US Soccer history – 150 years and counting

Another four years have passed and the FIFA World Cup is once again upon us. Like clockwork, the sport of soccer will see a sharp rise in overall interest in the United States during the tournament, with fans packing bars and public spaces all over the country to take in the matches. Even casual fans who usually don’t follow the sport catch the fever and tune in, especially for the US National Team, during the biggest sports event on Earth.

The hype surrounding the tournament usually gifts our domestic leagues the “World Cup bump,” an uptick in ticket sales and eyeballs during and after the tournament. However, due to the unusual timing of this year’s Cup, that won’t be happening as all of our leagues will be in their offseason by the time things kickoff in Qatar.

Same questions every 4 years

The soccer mania that overtakes the nation each with each World Cup also comes with the following all too familiar quadrennial questions (frequently from mainstream, non-soccer sports media):

Why isn’t the sport more popular all the time in the US? Why isn’t our (men’s) national team better? Why haven’t we won a World Cup? Why aren’t television ratings for our domestic league(s) higher?

Sound familiar?

The reality of US soccer history

There are a myriad of reasons for and legitimate answers to those questions. But one of the most common excuses touted by those inside the soccer community for the US lagging behind the rest of the world is “we don’t have the long soccer history and tradition that most other nations have.”

This line of thinking truly is nothing more than an excuse, because it is simply false.

Yes – the sport has had troubles gaining a mainstream foothold over the years due to mismanagement and infighting amongst various leagues and governing bodies. But soccer has been played and has flourished in the United States for nearly as long as the modern game has existed. To claim otherwise – as if the sport in the US only popped into existence between 1994-1996 – is massively disrespectful to over 150 years of rich soccer history and all those who built it. Peddling the mantra of “The US has no soccer history” or “Our league is only 26 years old” serves only as convenient cover for the organizations in charge of the sport who frankly haven’t done a good enough job over the years.

So as we approach another World Cup – and in four short years the tournament’s return to the shores of North America – let’s celebrate the long and colorful history of the game in the United States.

A Sesquicentennial of Soccer

The first recorded, organized match of what we call soccer in the United States was played on October 11, 1866 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, using the Football Association laws which had only been recent codified in 1863. The match was contested between a team from Carroll College and one comprised of lads from Waukesha (Carroll won 5-2).

That’s 156 years ago. Anyone who tells you soccer in America doesn’t have any history is, well, wrong. Sure, it’s not the same kind of history that traditional soccer nations like England, Spain, and Germany have – with century+ old clubs, long lists of legendary global stars, and generations of die hard supporters. But it’s history nonetheless, and no less valid.

The first major organized competition in the US open to teams of various leagues was the American Cup. The Cup was organized by the American Football Association (the first US governing body for the sport, and allied with England’s FA). First held in 1885, it was contested through 1924 featuring teams mostly from the northeastern US, with champions such as the Paterson True Blues, West Hudson A.A., and Bethlehem Steel F.C.

What would become a recurring theme of infighting between governing organizations and leagues would emerge in the early 20th century, when the American Amateur Football Association was formed. Within a few years, several AFA organizations would shift allegiance to the new AAFA. The AAFA reorganized itself into the United States Football Association (USFA), and was granted membership in FIFA in 1913.

Later that year, the National Challenge Cup was first held. Today that competition is known as the U.S. Open Cup, and has been played continuously since 1913, save for the 2020 and 2021 editions which were cancelled due to COVID-19. With 106 years of consecutive play as of 2019, the USOC was the 3rd oldest continuously operation soccer cup in the world.

Eventually, after several renamings, the USFA would become the United States Soccer Federation we know today.

The First Soccer Wars

The Fall River Marksmen, seen here in 1930 with the Dewar Trophy (National Challenge Cup), were one of the most successful soccer clubs of the early 20th century. Photo: thecup.us

Professional leagues first started to appear in the late 19th century, with the American League of Professional Football being the first in 1894. Founded by owners of baseball’s National League clubs as a way to fill their stadiums in the winter offseason (soccer in the winter in the America?), the league boasted clubs with names familiar to baseball fans, such as the New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles, and the Philadelphia Phillies. This was not unlike multi-sport clubs we see abroad today like FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and many others. Unfortunately, talks of a rival major baseball league and issues with the soccer governing body scuttled the league and it lasted only one season.

