Sports Nut

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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In the 1920s, soccer was big in America. Not big in the way that baseball was big (this was the era of Ruth and Gehrig) or college football was big (these were the days when Ivy League rivalries played out as violent eruptions in the mud), but at its height, the top American soccer league had tens of thousands of fans, featured some of the world’s best players, and looked set to challenge the fledgling NFL in the competition to supply the nation with a post-October pastime. Along the way, this country’s early soccer entrepreneurs also managed to alienate the United States from the international soccer community, lay the groundwork for America’s greatest moment of World Cup glory, and generally create one of the most bizarre and fascinating might-have-beens in U.S. sports history.

The story of American soccer in the 1920s is in large part the story of the American Soccer League, which was founded suavely, at Manhattan’s Hotel Astor, in 1921. The ASL didn’t cover the whole country—just a slice of the industrial Northeast—and it wasn’t the only professional American soccer league. It was, however, the largest and most popular, and it was also the one that briefly threatened to disrupt the international order of the game.

The ASL drew its teams from the metropolises (the Boston Wonder Workers, the Brooklyn Wanderers, New York Field Club) and from industrial towns (the Paterson Silk Sox, the New Bedford Whalers, the Bridgeport Bears). The team owners ranged from Charles Stoneham, a Tammany Hall character with strong ties to organized crime—his purchase of the New York Giants baseball team in 1919 was brokered by notorious World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein—to the Bethlehem Steel Corp., which absorbed its employees’ recreational team in the mid-1910s and, using the same ruthless efficiency it brought to the forging of the Chrysler Building, quickly developed one of the era’s outstanding dynasties.

Steel wasn’t the only industry represented in the ASL’s ranks. The 1920s were a period of amazing economic expansion and, until the passage of 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act, a welcoming immigration policy. Factories employed large numbers of European workers, who brought a love of soccer with them to their new country. In the ASL and elsewhere, businesses sponsored and ran their own teams, a practice that led to some fantastic box-score headings. (Indiana Flooring vs. J&P Coats!) America’s soccer capital was probably Fall River, Mass., an industrial center whose factories employed large numbers of British immigrants. The Fall River Marksmen, owned by local impresario Sam Mark, attracted crowds in the five figures to Mark’s Stadium, which was nestled just over the Rhode Island border to avoid Massachusetts blue laws. The Marksmen won seven ASL titles and eventually surpassed Bethlehem Steel as the period’s dominant team.

Clubs affiliated with American industry had a significant advantage over their rivals at home and abroad. With business booming in the United States, American clubs were able to pay much higher wages than their European counterparts. And at a time when almost no one made a living exclusively from playing soccer, clubs like Bethlehem Steel were also able to offer their players high-paying factory jobs. As soon as the ASL took off, American teams started luring players from some of the top clubs in Europe. Before long, there were 50 European internationals—players good enough to be included on their countries’ national teams—playing in the American league.

Some ASL owners, like Sam Mark, were out to make a fortune from soccer’s rising popularity. Others were driven by philanthropy, obsession, or both. The Bethlehem Steel team was essentially the private fiefdom of a soccer-mad corporate executive named Horace Edgar Lewis, who became a company vice president in 1916. The year before, Charles M. Schwab had given the company’s largely immigrant work force $25,000 to spend on sport. Lewis put many more dollars toward the task of building an elite soccer team and lured a number of top European professionals to Pennsylvania. He scouted, lobbied, and sometimes even played for Bethlehem Steel—his handball against Brooklyn Field Club knocked his team out of the 1914 National Challenge Cup. His brother Luther, also a Bethlehem executive, served as the ASL’s first president.

The American clubs’ recruitment tactics frequently ran afoul of international contract protocols, provoking an outcry on the far side of the Atlantic. In 1925, the Scottish Football Association convened a special meeting in Glasgow to grumble over the “American menace.” (According to the writer for the Fall River Globe, “They metaphorically grasped the Scottish equivalent to an Irish shillelagh with which to punch the heads of the rulers of the soccer game in U.S.A.”) And in 1927, FIFA, then and now soccer’s international governing body, compelled the secretary of the ASL to appear before its congress in Finland, where they demanded that American teams stop ignoring international contracts.

There were great American players to go along with all the stars from Europe. Actually, what happened was what so often happens in American life: Yesterday’s cultural imports were transformed into today’s native culture. Archie Stark, the great striker who scored 232 goals in 205 appearances for Bethlehem Steel, was born in Glasgow, emigrated to the United States at 13, played his first organized soccer in New Jersey for a team called the Scottish-Americans, and served with the U.S. Army in France during World War I. Two of the greatest players in American history, Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves (“the Babe Ruth of American soccer”), grew up in Fall River, Gonsalves the son of Portuguese parents and Patenaude of French-Canadian ancestry. Alongside a gaggle of similarly hyphenated ASL players, Patenaude and Gonsalves played for the United States in the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930. The team recorded the first shutout (and Patenaude the first hat trick) in World Cup history as Team USA finished in third place—still the best-ever finish for a team outside the South American and European confederations.

The ASL was riding high until just before that first World Cup, when the league was done in by a bit of vicious and lavishly unnecessary political infighting. From the beginning, the league had maintained an uneasy relationship with the United States Football Association, the governing body of American soccer. The owners chafed against the restrictions the USFA imposed on rule changes and scheduling; the USFA saw the popular and profitable ASL as uncontrolled and rebellious. In the eyes of the ASL owners, the only thing keeping soccer from mainstream acceptance was a sense that it was too “foreign.” They wanted to Americanize the game by introducing substitutions, determining league position by winning percentage rather than by the points system used in Europe, and adding playoffs to the end of the season. The league instituted a number of changes over USFA objections, and some of them turned out to be ahead of their time. The ASL allowed player substitutions as early as 1926; the World Cup finally came around in 1970.

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.

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.

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