My grandfather called it a game for immigrants. My father told me it was a foreign sport. Growing up in the United States, I was always told that soccer wasn’t for us, that soccer was for “the other”, that soccer had never thrived on our shores. I was lied to. The truth is that soccer had, at one time, been well on its way to popularity in the US, before politics and a crashing economy brought it all to a screeching halt.
The American League of Professional Football, the first of its kind in the US, launched in 1894. Created by owners of National League baseball clubs for the sole purpose of drawing revenue from their empty baseball stadiums during the off season, the owners were so desperate for attendance that they didn’t bother creating unique identities. The New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore Orioles all played in the ALPF. So unconfident were the owners in the league’s success that many of the clubs ended up using their baseball managers as coaches for their soccer teams. Whatever value was found with that gimmick, the play on the field definitely suffered. The league quickly folded without finishing their first season.
The first truly promising league to come along was the American Soccer League. Formed in 1921, the league featured teams from all over the Northeast United States. The Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel FC, the two most famous clubs in the ASL, finished first and second in the standings most seasons. The league produced such talents as Bert Patenaude who, despite only playing four seasons for the Marksmen, scored 118 goals in 124 matches played. Patenaude also featured for the 1930 World Cup team that finished 4th, scoring a hat trick for the USA.
The NFL had been founded the previous year and baseball was obviously the king of sports, but ASL owners took US soccer seriously and really invested in making the product on the pitch better, oftentimes importing European stars with large contracts. With solid owner commitment the league flourished. The games regularly attracted crowds of 10,000+ people, far exceeding that of the NFL. Soccer was easily the second most popular professional sport in the US at the time, behind baseball.
But the ASL has been dead for more than eighty years. And while the US has MLS now, there are still columnists pumping out articles about the “foreignness” of soccer, like this one from the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, which he seems to recycle every few years. These attitudes didn’t spring out of nowhere. The ASL illuminates, in large part, how soccer in the US was relegated to the shadows. And as with any organization’s downfall, it was all about politics and money.
The US Football Association (now called USSF) saw their own US Challenge Cup (now called the US Open Cup) as the pinnacle of American soccer because it was open; any team, professional or amateur could enter. While the ASL was based in the northeast, the Cup featured amateur and smaller professional teams from as far away as St. Louis and Chicago. The problem with the competition – which began in 1914, before the ASL was formed – was that it ran right in the middle of the league season, forcing teams into long bus or train rides all over the country. Meanwhile, the USFA took 33% of all gate receipts. For the USFA, the Challenge Cup was their cash cow. For ASL teams, before the days of air travel or interstates, the Challenge Cup meant exhaustion and misery.
However, the ASL’s success meant professional teams often didn’t send their best players to play in Challenge Cup matches, and sometimes they simply opted out altogether. In 1924, the ASL boycotted the Challenge Cup and started their own league cup competition, awarding the Lewis Cup to the winner. The USFA saw the importance of their Open Cup diminished when the premier sides in the country snubbed their noses at it. The next year, the USFA agreed to reduce their share of the gate receipts to 15%, and ASL teams returned. Temporarily at least.
By 1924, ASL owners were luring bigger and bigger names from Europe, focusing especially on recruiting players from England and Scotland. To entice players to leave their homeland, the ASL would often offer illegal contracts or hire players to play only during the European off season. Suddenly, FIFA started to take notice of the fledgling league. Such practices violated FIFA’s transfer policies but more significantly, the ASL was growing into a legitimate threat to their hegemony over the game.
In 1928, the ASL again boycotted the Challenge Cup. In response, the USFA turned to FIFA for help. FIFA declared the ASL an “outlaw” league, meaning the teams could no longer take part in the international transfer market and any players who signed there would be playing outside of FIFA laws.
Thus began the “Soccer War.” The USFA, getting desperate watching their top professional league operate in violation of FIFA rules, tried to bankroll a new league, the Eastern Professional Soccer League (ESL). The new league featured the three clubs who defied the ASL boycott to play the 1928 Challenge Cup, including Bethlehem Steel. Despite the loss of one of their most prominent teams, the ASL continued on undaunted. Their fans loved that a US soccer league snubbed its nose at the authority of the USFA and their FIFA enforcers.
If having two competing first division leagues created a financial strain, the stock market crash of 1929 broke the camel’s back. The ESL and ASL, feeling the economic desperation, got together with the USFA and FIFA in the fall of 1929 to merge into one legally operating unit. The rogue league eventually capitulated to pressure from the USFA, in turn pushed along by FIFA.
By 1930 the ASL was back in both name and deed, this time in compliance with FIFA rules. But for the American public, the specter of foreign intervention into their game was devastating. Watching it all unfold turned American fans off the game. The league was dead by the end of 1933.
Though in 1934 a second, smaller version of the ASL launched, it was with little fanfare. The new ASL was tainted; the league and the sport itself branded as a game ultimately run by foreigners. The long term effects of the “Soccer War” haunted the sport for several generations. It wasn’t until 1975, when Pelé joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, that another US soccer league would enjoy the attendance success of the original ASL.
The political angling of the USFA and FIFA are responsible for the view, still held by far too many, that soccer is a foreign sport. The USFA was too concerned about its money maker, the Challenge Cup, to understand the influence ASL had in growing soccer in the US. When it couldn’t control the league, USFA turned to their FIFA overlords. In turn, fans turned away, preferring the more “American” sports not influenced by foreign control.
Considering the current success of the NFL, it’s hard to believe a US soccer league was more popular than American football. Yes, soccer is again gaining a foothold in the States, but it’s the NFL that gets 24/7 coverage. Who knows – perhaps without the political interference, without the money grabbing of nearly 100 years ago, we’d instead be watching constant coverage of the ASL today.