The first true golden age of America pro soccer arrived with the first American Soccer League. The ASL boasted high caliber players, including European internationals, good pay, and a high level of play. This combination made soccer the second most popular pro team sport in the country, behind only baseball. Teams such as Bethlehem Steel, the Brooklyn Wanderers, and Fall River F.C. thrilled fans across the northeast US. While many teams rented time in baseball or other venues, in 1922 Fall River built their own stadium just across the state line in North Tiverton, RI (to avoid local laws and to play on Sundays), one of the first soccer specific venues ever built in the US.

Alas, this golden age, like many things in the US and the world, would come crashing down as the decade turned to the 1930s. Clashes between ASL owners and the USFA and FIFA over participation in the National Challenge Cup, a resulting competing league, the Great Depression, and, sadly, anti-foreigner sentiments among fans caused the collapse of the ASL in 1933. This led to a dark era of soccer remaining mostly an amateur, ethnic sport played in local and regional leagues for several decades.

Despite the domestic pro game flickering out, the United States national team participated in the first two editions of the World Cup, finishing third at Uruguay 1930 and qualifying for Italy 1934.

Rebirth

Soccer endured a long period of kicking away in the shadows after the first ASL’s demise. A second ASL, with much smaller budgets, was founded in its wake and actually lasted for 50 seasons, but remained well off the radar of American sports fans and media. Aside from the USMNT’s shock 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup, not much soccer news made it into the public consciousness for a long while (the USA would not qualify for another World Cup until 1990).

This period however would see the birth and rise of some of the USA’s longest operating and most successful amateur clubs. Clubs such as NY Greek American, Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals, Brooklyn Italians, and Milwaukee Bavarian SC collected trophies and kept the sport moving along in the mid-20th century.

College soccer was first sanctioned by the NCAA in 1959, and by the late 60s, the “major league” professional game finally reemerged onto the scene. The year 1967 saw the United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League take the field. These two entities merged in 1968, created the famous North American Soccer League, which ushered in perhaps the biggest boom time for the sport the US has ever seen.

Early clubs were actually entire foreign sides rebranded as American teams as part of their their offseason training. Teams such as the Cleveland Stokers (Stoke City), Detroit Cougars (Glentoran F.C.) and LA Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers) were presented to American fans in the late 60s.

By the 70s, the NASL found its footing though, beginning with the New York Cosmos signing of Pelé in 1975. You likely know the story from here. Attendances skyrocketed in many markets, new teams popped up every year, and a cavalcade of legendary players appeared on US shores. The brilliant play of Johan Cruyff, George Best, Gerd Müller, Teófilo Cubillas, Eusébio, Giorgio Chinaglia and others put soccer’s best feet forward and made the sport more popular than ever. A crowd of 77,691 at Giants Stadium for the August 14, 1977 playoff game between the Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers remains the all-time record for highest attendance for a standalone domestic league match in the United States.

Franz Beckenbauer takes the field at a sold-out Giants Stadium in 1977. Photo: Imago

Crashing Back To Earth

The glitz and glamour was short-lived, as over expansion, rising salary costs, and the emergence of the indoor game as competition for fans and players doomed the NASL. The league sadly folded up after the 1984 season. An effort was made for the USA to host the 1986 World Cup after Colombia pulled out, which would have offered NASL a stay of execution, but the tournament was given to Mexico and the NASL faded away.

Though the NASL didn’t last, its influence did move soccer forward, with participation in youth soccer increasing dramatically during the 1970s, paving the way for the next generation of American soccer players and fans.

Another “dark age” for outdoor soccer emerged in the 80s, with the Major Indoor Soccer League becoming the preeminent pro soccer variant for a time. Several NASL teams did survive and played in MISL or one of the various short-lived outdoor leagues that formed during the decade. The Tampa Bay Rowdies organization actually survived continuously from their founding in 1975 until 1994.

