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It was in April of 1895 when the National Association Football League (NAFBL) opened its doors. Two other soccer leagues were in existence before the NAFBL, but the NAFBL goes down as the prominent start of professional soccer and what kickstarted the American’s rise to third place at the 1930 World Cup, the first edition of the event.
However, it was only 20 years later when America tied England and shocked the world, which shouldn't be so shocking for a country that finished third only 20 years ago. Well, that’s wrong.
American soccer disappeared before many’s eyes shortly after their third-place finish, and it’s taken until now for soccer to gain significant traction again in the states.
What went wrong for American soccer? Who’s to blame? And how has it risen from the ruins?
The NAFBL consisted of teams from New Jersey and New York. The league had 13 teams throughout its first four years including Kearny Scots and Patterson True Blues, two teams who will become giants in the near future. The True Blues won the American Cup, a tournament consisting of teams all throughout the country, on three separate occasions. Meanwhile, the Scots became one of the most dominant teams in America as well and are still in existence today.
After years of mismanagement and the United States Football Association - the governing body of American soccer - wanting a unified first division, the NAFBL and Southern New England Soccer League merged in 1921 to create the American Soccer League.
As the National Football League (American Football) was still in its early days during the 20s, the ASL thrived and drew bigger crowds than the NFL, oftentimes reaching over 10,000 in the stands.
Many ASL players came from overseas, mostly from Scotland, and as part of the deal with the owners of some of the teams in the league, the players were to work in factories during the day and went to play professional soccer by night and on the weekend, all while making more money then they would overseas.
The first season saw Philadelphia FC beat New York, with the top scorer being Harold Brittan, one of the greatest bagsmen of his time. Brittan started his career at Chelsea with a loan stint at Leicester City before coming to America as much of his family was moving to Philadelphia. In the US, Brittan scored 149 goals in 147 games across his storied career.
The second season saw J&P Coats win the league, names like this were not uncommon as many owners named the teams after their business, exactly what J&P Coats did.
The following 8 seasons saw the Fall River Marksmen, owned by Sam Mark (named the team after himself) win 6 titles, two seperate 3-peats.
The Marksmen are significant to the story of American soccer as Sam Mark built a soccer-specific stadium for the Marksmen. Funnily enough, Fall River is right on the border of Massachusetts (where it’s located) and Rhode Island. Mark built the stadium in Rhode Island to avoid Massachusetts blue laws which meant the club would not be able to play on Sundays. Mark was able to recruit Harold Brittan to play for the club.
Brittan played there from 1922-1926.
Later on, in their historic run of titles, local superstar Billy Gonsalves emerged and scored 69 goals in 116 appearances for the Marksmen as well as another Fall River native, Bert Patenaude, perhaps the most underrated American player of all time and the person who scored the first ever World Cup hattrick.
Even more impressively, Patenaude scored 112 goals in 114 games for the Marksmen.
1931 saw the rebranded Marksmen, now the New Bedford Whalers win the league and in the following season, Fall River FC won. Carrying on the tradition of dominance in the American Soccer League while also unknowingly winning the final season. of the American Soccer League.
For a league that was outdrawing the NFL and for a country that placed third in the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay thanks to the superstars of the league, where did it all go wrong?
It starts with the federation, the United States Football Association.
The National Challenge Cup (now the US Open Cup) was run by the USFA, usually during the season of the ASL. Players were in town and could play, owners had no problem, and thus, an inter-league in-season tournament was played.
However, in 1924-1925, owners felt the financial burden of the Challenge Cup as it was very pricey to play the Challenge Cup on top of regular season ASL soccer, so the league decided to boycott the Cup.
The USFA were furious and hoped nothing would ever happen like this again.
For a few years.
In 1927, the ASL got in trouble with FIFA for signing players that were already on European contracts. The USFA higher-ups flew to Finland and begged for forgiveness, which they got. But they also got a strict warning from FIFA who were very displeased with their actions in the transfer market.
Once the news of what happened in Finland reached the States, owners of ASL teams were angry. They felt jipped and very limited. New York Nationals owner, Charles Stoneham, who also was the owner of the New York Giants baseball team, wanted a lot of change in the way the transfer market worked in America.
