Review of The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days Of The United Soccer Association

Seese, Dennis J. The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days Of The United Soccer Association. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. 308. Notes, Selected Bibliography, Index, Acknowledgements. $45 paperback, $44.99 eBook.

Reviewed by Benjamin Dettmar

Living in the United States for close to ten years, I have seen great advances in the popularity, participation, and penchant for soccer. Equally as exciting, at least for this sport historian, is the rise of soccer scholarship in the United States in the past decade. Dennis J. Seese’s supremely detailed and well-researched history of two 1960s professional soccer leagues, the United Soccer Association (USA) and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), makes The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days Of The United Soccer Association a great addition to the canon of US soccer scholarship.

Rebirth of Pro Soccer Full

Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

What struck me most whilst reading this book was the depth of Seese’s despair at the organization of the two professional leagues that are the focus of his work (the USA and the NPSL). The United States in the late 1960s appears to be on the brink of a soccer breakthrough; the fact that this never happened is obviously frustrating to Seese. While the two leagues were in an often bitter competition with each other, there is no doubt they had the chance to kick-start soccer as a popular sport. The quality of players that teams in both leagues attracted from Europe, South America, and beyond was astounding. Derek Dougan, Trevor Brooking, Gordon Banks, Ruben Gonzalez, Ladislao Kubala, and many more big-name stars came over to ply their trade in one of the fledgling leagues. Furthermore, entire teams such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aberdeen, and Stoke City sent the majority of their squads to the United States to play in the summer months. Most games drew over 10,000 in attendance with some more than doubling that figure, many games were televised, and, at least in some cities, the matches earned positive coverage in local newspapers. There was a chance that soccer could hit the bigtime but as is the norm with US soccer history this never happened and the two leagues were gone just a couple of years after they had brought the promise of the beautiful game to the shores of the United States.

It is clear that Seese blames the men running the sport (who importantly were not soccer aficionados) for the collapse of the leagues. The Laws of the Game were tinkered with, strange scoring systems were used to rank teams, and very few US born players made it onto any of the professional squads in either the USA or the NPSL. In fact, many of the reasons that Seese proffered for the collapse of the leagues were repeated a decade later by the North American Soccer League (NASL) and have also been repeated, to a lesser extent, by Major League Soccer (MLS). The battle that soccer has had in the United States throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century in trying to successfully mold together traditional American values and beliefs with a game that is seen as foreign or ethnic is fascinating and is a main focus of this work. Seese shows how for a few years in the late 1960s, this battle was waged once again unsuccessfully by the political figures in control of US soccer.

Seese’s work complements recent academic scholarship on US soccer. The book is both immensely readable and immensely detailed. The notes, sources, and references are comprehensive and it is clear from his allusions to other scholar’s work that he is extremely well-read in the subject matter. It would have been pleasing for the reader to see some images of the great players, stadiums, and teams that are detailed in the book; especially given the sheer number of names that are mentioned. This was likely a publishing cost issue and the author is quick to direct the reader to games where video footage is available; something this reviewer greatly appreciated.

Seese’s work continues that of academics such as David Trouille, whose work on soccer in Chicago is often referenced. Journalists such as the late, and much missed, David Wangerin have also clearly influenced Seese. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to Seese is that his book will sit on my shelf next to Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World; it will not be out of place. Seese’s writing style is more akin to that of journalists such as Wangerin—this is absolutely meant as a compliment—if only all authors’ work was as accessible.

It is perhaps a tad trite to say at times I wanted Seese to be a little more academic, but at the least I wish he had trusted his readership a little more. For example, chapter 4, “Press Play,” highlights how the written press could both positively and negatively affect the public’s opinion of soccer. Seese analyzes the language used by journalists in different cities across the United States and convinces the reader that this played a key role in whether the game was seen as un-American—thus impacting its popularity. There is no need for Seese to give a dictionary definition of the adjectives journalists used here (he does not do so in later chapters); his point is a good one, is well-made, and is convincing in and of itself. There were also times when I wanted Seese to be a little more critical of the scholarship that had gone before. For example, he seemed to want to analyze Andrei Markovits’ theory of American Exceptionalism but ultimately shied away from specifically disparaging the sociologist’s work.

Relying, as the historian often has to do, on anecdotes and journalism, there are times when the reader can question the validity of Seese’s sources. Throughout the tales of the USA and the NPSL, one group gets an inordinate amount of blame for various failings in both leagues—referees. Officials in any sport are an easy target for players, coaches, fans, and anybody else associated with the sport. US soccer referees in the 1960s are no exception.[1] The officials are blamed for riots that break out at games, for ruining marquee match-ups, and for dissuading big-name players and managers from taking soccer seriously in the United States. Seese goes as far to say that “poor refereeing was perhaps the one thing that truly united the disparate leagues in 1967” (p. 96). The treatment of referees is perhaps a little harsh and it is difficult to imagine that they are truly to blame for the failure of the two leagues as much as the obviously inadequate league commissioners.

When Seese is rooting through the archives and telling case-study history his work is particularly strong. As such one of the most enjoyable chapters was chapter 5, “California Clippers.” This chapter focuses on the California/Oakland Clippers that played in the NPSL, winning the league in 1968, and then later joined the North American Soccer League (NASL), a league created by the merging of the NPSL and USA. Seese’s case study of the Clippers highlights the meticulous research that has gone into his work. The vagaries of US soccer in the late 1960s are explained through the various incarnations of the Clippers and their tumultuous journey from league champions to oblivion in just two years.

If the strength of the book is in the detail and the depth of knowledge that Seese brings to this often overlooked period of US soccer history, then the weakness of The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America could be construed to be the leaps that the author makes in attempting to equate the soccer history of the late 1960s to the history of the United States at that time. There is no doubt that the long hot summer of 1967 was pivotal to all who lived through that era, but at times Seese’s attempts to find a correlation between events appears to be a stretch. For example, a fight between fans of the Detroit Cougars and Houston Stars on June 14, 1967, in the Motor City, is written about in such a way that it appears the author wants to see soccer as a catalyst for the riots that engulfed the city a month later. To be fair to Seese, he does not come out and specifically say this, but you can tell he is trying to persuade the reader of the importance of his work. He need not do so as the topic and scholarship on the soccer history alone is enough to keep the sport historian happy.

In recent years, academics and journalists have done a great job covering the MLS and its continued growth in the sport space of US society. This has led to some excellent scholarship on the NASL (of Pele and New York Cosmos fame) and on seminal moments in US soccer history, such as the US Men’s national teams defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup and the growth of the women’s game after the national teams victory in the World Cup final of 1999 on US soil. Dennis J. Seese’s The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days Of The United Soccer Association has filled a gap in US soccer scholarship and is recommended to all who have an interest in US soccer history or in the history of US sport in that era.

 

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

[1] Full disclosure…I am a soccer referee myself.

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