In 1988, a third iteration of the American Soccer League was founded, with teams such as the Rowdies, Strikers, and Diplomats on its roster. After two seasons, it merged with the Western Soccer Alliance to form the American Professional Soccer League, or APSL, which became the de facto top level of soccer in the country, despite only being officially sanctioned as division two. This league would eventually merge with the USISL, which was founded in 1986, becoming the A-League in 1997, which we now know as the United Soccer League, USL.

Resurgence

Brazil at the Rose Bowl after winning the 1994 World Cup. Photo: Imago

The early 1990s would bring the next soccer revolution to America. In 1988, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the USA. Part of the deal was that the nation needed to establish a first division professional league. Two proposals to accomplish this emerged – one involving some of the existing pro clubs, and another which we see an entirely new league and teams created. The USSF and powers that be decided upon the later, founding Major League Soccer in 1993.

The American World Cup would prove to be one of the most successful in history, smashing attendance records that still stand today (despite the tournament having fewer teams and matches than subsequent tournaments). Following the fervor of the Cup, MLS kicked off in 1996. Initially carrying over a few American quirks from its NASL predecessor, such as rule changes and wacky team nicknames, the league survived its first decade of challenges and has emerged as the highest profile, most stable pro league the US has ever had.

MLS now consists of 28 teams, with number 29 coming soon and surely 30 and beyond on the way. And beginning with a renovation of Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium in 1998 and the opening of Crew Stadium in Columbus in 1999, MLS ushered in an era of unprecedented investment in soccer facilities across the country.

But the past 30 years have had more stories to tell beyond the men’s top flight. Several pro clubs founded in the pre-World Cup era of the APSL survived in the lower divisions and still exist today, among them the Charleston Battery, Richmond Kickers and Montréal Impact, who would eventually move up to MLS. The Battery opened Blackbaud Stadium in 1999, one of the first modern soccer specific venues in the US.

That same year, the Rochester Rhinos of the A-League defeated the Colorado Rapids in the US Open Cup final, and they remain the only non-MLS team to win the competition since MLS launched in 1996. Charleston (2008) and Sacramento Republic (2022) would later make the USOC final, but failed to capture the trophy.

The lower divisions would continue to weather significant challenges throughout the 2000s. Frequent club turnover, league feuds, breakaways and attempted revivals, and the more recent phenomenon of successful D2/3 clubs buying their way up to MLS have made it tough going at times for lower division leagues. But today we have a vibrant lower division scene which has emerged with dozens of professional clubs across the USL Championship, League One and National Independent Soccer Association. And there are hundreds more in the amateur / semi-pro realm in leagues like NPSL, UPSL, USL League Two, and a nationwide network of regional Premier Leagues. And at every level you can find boisterous supporters, hidden gem facilities, and some real quality soccer dotting the landscape across the continent.

Detroit City FC’s Northern Guard supporters. A crowd of supporters like this, at a division 4 amateur game in a major market in the USA, shows how far the game as come in America.

Meanwhile on the women’s side, 1991 saw the US women win their first World Cup, following that with triumphs in 1999, 2015 and 2019 and gold medals at the 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympics. The USWNT has inspired generations of female players with their dominance on the field. The US also hosted the 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cup tournaments. The booming popularity of the women’s game brought on by the ’99 tournament saw the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2000, the world’s first fully professional women’s soccer league. Though it only lasted three seasons, and it’s successor the WPS also only lasted three years from 2009-2011, these leagues lit the spark for the future of the women’s pro game which has grown rapidly worldwide in recent years. The National Women’s Soccer League, founded in 2012, began play in 2013 and celebrated its 10th season in 2022.

As we embark on yet another World Cup journey, and march towards 2026, soccer is on an entirely different level than it was when the biggest sporting event in the world first came to America in 1994. An unprecedented level of investment, new facilities and player development has turned the USA into a respected soccer nation in a way it never was before.

But the game doesn’t get to where it is today without every person, every club, every short-lived league that’s kicked a ball over the years. From those first lads in Wisconsin in 1866, to the Steel and Marksmen of the roaring 20’s, and the ethnic amateurs plugging away in the 1950s. From the fleeting glory of the 1970s and the indoor warriors in the 80s, to the soccer fever of 1994. From the bright lights of today’s MLS to the amateur clubs playing in your town right now. Every one of these stories is a part of our soccer history, and all of it deserves to be told.

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