Social, economic, ethnic, and demographic influences on the growth of American Soccer

Maintained by David Litterer spectrum@sover.net
Social, economic, ethnic, and demographic influences on the growth of American Soccer

When soccer first started in the United States, it was played primarily by schoolboy and college teams, and was primarily an upper-class game. The Oneida soccer club, formed in Boston in 1862 is often cited as the first soccer club to consist of a regular roster of players, as opposed to the pick-up games commonly played ad the time. It consisted of a group of Boston secondary school students from fairly elite public schools in the area (Boston Latin, Boston English, etc.). Later as the game spread, it grew primarily at the college level, and was considered mainly an upper-class game, although as immigration increased, it became increasingly popular among the working-class communities, and ethnic communities.

In 1871, the English Football Association met to establish a consistent set of rules, and due to disagreements, the Association split into two groups, one using association rules, which evolved into modern soccer, the other using Rugby rules. In the United States shortly afterwards, the major colleges decided to use the Rugby style rules, which eventually evolved into modern gridiron football. Interestingly, what is often called the first true soccer game in the United States, using identifiably soccer rules, is a game in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, is also considered the first true Football game in the United States, and happened two years before the split. After the college decision to adopt the rugby rules, college soccer became a minor endeavor in the larger sports world.

Through the late 1800's, soccer grew primarily among the working class immigrant communities, and became primarily an ethnic-based, lower class sport. The main sport in the eyes of the mainstream public was Baseball, with increasing interest in Polo, boxing and others during the 1890's.

So a main reason why Soccer didn't take off in the US in the same way as many other countries actually had to do with the college decision to favor Rugby rules. Had soccer become the primary college game, its development would have probably followed a course similar to that taken by gridiron football instead, where the rapidly growing college game eventually led to the development of the NFL in the 1920's, which grew steadily, finally taking off in the 1960's to become a nationwide phenomenon, and then becoming a major big-money affair and national industry in the 1980's and 1990's.

The ethnic influence affected the course of the game through the early 1900's -- it was clustered mainly in eastern working-class communities along the northeastern part of the United States, as well as some selected cities such as St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Leagues were mostly amateur and semi-pro, usually very localized and based on state associations.

Eventually its growing success resulted in attempts to establish national leagues. At this time, due to the United States' large size and the difficulty of transportation, there were no true national leagues, even major league baseball was entirely situated in the northeast and Midwest, although minor leagues operated all over the country. The same occurred with Soccer, with true major leagues earning that title mainly through their higher level of professionalism, rather than the amount of territory covered.

Interestingly, the first professional soccer league in the country, the American League of Professional Foot Ball, was organized in 1894 in a way similar to professional baseball. All the teams were sponsored by National League baseball teams, as a way of filling their stadiums in the empty off seasons. The owners, even used some baseball terminology, calling the coaches managers, etc. The league had a rocky performance, with low crowds and financial losses among many teams, only the Baltimore Orioles performed well, and was popular, although engendering controversy through their hiring of a group of professional players in violation of immigration regulations. It collapsed part way into their first season due to low attendance, caused primarily by scheduling so many weekday games.

Also that year, the National Association Foot Ball League was formed, operating out of the New York area. It was formed by a group of people from regional state and local leagues, and all teams had previously played in these other local leagues. Originally operating out of the New York-New jersey area, it eventually added Bethlehem Steel, a powerhouse from eastern Pennsylvania, and the league operated until 1921.

The first American Soccer League was formed in 1921 as the NAFBL was dying, and became the first truly successful top-level pro league in the US. It was well organized, extending from Boston to Philadelphia, with large crowds, top-level players and good salaries, in fact it was able to sign a number of players from England and Scotland because it offered better salaries, although this frequently brought the ASL into conflict with FIFA , particularly after a number of Austrian and Hungarian players signed on with ASL clubs after their teams toured the US on an exhibition tour. These exhibition tours were often the highlights of the season, drawing the largest crowds and often being held in baseball stadiums to accommodate the spectators. Hakoah Vienna, an all Jewish team from Austria was one of the most popular draws, attracting 46,000 to a game in 1926 at the polo grounds, an attendance record that held until broken by the NASL's Cosmos in the 1970's.

