EPISODE 127: A British View of US Pro Soccer History – With Tom Scholes

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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Stateside Soccer: The Definitive History of Soccer in the United States - buy here

EPISODE #47: US Pro Soccer’s 1960s-Era Rebirth with Author Dennis Seese

The history of professional soccer in the United States is richer and far more complex than today’s generation of Major League Soccer fans might realize.  Multiple ethnically-infused pro leagues existed as far back as the early 1900s – but when the American Soccer Association collapsed in Depression-Era 1933, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s when the next serious attempt to bring full-fledged, top-flight Division One professional soccer to US shores was pursued in earnest.

In 1966, suddenly and incredibly, no fewer than three separate groups of well-heeled American sports businessmen coalesced around the same idea, each attempting to draft off of attention-generating events like entrepreneur Bill Cox’s International Soccer League tournaments and NBC’s surprisingly high-rated, near-live national TV broadcast of the World Cup Final from England.

According to research librarian (and unwitting soccer historian) Dennis Seese (The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association), it was a tumultuous revival that ultimately yielded two hastily-assembled competing leagues the following year – the FIFA-sanctioned United Soccer Association (featuring whole-cloth international clubs pseudonymously representing 12 American cities), and the “outlaw” National Professional Soccer League (boasting a national CBS television contract and a one-month-earlier start for its ten teams) –  that rushed to beat each other to the American public with their pro versions of the “world’s game.”

What resulted was near-disaster: sparse crowds, dubious refereeing, anemic ratings, and a shotgun post-season merger to form a successor North American Soccer League in 1968 – which, despite its inherited broadcast TV coverage and official international governing body approval, sputtered mightily itself.  By the end of the merged NASL’s first season, only five teams remained – and the future of American professional soccer was very much in doubt. 

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The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association - buy book here