In 1928, Stoneham gathered up the owners of the league and proposed several ideas, including boycotting the Challenge Cup for financial reasons. Other ideas included implementing a midwest ASL in several years and the two winners of the league would play in a winner take all Challenge Cup. They all seemed like good ideas and the owners accepted.
The USFA did not know about any of this.
One thing leads to the next, and every team in the ASL except for three boycotts the Challenge Cup. The Bethlehem Steel (five-time winners of the Cup), Newark Skeeters (awesome name), and the New York Giants all decided to participate in the Challenge Cup.
The ASL, who supported Stoneham’s idea of boycotting, were mad and decided to suspend all three clubs from their season.
Right after the ASL suspsned three teams, USFA found out about all of what happened and the ASL was suspended by the USFA.
This moment in time is labeled the ‘Soccer Wars’. It was not a good moment for this to happen as the NFL and MLB were picking up steam and catching up, even surpassing the ASL.
By 1930, the soccer wars were resolved. At least sort of.
The ASL had rebranded as the Atlantic Coast League, but the damage had been done. The USFA had the support of FIFA in their decision and the ASL was declared an outlaw league by both governing bodies. The USFA nor FIFA welcomed or supported the ASL and the league was inevitably doomed from there.
All while this happened, the Great Depression hit and the stock market plummeted. Many owners lost a lot of their fortunes and the league took a massive hit.
There were still bright spots throughout this time, however. For instance, in 1931 the Wanderers, an American side, played Celtic, one of the best teams in the world in front of a 10,000 spectator home crowd. The Wanderers lost 5-0, but it was still a huge draw and amazing that a club the size of Celtic made the way out.
Following 1933, a semi-pro version of the league was introduced, but there were no attempts to grab European stars involved this time, and the league lost a lot of top talent.
THE LOST IN TIME PERIOD: 1933-1970
The world progressed a lot from 1930 to 1970, just as it has from 1970 to today. American soccer, though, did not.
The American Soccer League name was continued on by 4 separate leagues from 1933-1983.
These American Soccer League’s were largely pro-am, with the Kearny Scots dominating on the club circuit. There were several different regional leagues at the time.
Meanwhile, the US Open Cup still held its yearly tournament. The Philadelphia Ukrainian National dominated the 1960s. Macabee Los Angeles did so in the 70s. Winning 5 US Open Cups from 1973 to 1981.
The biggest highlight from this time period, which is very much lost in time and a blurb of the past, was the US’ infamous triumph over England in the 1950 World Cup.
After placing third in the first-ever World Cup in 1930, the Great Depression and Soccer Wars set American soccer back. By the time 1950 hit, the US was filled with a bunch of semi-professionals who had day jobs. These players included Walter Bahr, a teacher by day, national team captain by night to Frank Borghi, driving cars for a funeral home service by day and national team goalkeeper by night. Some players, notably Soccer Hall of Famer, Benny McLaughlin, couldn’t play in the World Cup because they couldn't get off of work.
The US was utterly dominated, but a 37th-minute header from Joe Gaetjens, a man originally from Haiti who represented America only for the 1950 World Cup was enough to seal the deal for the Yanks. Although America had no other bright spots in the tournament, it’s a result that remains famous to the day.
The United States didn’t qualify for another World Cup until 40 years later in 1990, and now that we’ve analyzed the rise and fall, let's take a look at the rise (and fall) again
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE NASL
After over 1 million North American viewers tuned in to the 1966 World Cup, investors realized there was an untapped market in America for professional soccer.
So, in 1966, two leagues formed. The United Soccer Association (USA) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL, not to be confused with the current NPSL which is different).
The USA was sanctioned by both the United States Soccer Federation and FIFA. It was essentially a summer league for international players/teams to stay in shape. The whole idea of the league was that European teams could choose a city, slightly change their name, and enter their players into it for them to stay in shape.
