Wangerin, David. Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv+240. Index and 18 halftones. $50.50 clothback, $24.95 paperback and electronic book.
Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke
Over the summer, the United States hosted the Copa America Centenario, as the South American championships expanded to 16 teams for its centennial edition and drifted off the continent in search of bigger revenues. The tournament marked the biggest soccer event to be held on American soil since the 1994 World Cup, providing fans throughout the country with the opportunity to see some of the top players in the world in competition for their respective national teams.
Along the way, the U.S. men’s national team advanced deep in the tournament before falling to Argentina 4-0 in the semifinals and then losing 1-0 to Colombia to finish fourth overall. It was one of the best American finishes in its long history of international tournament play, equaling the feat of the 1930 FIFA World Cup squad. Were he still alive to witness the event, the combination of high ticket prices and low attendance figures might have led soccer historian David Wangerin to declare this tournament yet another missed opportunity for soccer to really develop a strong foothold in the United States.
In Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes, released posthumously in paperback after its initial 2011 publication, Wangerin examines the starts and stops that have marked the Sisyphean development of soccer on American soil since the game first tried to take root in the 19th century. The book serves as a crucial follow-up to Wangerin’s first monograph, Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game (Temple University Press, 2008), one which allowed the author to expand further upon several pivotal developments, individuals, teams, and regions in the story of American soccer history. Distant Corners takes a more fluid approach to telling the story of American soccer’s stunted development than the more chronological organization of Wangerin’s first book, hoping to probe the reasons behind each successive failure by the sport to anchor itself in the entertainment landscape.
Throughout the book three key areas of scholarship emerge as themes that are central to Wangerin’s work. Decentralization, foreignness, and a bloated American sports landscape all pop up at various points as impediments to the growth of soccer in the United States. Wangerin, a teenager during the heyday of the North American Soccer League (NASL), seems to have been shaped by a desire to show how this trio of roadblocks has repeatedly arisen to prevent the game from blossoming in his native land.
Wangerin takes pain to demonstrate the persistence of American perceptions of soccer as a foreign sport, along with the desire at different points to create modified versions of the game to try to appeal to American audiences. The first chapters focus on the close association of the sport with Great Britain, from the association of the game with the British touring teams that visited the United States during the first decade of the 20th century to the persistent links between the United States Football Association (USFA, forerunner to today’s United States Soccer Federation) and the English FA in London. Apart from the nativist development of the game in St. Louis, detailed in Chapter 5, Wangerin shows how soccer’s earliest footholds were communities heavily influenced by immigrants from the British Isles. Much as St. Louis developed an insular style that deviated from international norms and the American Soccer League tinkered with its rules in the 1920s, later iterations of American soccer at both the collegiate and professional levels attempted to differentiate themselves from global standards in terms of field layout, points structures, substitution rules, and other fundaments of the sport.
The author also hones in on various points in which administrative weakness and power struggles among key figures resulted in a failure to create the necessary institutional infrastructures that would have allowed the game to build upon periods of forward momentum. The trend begins, according to Distant Corners, with the birth of the USFA and its internecine conflict with the extant American Football Association as the two rival bodies tried to affiliate with FIFA. This continued onward, Wangerin notes in Chapter 3 about early American soccer promoter and USFA secretary Thomas W. Cahill, as the sport made its first earnest attempt at professionalization in the 1920s and fractured due to conflict with the USFA before the Great Depression and a lack of radio rights finished the American Soccer League’s demise. This theme continues to come forth in Chapter 6 on the California Clippers, a team that found itself aligning with the wrong professional league in the late 1960s prior to the NASL’s rise and then came into conflict with the USFA’s successor after striking out as an independent organization.
Finally, Wangerin shows how U.S. soccer has been blocked over time from full development by American football. Early in the book the author focuses in part on the adoption and evolution of the gridiron game on northeastern college campuses in the late 19th century, and how not even concerns about the inherent dangers of American football provided an ample opening for soccer to supplant the game at universities. As first college and later professional football entrenched themselves in the American sports landscape, they also set the standards by which the NASL and its antecedent leagues were judged in terms of attendance and media-rights negotiations.
Given the increasing nuance that is being brought to sport history and specifically American soccer history in recent decades, it bears mentioning that Distant Corners focuses exclusively on the development of the men’s game in the United States. Given the coverage that women’s soccer received in Soccer in a Football World, though, this is not an oversight on the author’s part but rather a natural consequence of the specific figures on which he chose to focus in this book. Seeing as the narrative concludes by examining the dissolution of the NASL, trying to shoehorn in a discussion about gender in the American game would have obfuscated a clear narrative structure.
There is one quibble that more serious scholars might find with this offering. Wangerin, who was not an academic historian by trade, clearly wrote throughout his life with the goal of disseminating deeper truths about American soccer history to fans and the wider public. As such, the absence of footnotes or endnotes is not in itself either unexpected or unwarranted for a book of this nature, especially since he was known as generous with his resources during his life. The one oversight to be found in Distant Corners is the lack of any bibliographic information anywhere in the book. While the author utilizes in-line citations when inserting quotations into his narrative, these more often than not lack full enough information to guide fellow soccer historians to the specific primary sources where quotes originated.
Now that he has passed away, scholars hoping to build upon Wangerin’s foundational work are required to rediscover the primary sources for themselves without the benefit of a roadmap for guidance. Despite its limited usefulness as a springboard for further research, however, Distant Corners remains a timely work that deftly highlights the crests and troughs of soccer’s sputtering growth as a mainstream sport in the United States. Wangerin left behind a critical contribution that will continue to dispel myths and enrich public understanding of the long and contentious history of American soccer.
While this summer’s Copa America Centenario failed to reach the loftiest of projections, it nevertheless broke all attendance records and was viewed on billions of televisions around the globe. The fact that South American powerhouses viewed the United States as the best place to capitalize on the centennial celebration of their continental championship, in the end, might just be one indication that American soccer has finally evolved beyond the lost causes that Wangerin laments throughout his final contribution to the field.
Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.