How soccer almost became a major American sport in the 1920s.

The stadium scene.
June 9 2010 9:41 AM

The Secret History of American Soccer

In the 1920s, soccer was on the cusp of becoming a major sport in the United States. Then it all crashed and burned.

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Everything fell to pieces in 1928. That's when Charles Stoneham, he of the mob ties and Tammany Hall connections, persuaded the ASL to boycott the USFA's annual Challenge Cup tournament, gate receipts from which provided a substantial chunk of the USFA's revenue. Three ASL teams entered anyway, including Bethlehem Steel. In response, the ASL banned the three teams for violating league rules. FIFA and the USFA came down on the side of the ASL's three outlaw clubs, declaring the league's actions out of bounds and excommunicating it from the order of international soccer. Disastrously, the USFA then formed a rival association, the Eastern Soccer League, to compete with the exiled ASL. There followed a period of Byzantine maneuvering, galvanic rhetoric, and brickbats. By the time the "soccer war" was resolved, the stock market had crashed, the fans were disillusioned and angry, and everyone was hideously confused. The Depression struck directly at the ASL's economic base by decimating American industry, and the dust cloud finally overwhelmed the league in 1932.

If you aren't a soccer fan—really, even if you are—you've likely never heard of the ASL or imagined a thriving soccer scene in 1920s America. For many years after the league's collapse, its story was almost completely forgotten. The ASL's records were lost, probably when the governing body of U.S. soccer moved its office to the Empire State Building after World War II. By the late 1960s, even the re-formed (and much smaller) American Soccer League listed its first champion as having been crowned in 1933-34, as if the entire 1920s had never happened.

That we know anything at all about the ASL today is largely thanks to the efforts of a few committed historians. David Wangerin's Soccer in a Football World, a history of the game in America, offers a concise and vivid portrait of the ASL years, particularly of the league's first secretary, Thomas Cahill, who spent much of his life trying to put soccer over in America and died in disappointment. But most of the credit for reviving the ASL's memory belongs to a soccer historian named Colin Jose, whose 1998 book American Soccer League: 1921-1931 is a meticulous and exhaustive reconstruction of all the league's lost records: match results, goal scorers, game rosters, league standings, player registers. The life of the league comes through in Jose's understated asides: an Egyptian-born player named Tewfik Abdallah was nicknamed "Toothpick" by the fans; ASL teams often traveled to away games not by bus or by train but by steamship, sailing up and down the East Coast.

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Flipping through this 500-page volume of bygone exploits, it's tempting to imagine what might have been. If the ASL had taken a page from, say, the NFL—biding its time through the Depression, slowly expanding its fan base—would soccer have integrated itself into American life? Not, that is, as the brassy and cartoonish NASL of the 1970s and '80s, or as the streamlined and faintly apologetic MLS of today, but as something with a firm place in mainstream American culture? It sounds preposterous, but then, basketball was nowhere in the 1920s, and hockey was the merest of blips. Meanwhile, as Babe Ruth was stepping up to the plate in the Bronx, thousands of fans were cheering the ASL's Wanderers in Brooklyn. Everything was up for grabs, and soccer was off to a good start. Then it burned itself to the ground.

Well, a firm place in mainstream American culture isn't everything. The game flourished elsewhere, and—on account of the Web and satellite television—it's never been easier to follow elsewhere from America. Indeed, this could be the best time since the 1920s to be an American soccer fan. But as a new World Cup rolls around and the media prepares to make room for this curious foreign sport, it's worth remembering how easily elsewhere could have been here. In the 1920s, soccer—driven by wild economic growth, propelled by immigration, wrecked by a massive crash—might have been the most American sport of all.

Slate V: How To Get Americans To Watch Soccer

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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