The teams were -using this format USA TEAM NAME(EUROPEAN CLUB NAME) - Boston Rovers (Shamrock Rovers), Chicago Mustangs (Calgiri), Cleveland Stokers (Stoke City), Dallas Tornado (Dundee United), Detroit Cougars (Glentoran), LA Wolves (Wolverhampton), New York Skyliners (C.A. Cerro), San Francisco Golden Gate Gales (ADO Den Haag), Toronto City (Hibernian), Vancouver Royal Canadians (Sunderland), and the Washington Whips (Aberdeen).
Many NFL and MLB team owners owned the teams, including Lamar Hunt, who owned the Dallas Tornado, and William Ford Sr, who owned the Detroit Cougars.
The reason the league imported these European clubs to help fill the rosters was that the USA was competing against the NPSL at the time. In 1967, the NPSL was set to begin play as they had a TV deal with CBS in place. The USA felt behind and resorted to using European teams and players to begin their league earlier than anticipated.
However, after low attendance and TV ratings, CBS cut ties with the NPSL and both leagues were left without a true identity and in a bad spot. The US launched prematurely, and the NPSL’s golden plan didn’t turn to plan, so the two leagues merged and created the National American Soccer League (NASL).
The first season saw 17 teams play, however with only 30 North American-based players, the salaries of foreign stars and huge stadiums to play in were too high and the league took a massive financial loss after their inaugural 1968 season.
However, everything changed in 1970 when the Rochester Lancers were added to the league. They instantly became the most well-run club (with years of history in the ASL already behind them) and they won the title.
In 1971, the New York Cosmos were one of three expansion teams introduced to the league, and like the Lancers, they changed everything for the NASL.
It was only a mere four years later, in 1975, when the best soccer player to ever grace planet earth, Pele, was announced as the Cosmos' newest signing. All of a sudden, every single media outlet in all of America was following Pele and soccer. Over ten million viewed it on CBS to watch his debut and Giants stadium started selling out.
The Cosmos were also home to other stars including Bayern Munich legend, Franz Beckenbauer as well as Italian superstar and statistically the greatest player in NASL history, Giorgio Chinaglia.
On the other side of the country, the LA Aztecs signed Man United legend, George Best. Only two years later, after Best left for Fort Lauderdale the Aztecs signed another superstar of the game Johan Cruyff, the greatest Dutchman to ever play.
The rise of stars was so fun for the late 70s that in fact, over 78,000 spectators saw the Cosmos win the SoccerBowl at Giants stadium.
But all good things must come to an end.
The NASL expanded quickly with the financial plan of ‘spend big to get big stars’. Every team wanted a Pele-Esque player so they doubled, even tripled their payrolls to do so.
The recession in the early 1980s that saw unemployment reach its highest since WWII and owners spending too much on aging, older stars saw the league's owners take a massive hit. The 1981 season saw every team lose money with the teams recording a loss of $30 million ($97 million today).
The NASL’s 15 seconds of fame ran out when Pele retired and the league couldn’t afford to keep losing tens of millions of dollars; the NASL decided to suspend operations before the 1985 season and the league never returned.
The stars the league attracted demanded high wages and the teams couldn’t afford to keep up. Although the intention was right, the mismanagement of the league from a financial aspect was what caused the ultimate demise. The NASL did its best to get as many Americans on the pitch as possible but the fans wanted to see the stars.
This combined with the recession set the league back financially, and it came to a point where the NASL called it quits.
The NASL did have an indoor league they tried to keep running, but even that ran its course.
FINALLY, AMERICA IS A SOCCER COUNTRY
40 years after beating England 1-0 in one of the all-time great World Cup upsets, the United States of America did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unfathomable, they qualified for the World Cup.
It was a shock to many but also a good look for the country that was awarded the rights to host the World Cup in 1994.
The US were underdogs, and it showed.
The US was filled with younger players, some even college amateurs, and they lost all three group stage matches by a combined score of 8-2.
The American team was highlighted by the likes of Tab Ramos and John Harkes, two players who made a name for themselves overseas and also both hail from Kearny, New Jersey. As did goalkeeper Tony Meola.
One tiny town in north jersey, with a population of a mere 35,000, managed to produce 3 world cup players, reminiscent of what Fall River did at the 1930 tournament. Kearny was also home to the Kearny-Scots, as previously mentioned, an amateur team that remained playing throughout all the wars, all the recessions, and all the years that had passed since the early days of soccer in America.