During the mid 1920's, the ASL, although still drawing from a working-class eastern US ethnic base, was in its prime, and operated almost on a par with the NFL, which operated in the Midwest. Again, the fortunes of US soccer may have been quite different had the league been able to stay together, but the league always suffered from poor management, and finances were frequently a shambles. had the league been better run and thrived, it is still possible Soccer would have become the primary spectator sport in the US with gridiron remaining the preeminent college game.

Two things did in the league - first the soccer war of 1928, , and the depression and stock market crash of 1929.

The "soccer war" was an administrative battle between the ASL and the United States Football Association (USFA). This was precipitated by ASL teams signing of foreign players which nearly led to the USFA being expelled from FIFA. The USFA bowed to FIFA's demands, which led to rebellion among some of the ASL's owners, who didn't feel bound to FIFA and its European leaders. In summer of 1928, Charles Stoneham, owner of the new York Nationals proposed to the other ASL team owners that the league withdraw from the US Open Cup because of the crowding of the schedule, but control over the sport was the real issue. the league agreed and ordered the teams to withdraw from the Cup, but three teams refused, and were suspended by the league. The league was suspended by the USFA, losing its international sanction. and operated without the rebel teams, who joined up with a fourth team, and several other semi-pro teams to form the eastern Soccer League.

Eventually, support for the USFA from other national associations eventually wore down the ASL, who capitulated in 1929, halted their just started 1929-1930 season and merged with the ESL to play as the Atlantic Coast league for 1929-1930. Although all this commotion was devastating enough, the league was also hit with the full force of the stock market crash in 1929, just two weeks after the settlement, and it hit hardest in many of the working-class industrial cities that formed the backbone of the league, and it limped along for two more seasons just barely finishing the seasons before folding in 1933. When the second American Soccer League formed in 1933, it operated at a much lower level, basically semi-pro, and operated entirely in the New York-Philadelphia area, not expanding back into New England until the 1970's.

Although the soccer war reestablished the USFA's authority over the leagues, and solidified international solidarity and FIFA's authority, this was a precursor to episodes later in the 20th century where leagues came into conflict with the USFA (Now the United States Soccer Federation).

Interestingly, the establishment of soccer clubs varied among different parts of the country. In the New England area, grew in the ethnic communities, near Providence Fall River and New Bedford, more often being based at local companies in the Boston area. In St. Louis the teams were mostly factory owned, whereas in Chicago and New York they were run by local ethnic community organizations, and were frequently organized along ethnic lines -- hence the New York Hungarians, Chicago Schwaben, Kearny Irish, Kearny Scots, etc. Whether teams were organized by factories, their workers, or the local communities seemed to depend on multiple factors, including the economic conditions, the community traditions and the like. After the depression, when many of the factories were hit, they had much less of a role in the running of soccer clubs.

Soccer continued playing through the middle of the 20th century at a fairly low level, residing mainly in the ethnic communities and at the local and semi-pro level. One attempt was made in the 1940's to form a national league, pulling together existing and new teams throughout the Midwest and Toronto, Canada, as the North American Soccer Football league, which only lasted two seasons.

After World War II, there were many changes in the USA, including greater mobility and prosperity; people moved from the cities to the suburbs, got cars, and the growth of television transformed the entertainment industry, portending a rapid growth in broadcast games. People could watch their favorite teams at home, rather than going to the stadium. Interestingly this availability of games at home actually increased attendance, and all the established sports grew in attendance remarkably. Due to increased air transportation, team travel became easier and the established leagues spread nationwide during the 1950's and 1960's. Immigration also saw major changes, with many more non-Europeans coming to the US. In particular, the growth of the Hispanic community greatly changed the complexion of soccer, as it immediately took root in Hispanic communities.

Some investors and businessmen saw the potential of soccer to become a major sport, and saw it as a huge untapped market, and formed the International Soccer League to test the market. This league, founded in 1961, brought major teams from foreign leagues to play in a US based league during their summer off-months. Although not the same as a regular major league, it did provide high level competition, although most games were played in New York with a scattering in various other cities. Attendance was impressive compared to previous leagues, with championship matches drawing close to 20,000. Although the league never caught on in a major way, it possibly did lead the way towards the establishment of the NASL in the late 1960's.

