UK sportswriter Tom Scholes (Stateside Soccer: The Definitive History of Soccer in the United States) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the surprisingly long, colorfully vibrant and regularly misunderstood history of the world’s most popular sport in America.
While even the most erudite of the game’s international scholars mistakenly (though understandably) define the US pro game’s epicenter as the chaotic, post-1966 World Cup launch of the North American Soccer League – the roots of organized soccer actually date as far back as the American Civil War, around the time when the first rules around “American football” were also coming into focus.
In fact, US soccer’s actual first “golden age” can be traced to the Roaring 1920s when immigrant-rich corporate teams in the first American Soccer League rivaled the nascent National Football League in popularity, and US national teams regularly qualified for the first-ever FIFA World Cups in 1930 (finishing third) and 1934.
While a heavily ethnic successor ASL and regional semi-pro circuits kept American soccer’s flickering flame alive (not to mention an international headline-grabbing 1950 World Cup upset of then-world power England), the organized game in the United States continued to grow – albeit regionally niche and nationally inchoate – especially at the pro level.
Yet, the Bill Cox-created International Soccer League of the early 1960s proved that American fan interest in top-flight professional soccer played by the world’s premier clubs was real – setting the kindling for the NASL’s eventual wildfire during the following decade, yet eventual flameout in 1984.
Since then, Scholes suggests, the US has finally entered its third golden age of soccer – as the no-longer “new” Major League Soccer closes in on its 24th consecutive season of growth (recently adding history-rich St. Louis as its 28th North American market) – while the women’s national team extends its unprecedented dominance on the international stage.
Still, soccer’s future success in America is by no means guaranteed – and the frequent travails of America’s long history with the game provide ample lessons of what might ultimately lie ahead.
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