When 1994 rolled around, soccer fever was high in America. Americans were excited to watch the World Cup being played at home in packed NFL stadiums.
Meanwhile, soccer nuts in America were cheerful not only because of the World Cup being played, but what it meant to the country.
As part of the deal with FIFA, the USSF needed a certified top-tier division in the US. Thus came the MLS, which was set to debut in 1996.
The NASL had Pele; the MLS had Tab Ramos, who coincidentally was drafted by the Cosmos with the tenth overall pick in the first round of the 1984 NASL Draft. However, Ramos opted to go to college at NC State (where he was a 3x All-American) instead.
Similarly to Pele, Ramos fronted the NJ/NY team, the MetroStars.
In all, the teams were the Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, LA Galaxy, New England Revolution, NJ/NY MetroStars, San Jose Clash, and the Tampa Bay Mutiny. All teams played in football stadiums with the Crew playing at Ohio Stadium, a stadium with a capacity of over 102,329.
They didn’t sell out… shocker.
Along with Ramos, some other North American stars joined the league. Americans Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola, Eric Wyndala as well as Jorge Campos from Mexico. Surprisingly, Alexi had arguably the second-best hair of the new stars, trailing Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama.
The MLS commissioner was Sunil Gulati, who later went on to become president of the USSF. Gulati was instrumental in bringing these North American stars to the league.
The first MLS game was between San Jose Clash and D.C. United, home of the San Jose State University Football Team and at that point in time, home of an MLS team who sold 32,000 tickets for their inaugural game all while being filmed on ESPN.
The game was a deadlock. No team seemed to break open the opposition's defense.
That was until the 88th minute when Eric Wyndala struck the ball perfectly from the left corner of the box and the goal propelled the Clash to a 1-0 opening home game, and league game victory.
The other team in California, the LA Galaxy, beat the MetroStars 2-1 at home for their opening game in front of a crowd of 69,255, a longstanding record that was eventually beat by Atlanta United, who now hold positions 2-10 on the all-time single-game record sheets, only missing out to the recent 74,479 attended game by Charlotte FC, who did it against none other than LA Galaxy.
As for the league as a whole, the MLS averaged 17,406 fans a game in the 1996 debut season that saw D.C United win the MLS Cup.
United would go on to win the Cup in 1997, followed by another one in 1999, Chicago Fire won it in 1998.
The opening season of the MLS season was successful, Carlos Valderemma took home MVP and the league had a growing fanbase.
Champions, D.C. United even established a supporters group that helped generate a lot of buzz in the local area and get people in the stadium.
Unfortunately, season 2 of the MLS was, by all means, a letdown. Higher-ups in US Soccer were hoping the league would be able to reach around 20,000 fans per game.
They ended up only getting 14,619, a -16% drop-off from the 1996 season.
The level of play was increasing, but the attendance was not.
As mentioned, D.C United won the MLS Cup, which happened to be played that year at their home ground, RFK Memorial Stadium. A total of 57,431 came to watch the game.
D.C. United was clearly the most well-run club in the MLS that managed to find its way ‘around the rules’ as some may say.
Phil Anschutz led the way for the Chicago team and Peter Wilt became the Fire’s GM.
Wilt noticed coming into the league that the most proper run team, was shockingly enough, the team that won back-to-back Cups, D.C United.
Wilt modeled the Fire after D.C. United while also adding his own spin on things and it paid off immediately with the Fire winning the 1998 Cup in their first year of existence.
The 1998 season was also the debut season of Miami Fusion. Led by Carlos Valderamma, who they acquired from Tampa Bay Mutiny, the Mutiny started off strong. The team saw 20,450 show up to their inaugural game in Lockhart Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS history.
Unfortunately, the average attendance to finish the season for the Mutiny was 10,284.
While the Fire became one of the most successful franchises in MLS history, the Mutiny folded in 2002 (the Tampa Bay Mutiny also folded then as well).