The 1966 World Cup was broadcast on US network television and was very popular. This success led to a movement to establish a 1st division, national league in the US. Once again, due to the fractious nature of US soccer officialdom (a perennial problem), the major organizers couldn't reach agreement on a league, and as a result two rival leagues were established in 1967, the United Soccer Association which received FIFA sanctioning, and the National Professional Soccer League, which did not, and operated as a rogue league, although it did get a television contract with CBS.

These leagues took to the field in 1967, two leagues, 22 teams extending from California to Miami to Boston, and Canada on both coasts. and it appeared that they may have moved too far, too fast. Attendance while initially high, fell off and was insufficient to meet the salary requirements, and soon the teams were suffering major financial losses. The leagues realized they couldn't survive as competitors, so they merged in 1968 to form the North American Soccer League, with 17 teams, but the financial losses and falling attendance was so dire the league almost folded at the end of its first season; only five teams decided to keep going. For the next few years, they operated at a much lower level, keeping costs down, and building themselves in a slow careful manner. Although the soccer market was growing, they were simply ahead of their time.

As the 1970's progressed, sports were thriving at all levels, the other established sports were expanding at rapid speed, rival competitive leagues were established in Football, Basketball and Hockey, and youth soccer was really beginning to grow rapidly. Seeing the trends, the NASL started to focus on hiring more high-caliber international stars as a way of attracting fans, and rapidly expanding back across the country, growing to 24 teams by 1978.and the big bang heard around the world was the signing of Pele in 1975. Although already retired from Brazil, his hiring created a lot of attention in the US, and the league . The attention led to rapidly increasing attendance, and the hiring of many other established stars, most notably Franz Beckenbauer in 1977, who unlike Pele, was still in his prime, and even passed up the 1978 world cup to keep his season going with the Cosmos.

At this time, soccer was enjoying a full-scale boom in the US. The game was moving out of the ethnic communities and being noticed by mainstream Americans., and most importantly was being actively played by American youth; soccer was quickly becoming the game of choice for many, who wanted to get away from the harsh competition in little league baseball, the violence (and equipment expense) in football and hockey, and the special athletic requirements of basketball. It was seen as a sport that anyone could compete in without excessive athleticism, and there were options for competitive and non-competitive forms of the game. Getting families involved was a key in establishing soccer among mainstream America. The developments of the 1970's planted the seeds of the soccer communities in the 1990's, and many current fans trace their involvement (or their parents') back to this time.

On the professional front, the ASL II also expanded nationwide, and saw increasing participation and attendance, although at a much lower level than the NASL. Also at this time was the beginning of the development of an American-style indoor game, leading to the formation of the MISL in 1978. This led to another trend, the idea that Americans would prefer a different style of soccer, one involving more action and scoring; as a result there was a struggle between the outdoor game and the indoor game for US fan allegiance.

As the 1980's started on, the excesses of he NASL became apparent; once again, they were going too far and too fast. Although major NASL teams drew large crowds, underneath the league there was not the necessary established infrastructure to support it. American players were getting little playing time, the national team was struggling, and the income was simply not sufficient to support the large salaries being paid, often to journeymen players who couldn't keep their positions in Europe, and this led to severe financial losses. The owners could not control their spending habits, the league couldn't control them, and more importantly, the NASL operated primarily as a rogue league, barely tolerated by FIFA because of their unilateral rule changes. The NASL did not participate in international tournaments, American national team players couldn't get adequate experience in the NASL to perform effectively at the international level, and there was a certain estrangement between American Soccer and the rest of the world.

Part of the problem was a lack of professionalism at the USSF -- leadership there consisted of people primarily involved in local soccer - they simply did not have a national (much less international) perspective, and the game suffered because of that. They couldn't exercise the necessary control over the NASL, and ultimately the NASL spent itself out of existence. Financial losses caused teams to fold quickly, and by 1984 the league was gone.

At this time outdoor professional soccer almost disappeared, existing only in a handful of lower level, rapidly changing leagues. The indoor leagues were the primary outlet for professional soccer players, and even there the leagues got involved in salary wars with devastated both leagues.

The USSF finally realized they would have to do something, and worked towards rebuilding the national league and landing a World Cup tournament in the US. The success of the 1984 Olympic soccer tournament showed that there was indeed an audience for pro soccer, if it could only be properly managed.

At this time, a more professional attitude began to be felt with leadership changes in the USSF, and they were able to successfully bid for the 1994 World cup in 1988. At this point they promised to establish a new 1st division pro league, and to do it right this time.

