The United States Soccer Federation turns 100 in 2013 (specifically, April 5, but who’s keeping track?), but certainly doesn’t look old – or a day over 99, and with how Major League Soccer and its clubs are owned or operated, the soccer environment in America, and the relative hype of soccer every weekend before matches, the USSF looks to be aging quite well.
In 1914, the United States Football Association (yes, gasp if you must, but soccer was also called football in the United States in the bygone era of the Great War) held its first official meeting, but from then, it has had some shaky times and what I like to call ‘dark ages’ with no official games and no foreseeable growth of the game, although I’m sure people were playing soccer without recognition. That first official meeting in 1914 took place in New York, where soccer has continues to evolve and keep the historical baton – as well as its thorn in its side (MLS Cup, anyone?) – in hand for these 100 years. The first official home game for the United States Football Association team (USFA) was played in Brooklyn against Canada, with the US thrashing the good neighbors to the north, 6-1.
Also first held in 1914, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (known previously as the National Challenge Cup), which continues in the modern era with a recent successful cup team being the Seattle Sounders, and the most recent cupbearers as Sporting Kansas City. Other well-known teams from decades past have included Bethlehem Steel (a precursor to the Philadelphia Union) and the Fall River Marksmen (located in Fall River, Massachusetts – I’m dubbing this team as a ‘precursor’ to the New England Revolution), who won the National Challenge Cup four times before being disbanded. Here’s a bit of footage from their 1924 Final in St. Louis. Truly incredible:
Fast forward to today and you’ll find MLS’ Sporting Kansas City are the proud leasers of the U.S. Open Cup trophy. As noted, Seattle has etched their name in USOC history of a winning trifecta until SKC and 2013 happened.
Part of the ‘dark ages’ of U.S. Soccer was from 1935 until 1946, as the tense political atmosphere of the world had, rightly so, the attention of everyone. Once World War II was finished, the National Team, in 1947, played only two international games in Cuba, and lost. It should also be noted that in 1950, US Soccer held the first ever Soccer Bowl in St. Louis. Although there are no MLS teams located in the St. Louis area (right now, at least), the famed Midwest-arched city has held local soccer lore at its core. As author David Lange has written in his book, Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America’s First Soccer Capital, “Young men needed to do something with their free time in the yawning void that was baseball’s off-season from October to April, and soccer seemed made to order. The large numbers of St. Louisans from the British Isles already knew the game, and for others, it was simple to learn and play.”
In 1965, fifteen years after the inaugural Soccer Bowl, the US Men’s National Team ended up with a 2-nil lost to Mexico at the famed Estadio Azteca. It wasn’t the first time playing at the imposing stadium, nor was it their first loss there. As the USMNT have played in Mexico City over the years, the score lines have not been pretty, but in the past year, they have won 1-0 (the first time in the continental rival’s 75-year history) during a friendly
and drew 0-0 for a World Cup Qualifier.
Historically, however, with 62 matches in hand, Mexico has won 33 times, USMNT has won 16, and there have been 13 draws. Additionally, there have been a handful of recent victories that have been historic, ranging from Clint Dempsey’s friendly winner in Italy (the first win in Italy for the US) in 2012 to the infamous win in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup against Algeria with Landon Donovan’s last-ditch goal to advance.
Although not as recent but on the same page as the World Cup, the USMNT qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years in 1989 for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Paul Caliguiri scored the one goal that led the US into the WC.
(Two points on that vid: Bob Ley is a young, and according to his commentary, the US fans in attendance were ‘delirious.’ If Ley knew how the American Outlaws of today supported the USMNT, he would have said those US fans in attendance were ‘tame.’)
A few years after the 1990 World Cup would be one American’s chance to dip his feet in the flames – in layman’s terms – play in Italy in Serie A. That American was Alexi Lalas. From Lalas’ Italian experience in 1994 to today, there have been a few players who have been on Serie A – and other European side – squads, and possibly most successful in Italy has been the General, Michael Bradley. The bald, and ballsy, midfielder has come into his own playing for Italian side AS Roma. Other famous and ‘successful’ (whatever that means) United States’ soccer players in European leagues, among many others, include Tottenham Hotspur (and former Fulham star), Clint Dempsey; Schalke’s defensive mid, Jermaine Jones; the duo at Stoke City, Geoff Cameron and Brek Shea; forward for AZ Alkmaar, Jozy Altidore; German-side Hannover 96 captain, Steve Cherundolo; and goalkeeper for Everton, Tim Howard.
And while these male players are currently playing in their prime in the 2010s, the women’s game had a surge of confidence a few decades earlier in the 1990s when the likes of Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, and last but certainly not least, the affable – and possibly the greatest woman to play soccer – Mia Hamm, played. While the US Women’s National Team were on a hot streak – that continues in 2013 – of consistently winning throughout the 90s, Major League Soccer was introduced to America in 1996. MLS started with 10 clubs – RIP Tampa Bay Mutiny – and today has grown to a 19-club league, including three teams (Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal) in Canada.
Now 18 years old, MLS has seen a growth in strong support of specific clubs – albeit because of living location, a favorite city, or family ties – as well as support to grow soccer, which includes attending games, buying merchandise, or being included in supporters groups with the teams, regardless of the level of the team: Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League (NASL), United Soccer League (USL) or Professional Development League (PDL).
The most recent World Cup Qualifier at the Azteca where the US drew 0-0 to Mexico, USMNT coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, fielded 11 of the finest (if not the most haphazard lineup) US soccer players, all of which are either currently playing or have played with an MLS club. The fact that the US can start eleven players who have roots in the American system of soccer, and tie in Mexico, is huge. And although the United States does not have the state of the art training facilities or the developmental programs as the successful clubs (hello La Masia) in Europe have, the United States Soccer Federation is getting more serious, and focused, on the task at hand. With the hopeful, but somewhat shaky, past of US Soccer’s future comes news of the Federation’s confidence with the beautiful game in America, more specifically from the heartland of the country.
On the development front for soccer in America, US Soccer and Sporting Club – Sporting Kansas City’s ownership group – recently announced the goal to bring a National Training and Coaching Development Center to Kansas City. So as US Soccer embarks upon another 100 years of the sport in America, people who love soccer can look to not only the youth of the country to expand the game, but also parents of those children who are just learning the game, the generation I am a part of who grew up playing – the 20 and 30-somethings who have expendable income and can pay for merch, tickets, plane flights, hotel rooms, and have vacation days to use to see MLS games and US Soccer friendlies and World Cup qualifiers, immigrants to America who hold the game dear to their heart, and maybe a few converts from differing ‘American sports’ like baseball, basketball, football, and hockey.
If the US can extend these ideas – reaching a fan base that continually increases, growing the technical aspects of the game, making inroads with television – into reality, soccer in America will overtake the nation as more than a game, but a cultural, educational, and social lifeline.