Review of American Soccer: History, Culture, Class

Reck, Gregory G., and Bruce Allen Dick. American Soccer: History, Culture, Class. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015. Pp. 229 + x. Bibliography and Notes. $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper

On December 6, the Portland Timbers squared off against the Columbus Crew in the 2015 MLS Cup. Although the match was played in the oldest soccer-specific stadium in the United States to an exciting finish—the Timbers defeated the Crew, 2-1—only 1.174 million viewers tuned in to watch, a 38 percent drop from the previous MLS Cup. Conversely, the NBA and MLB each saw significant increases in television viewership this year compared to their 2014 championships; the NBA Finals averaged 19.4 million viewers, up from 15.5 million, and the MLB World Series averaged 14.7 million viewers, up from 13.8 million. Soccer fandom continues to dwindle as millions of children join local parks and rec teams, the US men’s national team (USMNT) improves internationally, and the US women’s national team (USWNT) remains the number one team in the world.

With this expansion in participation and improvement in international ranking, why is soccer still sidelined in the United States?

American Soccer Full

McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015

Anthropology professor Gregory G. Reck and English professor Bruce Allen Dick attempt to answer this question in America Soccer: History, Culture, Class. The two ask “why soccer has failed to become a larger part of the popular imagination of most Americans” when the sport has deep historical roots, strong youth involvement, and a growing international presence (pg. 10). By assessing the history and culture of soccer in the United States, Reck and Dick demonstrate how class shaped the participation in and perception of the sport in both the past and present.

Reck and Dick divide American Soccer into three thematic parts. Section one, “A Theoretical Perspective,” focuses on the debilitating structure of soccer in the United States. Unlike European soccer powerhouses that maintain a broad base for youth and adolescent participation, US soccer depends on a “pay-for-play” club system that creates what USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann labeled the “upside-down pyramid.” Like a triangle “resting precariously on its point and spreading uniformly upward and outward to a top-heavy, base-turned peak,” the structure of soccer in the United States allows only those who can afford the economic and social capital demanded by clubs to climb up to intercollegiate competition and beyond (pg. 16). According to American Soccer, the upside-down pyramid limits US victories internationally and damages the perception of soccer domestically.

The authors then use Germany as one example of a restructured system that is oppositional (and far more successful) than the US’s precarious triangle. When powerhouses East and West Germany reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many experts predicted that the unified team would quickly jump to the top of the world rankings. Unfortunately for the combined squad, the positive prognosis failed to materialize in the 1990s and the German team suffered an early exit in the 1994 World Cup. German soccer organizers pointed to the collapse of home-grown youth talent as the culprit. Rather than develop German children, the system had been relying on recruiting stars from abroad. To broaden the youth base, the German association built 121 national talent centers and 1,000 mini-fields for adolescent play. Perhaps as the most notable contrast to the US’s upside-down pyramid, argue Reck and Dick, German officials required professional teams to subsidize soccer academics, making them accessible to children of all socioeconomic statuses.

The new German paradigm expanded the development of youth talent, built a mass culture of soccer fandom, and fostered international success. In terms of World Cup finishes, Germany placed second in 2002, third in 2006, third in 2010, and first in 2014.

After contrasting the structure of US soccer to powerhouses abroad, Reck and Dick outline the history of the sport in section two, “Retrospective of U.S. Soccer.” According to the authors, immigrants from the British Isles and Scotland transported association football to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, it quickly fell under the shadow of professional baseball, the most popular pastime of the era. Soccer’s foreign ancestry and ties to the immigrant community limited its popularity in a time of widespread nativism. As an additional obstacle, explain Reck and Dick, organizational disputes repeatedly hindered the growth of a professional league. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, the United States Football Association (USFA) and the American Football Association each vied for singular recognition from FIFA and held separate championships.

Despite this turmoil, soccer experienced a “golden age” in the 1920s, in line with the larger sports boon of the roaring twenties. In 1921, the American Soccer League (ASL) was formed from competing organizations. The professional league officially incorporated “soccer” to distinguish itself from American football, an increasingly popular collegiate sport. Although the university gridiron game was well liked, the National Football League languished due to the disdain of professionalism and the fears of violence. Interestingly, explain Reck and Dick, when comparing the ASL to the NFL “a prognosticator would most likely have predicted a brighter future for professional soccer” than its football counterpart (pg. 72).

The apex of soccer’s popularity in the United States coincided with the first World Cup. In 1930, FIFA organized the tournament, with Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, France, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, United States, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia vying for the inaugural title. Other countries received invitations; however, the Great Depression and squabbles with FIFA kept many teams home. The United States finished third, its highest mark to date in World Cup competition.