The MLS had reportedly lost around $250 million during its first five years in existence, and Ken Horowitz - owner of the Miami-based club, couldn’t afford to keep losing money every year. From the lowest ticket sales in the league to the lowest revenue generated from sponsors, Miami were set up for failure and a quick exit from the startup league and that is exactly what happened.
By this point in MLS history, Don Garber was commissioner after being appointed to the role in 1999.
Garber immediately traditionalized the game, getting rid of the hockey-Esque shootouts and the 3 plus 1 substitution rule.
Also in 1999 was the debut of Mapfre Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS history that was built by an MLS Club (Lockhart wasn’t built by Fusion).
Although the two Tampa franchises had folded after the 2002 season, and the league still lost money, 2002 was the start of something new for MLS. The 2002 World Cup, which saw the US make the quarterfinals, helped fast-track the development of the MLS in the States.
It was at this time that MLS started developing its fair share of homegrown talent.
The MLS and IMG partnered in the IMG Residency Program that saw the best u17 talent in the states go to IMG to develop their game and get looks from European clubs. Members of this team included Landon Donovan, one of the best Yanks to ever lace up the boots.
Other players included Jozy Altidore, DeMarcus Beasley, and Michael Bradley, all top players who were a part of the program.
From 2002 to 2006, more Americans became interested in soccer and the likes of Tim Howard were transferred to Europe. And not just to any club, but to Manchester United. Howard would go on to have a very successful career in the English top flight for both Man United and Everton as well as becoming a lock in the USMNT side.
Howard would also go on to record the record for both saves in a single World Cup game.
Don Garber also realized that if the league wanted to be stable and have consistent growth, more teams would have to follow Columbous’ lead and get soccer-specific stadiums.
In 2003, Dignity Health Sports Park, the home of the LA Galaxy was built and by 2021, 22 stadiums were built. More are on the way including St. Louis SC Stadium.
2002 was also a monumental year that would forever change the course of American soccer behind the mastermind of Garber yet again as Soccer United Marketing (SUM) was introduced. SUM managed all sponsorships for MLS and in fact, North American Soccer National teams.
SUM’s goal is to get as much sponsorship, media, and broadcast sales as possible and sell it to broadcasters and share the revenue with MLS.
SUM helped revolutionize the sport of soccer in America and get more eyes on the product. The relationship between USSF and SUM ended in 2021. Many American soccer fans believed SUM and the USSF had a tight relationship.
All MLS team owners got a share in SUM and it was a way for them to make even more money on top of owning a club. Many fans stated there was a massive conflict of interest.
Regardless, SUM was revolutionary at the time and a way for two things. 1) the league to get more keys on their product and 2) to entice potential expansion franchise owners to join the league.
It did exactly that.
After the Florida clubs left in 2002, the MLS has grown from 10 to 30 teams, with the expansion fee going from $20 million back then to now north of $300 million.
Throughout this time, new rules were introduced into the MLS, including the Designated Player (DP) rule. The DP rule meant clubs can sign a DP that wouldn’t count towards the salary cup, this helped attract stars to the league. Each club was allowed 3 DPs.
This was brought into play so David Beckham could join the league.
Beckham was the biggest signing American soccer had seen since Pele joined the Cosmos. Beckham brought massive attention to the league when he was with LA Galaxy and he brought a massive on-field level of play as well.
The big three of Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan, helped propel LA Galaxy to 2 MLS Cups.
Beckham’s impact on the game was instrumental. Thanks to the legend of the game, more sponsors were paying more money to advertise themself at MLS games than ever before.
When Beckham joined the league in 2007, the average club valuation was approximately $48 million, only ten years later the average value was $240 million.
Besides Beckham, other stars including Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and more came to play in MLS under the DP rule.
Many fans, especially internationally, mocked the MLS for bringing in close to retiring, old European stars. Essentially, the stars of yesterday. However, since 2015, more clubs have begun to use the DP rule not just to their marketing advantage, but to their on-field advantage by bringing in exciting young talent.
In 2016, Seattle Sounders were led by Nicolas Lodeiro, a 26-year-old DP who helped them win the MLS Cup. Only two years later, Atlanta United were fronted by 23-year-olds Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, two players who lit the league on fire. Almiron was sold for around $20 million to Newcastle United thanks to his stellar play and Martinez has since become the face of the franchise for Atlanta United.
