Raise a glass, tip your hat, or – if you’re feeling extra festive – juggle a ball, because today is the 100th anniversary of major league soccer in the United States.
Don’t believe me?
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Well, then, perhaps you’ll believe the secretary of the United States Soccer Association, James E. Scholefield, who wrote this in the May 20, 1921, edition of the Evening Herald newspaper in Fall River, Massachusetts:
Though from a playing sense the soccer season is closed, the next few days is expected to make history in the development of the game in this country. Tonight the big Professional League “The American Soccer League” meets at Hotel Astor in New York. It is expected that permanent officials will be elected and the constitution and by-laws adopted. All the clubs are enthusiastic and each have put up guarantees unheard of in the history of soccer football in this country. There is naturally much disappointment in many cities who have not been able to obtain coveted franchises, and in a few years it is certain that professional soccer will be the fall and winter sport of the country.
Obviously when I write “major league soccer” I’m not referring to Major League Soccer (it’s still a relative baby, born in 1996). Nor am I claiming the ASL was the introduction of professional soccer to America, because it wasn’t. There were already stateside footballers getting paid to play, and in 1907 the St. Louis Soccer League became the first fully professional circuit in the United States. But the original ASL was the country’s initial attempt to make the Beautiful Game a major national sport, although its roots and branches were very much regional.
Culled from the National Association Football League and Southern New England Soccer League, the original franchises were New York Soccer Club; Todd Shipyard (Brooklyn); Celtics (Jersey City); Philadelphia Field Club; Bethlehem Steel Company (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania); Harrison (New Jersey) Soccer Club; Fall River (Massachusetts) United; and J and P Coats (Pawtucket, Rhode Island).
At the time the ASL was hailed as the vehicle to begin soccer’s rise as the second major sport in the United States, joining baseball.
Al Spink, who founded The Sporting News, wrote:
At last soccer football is to take its place as the winter game to be played from fall to spring, and in the same way as baseball is played from spring to fall. There is a (great) deal of capital behind the newest soccer enterprise. The president of the league is W. Luther Lewis, a brother of H. Edgar Lewis, vice-president of the Bethlehem Steel Company. Thomas W. Cahill, the guiding spirit of the league, has been called the father of American soccer. He conceived and founded the present national body, which has grown to such proportions it embraces some 25 affiliated state associations fostering the booting sport.
It was, indeed, a big deal. With owners flashing plenty of money around and willing to spend it, rosters were augmented by the arrival of many European stars.
The Boston Globe trumpeted one of the first big signings:
British soccer stars have already begun to arrive here to get a chance in the new league. (Willie) Porter, the crack Hearts Forward of the Scottish League, landed yesterday and was promptly captured by Philadelphia.
But soccer’s relationship to America has always been a rocky one, and it wasn’t long before things went sideways. While international players elevated the game here, their influx all but shut out native-born footballers.
In a 1927 column, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Westbrook Pegler addressed the issue:
There are only two native Americans in this league, Davey Brown, of the New York Giants, the leading goal scorer of the league, and Tommy Florrie, of the Providence team. The rest of the athletes are English, Irish and Scotch, Welsh, Germans, Frenchmen, Italians and Jews from Austria. The British Isles are the greatest soccer country in the world, but although crowds of 100,000 have been checked in at the turnstiles for big games in England, the president of the American Soccer League claims that his teams pay highersalaries than any of the European teams. That is why the European club owners are always so leery of agents representing the American teams.
This financial tug-of-war created a major rift between the USFA and soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, but then the ASL also began quarreling with the USFA over participation in the National Challenge Cup, which required extensive travel and took place during the league’s regular season. The ongoing ASL vs. USFA crisis became known as the “Soccer War,” leaving both sides much worse for wear. Ultimately there was infighting among league owners themselves, franchises came and went, and when the USFA put financial backing behind a new league in 1928 (the Eastern Professional Soccer League) the ASL’s days as soccer’s grand United States showcase were numbered. The Great Depression – which began in August, 1929 – made sure of that.
By the time it went out of business in 1933, the American Soccer League had burned through 47 different teams but never expanded beyond the Northeast. One hundred years after the ASL’s introduction, American professional soccer still hasn’t become “the fall and winter sport of the country,” which I’m certain would be disappointing to Mr. Scholefield. It is, however, still alive and kicking. And as someone who owns $125 worth of Chattanooga FC, this makes me happy.
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