While the 1930 third place finish offered a glimmer of hope for the United States, the “soccer wars” fought between the USFA and ASL throughout the 1920s climaxed at the end of the decade and irrevocably marred the sport internally. “Like two feuding out-of-control toddlers trying to decide on the next toy to throw at one another, the two central soccer organizations in the United States continued their battle,” note Reck and Dick (pg. 85). The divisive pettiness of the two leagues sparked problems while the Great Depression struck the terminal blow; the short-lived glory of the 1930 World Cup not only proved brief, but is also mostly forgotten in contemporary memory.

Professional soccer thus largely disappeared from the US sport scene, argues Reck and Dick. Consequently, following World War II collegiate soccer took over and the turn toward the upside-down pyramid commenced. “The pipeline of soccer success shifted away from the streets and amateur and semi-pro leagues to the university,” they argued (pg. 96). In turn, youth soccer transitioned into a pay-to-play club system that prioritized the earning of college scholarships.

Although the triangular paradigm came to dominate the sport, the rise of air travel and television pumped life back into professional soccer. In 1968, several struggling leagues merged together to form the North American Soccer League (NASL). According to Reck and Dick, the dearth of youth talent in the United States—caused by the upside-down pyramid—allowed foreign-born stars to dominate the league. Most notably, Pele (Brazil) joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 (at age 34), with Giorgio Chinaglia (Italy) and Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) eventually rounding out the team. The Cosmos’s “trifecta” increased the level of play and reinvigorated fandom; however, the blip proved fleeting. While the Cosmos may have thrived, the league as a whole struggled. As the authors put it, the “owners worked on keeping a half-submerged ship afloat in deep waters” (pg. 122). The NASL eventually collapsed in 1983.

The third and final section of American Soccer, “From the Local to the National,” intertwines Reck’s and Dick’s experiences in the world of youth soccer with the current status of the sport. They first become involved as many adults do: as “parents-turned-soccer-coaches” (pg. 7). In the summer of 2005, Reck and Dick volunteered to coach their daughters’s soccer team. The two Appalachian State University professors assumed a participant-observer role and decided to film the experience, which resulted in the creation of the documentary Offside(s): Soccer in Small-Town America.

In American Soccer, Reck and Dick argue that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, soccer “transitioned from kid-organized free play to an adult-controlled money-making proposition,” to the detriment of US soccer as a whole (pg. 127). The two scholars witnessed the impact of this conversion first-hand as coaches for the Watauga County Parks and Recreation. In this role, they experienced the competitive nature of youth sport, the pull of costly elite club teams, overly-invested parents, and the turn toward specialization.

American Soccer provides a multifaceted account of US soccer. Reck and Dick seamlessly combine theory, history, and observation to tell the tale of the sport’s rise and fall in the United States. Sport historians will appreciate the detailed history—bolstered by a handful of oral testimonies—as well as the various contexts provided. For example, when the authors discuss the connection of youth soccer to parks and recreation departments, they provide a history of community recreation that includes the triple effects of the National Park Movement, urban park movement, and urban recreation movement. Furthermore, Reck and Dick frequently discuss soccer in conjunction with the development of other professional sports, adding importantly historical layers to their account.

While the two authors embrace various theoretical and historical methodologies, gender remains a frustratingly simplified addition. Reck and Dick acknowledge in the introduction that girls and women are largely overlooked in American Soccer. They explain that this “is an editorial decision” based on personal contacts with various male players and men’s leagues, and also because “competitive women’s soccer is relatively new” (pg. 10). Although Reck and Dick are upfront in their omission, the rare inclusion of women is disappointing, particularly when the USWNT fairs so much better than the USMNT. Moreover, the two scholars-turned-coaches discuss their daughters’s team as a case study into the upside-down pyramid, however, they make no mention of the gender issues that oftentimes plague girls sports, such as unknowledgeable coaches, inferior equipment and fields, and lack of financial support.

Finally, along with infrequent mention of girls and women, Reck and Dick only superficially raise the question of masculinity. Almost in passing, they insinuate that one reason soccer fails to capture the US imagination is because Americans perceive it as less masculine than baseball, basketball, and football. A fuller gender analysis here would have been fruitful. What does it mean to be masculine? How do conceptions of masculinity connect to class and ethnicity?

Nevertheless, Reck and Dick use a commendable diversity of approaches to discuss the history and current position of soccer in the United States. As they show, the upside-down pyramid limits the development of youth talent, stifles the sport based on socioeconomic status, and essentially guarantees poor showings at the international level. Until the pyramid is righted, the MLS can expect a continued downturn in ratings and the United States an early departure from the 2018 Russian World Cup.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

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