the NASL Era. The Men’s National team again won the hexagonal in World Cup qualification, and had spectacular successes in the Confederations Cup and Gold cup despite heartbreaking losses in the title matches. The women returned to form as they took Gold in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and this success was followed by the establishment of a new professional league, Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009.
An ever increasing number of American players were finding success with major European teams. At the 2nd division level, dissension in the pro leagues caused the USSF to step in and establish a temporary league for 2010 while the antagonists worked out their differences. The USSF and MLS expanded their player development efforts; with more MLS franchises operating reserve teams in the PDL, and establishing youth academies, and the USSF Soccer Development Academy promised to streamline and improve the process of developing talent in the top youth clubs. As the US headed off for World Cup 2010, signs were promising that the continued development of US soccer infrastructure would not be a passing phenomenon.