From their attendance dropping massively and losing $250 million in their first 5 seasons of play, the MLS all of a sudden had stability thanks to soccer-specific stadiums, the DP rule, and great youth academies.
By 2019, Major League Soccer had become the 9th-ranked soccer league in the world in average game attendance.
In 2000, the average attendance was only 13,756. By 209, the league had averaged 21,305 and were only trailing behind the top tiers of Germany, England, Spain, Italy, China, France, Mexico, and Argentina in average attendance.
The MLS has also seen an influx of talent develop in their youth academies and then be purchased by the big guns in Europe with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Tyler Adams, and Brenden Aaronson helping pave the way.
Meanwhile, even more players such as Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and more all spent time in MLS academies before making the move overseas while still playing in the academy.
This influx of talent has seen the USMNT have their best-ever roster at the moment, with Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie being considered some of the best players in Europe. The young, promising talent seems to grow by the day and there is always a new American on the rise.
The MLS is more profitable than ever and the league just inked a $2.5 billion deal with Apple that will see Apple TV become the primary broadcaster for the league. MLS games will be on the streaming service and the deal is a monumental moment in MLS history. The current deal the MLS is under is worth $90 million a year, the deal with Apple will change the game for MLS.
Who could’ve thought that the league that lost $250 million throughout its first 5 years in existence would ink a multi-billion dollar broadcasting rights deal only 20 years later.
But the clear vision of Don Garber to implement soccer-specific stadiums, bringing in designated players to attract attention, and the heavy focus on the youth academies as seen with MLS Next, the official academy league of MLS, Major League Soccer is growing by the day.
Recently, Charlotte FC beat Chelsea FC, one of the world's best clubs, 5-3 on penalty kicks. Charlotte’s lone goal in regular time was a penalty kick won by 16-year-old, Brian Romero, who was born in 2006.
Up north, Minnesota United FC smashed Everton 4-0 and utterly dominated the game.
More kids are being brought up in a soccer-loving culture than ever before and it’s seen with the on-the-field product in MLS and for the USMNT.
Although the USMNT did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it was a wake-up call and 4 years later they did it convincingly.
Pulisic and co will travel to Qatar and play in Group B, being labeled the Group of Death, as they are paired with Iran, England, and Wales. The Yanks will be coached by TSC interviewee, none other than Gregg Berhalter.
As for MLS, more young talent appears by the day and local celebrities are being built. The likes of the Earthquakes’ Cade Cowell and Red Bull’s John Tolkin have become local legends in their market and quickly become the faces of the franchise.
From Bert Patenaude to Christian Pulisic.
From the Fall River Marksmen to the LA Galaxy.
From 3rd place in the World Cup to… well only time will tell in the 2022 World Cup.
Soccer in America was once outselling the NFL and MLB, and as the Great Depression hit, soccer ultimately fell. It’s been a slow road back to becoming a major sport in the states, but after a well-constructed idea from Don Garber, US Soccer, and Major League Soccer, soccer has become a major factor in the US sports market again as proved with the Apple TV right deal.
As the MLS does great, so do the lower tiers. The United Soccer League (USL) has built a plethora of leagues in the USL Championship, USL League 1, and USL League 2. Those leagues are the 2, 3, and 4th tiers respectively. USL League 1 shares its tier 3 status with the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) and USL league 2 shares its 4th tier status with the National Premier Soccer League (NISA).
Soccer in the United States is seen as a relatively new product, with the MLS’ debut season only being in 1996, but the truth is soccer has a long backstory in the states and it’s been around since the late 1800s.
Go go the USA,
Note from Chris: This article took, well, a while, and there is still a lot to unpack in the United States history of soccer. I hope you were able to learn something and I’m very glad to be able to write this. I am very passionate about US Soccer and hope to be a major factor in the world of US Soccer one day. Leave a comment and follow me on Instagram @the.sportscourt. Thanks, everyone!
A writer who loves to learn and share.
All Editorials written by Chris Dailey