The hiring of Alan Rothenberg in 1990 for the first time provided leadership with the kind of high-level professional, business-oriented leadership the USSF needed to run things appropriately, and he had a significant effect on the success of the world cup. The USSF established a full-time paid national team to compensate for the lack of a domestic pro league; prior to that national team members came from a mixture of 2nd and 3rd division teams, the colleges, indoor and semi-pro teams. By the time of the world cup, the full-time training had improved playing levels so that a number of US players were able to land starting positions in European clubs.

A final obstacle was the constant rivalry between different factions in organized soccer -- the two main youth organizations (USYSA and AYSO) were always at each others throats due to differences in philosophy, the major established leagues were constantly fighting over who truly represented US soccer interests - the MISL, NPSL, APSL, and USISL all were vying for the right to become the new established 1st division league, and Rothenberg was proposing the creation of a brand new entity. And his view finally prevailed. in 1992.

Several very positive developments have occurred since 1992. On the short-term, World Cup 94 was very well organized with excellent facilities and games free of violence. Attendance and media attention (even in the USA) was unprecedented, and the game really got a boost in media attention. The various leagues finally established working relationships with each other. The Major League Soccer was successfully launched as the new 1st division league, in response to conditions laid down by FIFA in return for the warding of the World Cup. Once the A-League, USISL and MLS received Division 2, 3, and 1 sanctioning and they worked out an agreement to form a cooperative developmental minor league system, for the first time, all the major soccer leagues were actually cooperating rather than trying to cut each other down. this was truly a unique development. In addition, the MISL had folded, and the NPSL reached player agreements with the MLS, and finally there was peace between the leagues. This had an enormous beneficial effect on soccer in general. the fact that Rothenberg also was the first USSF president to truly give priority to the National team had enormous implications as well. Once the A-league and USISL merged, the USISL established itself as the multi-level pyramid for soccer player development, and serves as a feeder system for the MLS. Finally some coherence to the player development system.

Increased media exposure has also led to large sponsorships and reasonable television contracts, and this bodes well for the sport. Many of the demographic, social and economic conditions in the country have finally caught up to the aspirations of the league organizers. Also, in the country soccer has steadily engrained itself in the consciousness of an ever increasing number of enthusiastic soccer fans, and this provides the basis for long-term growth. The soccer boom among youth has continued to this day; soccer is now the second most played sport among youngsters after basketball, a feat considered unimaginable even 20 years ago. Many adults are involved both as parents and active players and coaches. Many of these people who take their kids to games were the ones who were first inspired 20 years ago by the NASL. despite that league's failure, it did provide essential exposure. People liked what they saw and wanted more. By the early 1990's, the stage was set -- the audience was there waiting for a new league, and this wasn't the case at the inception of the NASL. More importantly, this audience can be maintained without having to spend large salaries for established stars, as the MLS's performance during its first three years has shown. Youth have their own stars to look forward to, and a league to dream playing in. Finally, because of the quotas on player limits in the MLS, Americans are getting the playing time they need to perform effectively at the international level. that isn't to say they've reached par with the rest of the world. In fact the MLS's level of play can actually be thought of as detrimental to national team players who are still better served by playing on European clubs. Even if not starters, their training and practice simply cannot be acquired in the US yet, although the quality of play in MLS has rapidly improved.

On television, the presence of soccer in the American culture can be seen by the high degree of soccer images in commercials and TV shows so many commercials depicting children and families will show a soccer ball, or a soccer game -- nobody gives that a second though, it's just natural. Twenty years ago you'd see baseballs, bats and footballs. The change in the advertising world is amazing to watch. This perhaps is a good signal that soccer has arrived to stay, and if the leagues and USSF can work out the remaining problems (which are not trivial -- survival of the MLS is not yet assured), then the future looks good.

In short, the influences on the growth of soccer are many and varied. It involves ethnic migration, sports culture, economic factors, demographic changes, the growth of transportation, professional leadership, the nature of sports organization, and sport as a spectator activity, the growth of television and even the internet. The story of soccer development and growth in the US is complex, and this summary is only a very partial accounting -- much more needs to be written, and more analysis to be done.


Last update: April 17, 2005

The USA Soccer History Archives are maintained by David Litterer

spectrum@sover.net

Back to American Soccer History Archives main page