The all-conquering US women’s national soccer team has scooped four of the eight World Cups held to date and has never finished outside the top three. Conversely, the American men’s team has nothing like that kind of dominance. Yet a century ago, American soccer was in the midst of a “golden age” and poised to break into the mainstream.
With star players from Europe and homegrown talent, healthy attendance figures, and successful teams, the future seemed bright for the sport. However, by the early 1930s, that promise had been squandered and American soccer would languish in the international wilderness for decades.
This explainer looks at why men's soccer failed to take off in the US.
The Second Industrial Revolution Kick-Started American Interest In Soccer
The earliest reference to soccer in the US goes all the way back to the 17th century, when English colonists observed a game played by Native Americans called pasuckquakkohowog (“they gather to play ball with the foot”).
Variations of football stretch back millennia and across cultures. There's no way of knowing exactly who the first people were to work out that kicking a ball around a field was such good fun. “Soccer,” the term so reviled by non-Americans today, is actually a British word to serve as shorthand for association football. It wasn’t until comparatively recently that this benign term garnered such disdain from the very people who invented it.
The modern version of the game took form in Cambridge, England in 1848 and quickly spread across Britain. Immigrants from the British Isles were instrumental in forming some of the first soccer teams in the US.
The First International Match Outside Britain Was Between The US And Canada
The first World Cup was held in Uruguay 1930, but international soccer goes back much further than that and, perhaps surprisingly, the US is among the pioneers of world soccer.
The very first international match took place in 1872 between England and Scotland - a goalless draw on a cricket ground in Glasgow. For several years, international soccer matches were exclusively between British sides. That changed in 1885 when the US played Canada in Newark, NJ. Canada won 1-0; the teams met again the following year and the US won by the same scoreline.
The USA vs. Canada won't rank all that highly among the most prestigious fixtures in men's soccer today, but it is one of the oldest. The matches weren't formally recognized by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, however; the first sanctioned match involving the US men's team took place in 1916 (pictured) against Sweden.
The Golden Age Of American Soccer Took Place After WWI
The Great War disrupted organized soccer seasons across the world, and several top players perished in combat. But the conflict also contributed to the sport’s rise to global prominence. The armed forces of the Allies and Central Powers soon appreciated the value of soccer as a means of keeping their men fit, staving off boredom, and boosting morale. The sport’s popularity really began to take off after hostilities ceased, and Americans were not immune to this soccer fever.
What the US lacked, however, was a truly unified governing body. The American Soccer League formed in 1921 but only covered the northeast. The ASL frequently clashed with the US Football Association over rule changes and participation in national competitions.
Although still thought of as an un-American pastime, the passion of soccer fans attracted wealthy American investors. Baseball was still king of American sports at the time, but the top soccer sides could sometimes outdraw the Red Sox in the 1920s. This period of peak soccer popularity was considered the sport's “golden age” in the US.
Top Talent Was Lured Away From Europe By The 'American Menace'
The top soccer players today make millions and dominate lists of the highest-paid athletes in all sports. But that wasn't always the case; a century ago the idea of a player making his living entirely from the sport was ludicrous.
However, there was one thing American owners could offer star players from Europe - a plum factory job. The major sides in the ASL were centered around industry. Bethlehem Steel and the Fall River Marksmen were particularly aggressive in their overseas player recruitment, which caused yet more tension with USFA and drew the ire of international governing bodies as players under contract with other clubs were poached. The practice was so notorious that FIFA had to step in to address the “American Menace.”