Collaboration versus Confrontation: Comparing the Successes and Failures of Major League Soccer and the American Soccer League

By Zachary R. Bigalke

Major League Soccer (MLS) kicked off its 22nd season over the past weekend, welcoming two new teams into the fold to expand the league into two 11-team conferences. Fifteen years after the league contracted its two Florida teams, the long-term plan executed by Don Garber seems to have fully flowered. Having outlived all previous attempts to implant professional soccer in the United States, MLS has emerged in its third decade as a mature entity firmly embedded in the American sports scene, and is gaining prominence around the globe.[1]

Plenty of dreamers and speculators have tried to bring high-level soccer to American fans. The first attempts to capitalize on the growing interest in the sport date back to the late 19th century, when baseball owners came together to form a short-lived winter soccer league in 1894.[2] Since that moment, several leagues have come and gone. Each held the promise of being the attempt that would definitively assert soccer’s position among the American pantheon of pastimes, and each eventually receded from the scene only to leave the landscape open for another dreamer to arrive.

When looking for cautionary tales from American soccer history for which to compare Major League Soccer, most cite the North American Soccer League (NASL) that rose and fell between 1968 and 1984. Recently, however, I have found a better example. It is an earlier American Soccer League (ASL) that operated professionally from 1921 through 1931 and helped shape the 1930 U.S. World Cup team, the most successful national team in American history.[3] This discovery forced me to see U.S. soccer history in new ways. In this post I want to explore lessons from that league’s trajectory and compare it with the MLS, breaking from traditional studies that focus on the NASL.

At first glance, there are a few glaring contrasts between the league of the Roaring Twenties and the current incarnation of professional soccer in the United States. The ASL never enjoyed the sort of cooperative relationship that MLS enjoys with the national federation, nor was the older league able to gain early market share in new media. Only a few clubs enjoyed primary control over their stadiums. Had the ASL enjoyed some of the systemic advantages that have benefitted the growth of MLS, we might be approaching soccer’s professional centennial in the United States.

The Benefits of Institutional Unity

Whereas MLS has enjoyed a long and cozy relationship with the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), the American Soccer League was constantly at odds with what was then called the U.S. Football Association (USFA). The coordination between the national federation and national league has been integral in allowing MLS to weather its growing pains. Conversely, a lack of unity between the USFA and the ASL prevented the two from finding ways to weather the onset of the Great Depression.

“Soccer Cup-Tie Sunday,” newspaper advertisement (1931), New York Times.

From its founding in 1921, the ASL was at odds with the national federation due to issues over scheduling, gate receipts, and mandatory participation in the USFA’s National Challenge Cup (now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup). When the league and the USFA managed to come to one of their periodic truces in 1925, the “sudden and undramatic ending to the strife” was heralded by the New York Times as “the greatest step that ever has been taken toward putting the game on a firm foundation in the United States.”[4] After years of battling one another, it was apparent that the two organizations needed to collaborate if the sport was going to grow in the country.

But that collaborative spirit did not last long, even as Thomas Cahill—one of the early fathers of the sport in the United States—bounced between key roles at the USFA and the ASL. By 1928, the ongoing battle over ASL clubs’ participation in the National Challenge Cup led several ASL clubs to withdraw from the national federation.[5] Furthermore, schisms within the sport disrupted league play and led to the formation of dissident leagues as different parties vied for control over the sport.

Instead, what this did more than anything was reduce the level of play across the board as talent was spread across too many clubs. The oversaturation of major markets meant that attendance was spread between too many matches to allow any club to remain solvent. Furthermore, because the USFA was the national entity operating under the auspices of FIFA, it had the power to sanction individuals and clubs. Entities that would be better served collaborating with one another instead found themselves locked into power struggles. An inability to get each key actor on the same page proved detrimental once money began to dry up at the onset of the Depression.

The relationship between MLS and the USSF, on the other hand, can be characterized as anything but contentious. The only period where the two organizations were not completely aligned was during Jürgen Klinsmann’s time as the head of the U.S. men’s national team, when the German-born coach continually took jabs at the league’s quality of play and the lack of promotion and relegation both in the press and with his team selections.[6] Klinsmann was the wedge that might have threatened to break up the collaborative spirit between MLS and the USSF, especially as the criticisms increased between the national team coach and the country’s top league.

Even during that contentious period, though, the league and the federation have been ineluctably linked. “The success of the U.S. national team is directly linked to the success of MLS,” USSF president and FIFA executive committee member Sunil Gulati reiterated while Klinsmann was still the national team manager. He insisted that any criticism of “the national team or its success, that’s inherently saying something about where the league is. And vice versa if you criticize MLS, which is central to our national team.”[7]

While the relationship has not been perfect, MLS and the USSF have been relatively concordant. In lacking that sort of unity, the regular recurrence of internal squabbling helped doom the ASL and rendered soccer a relative non-entity for decades after the league crumbled. This, however, is but one of the structural factors working against the ASL.

The Significance of Media Coverage

It seems almost a truism in modern sport that no league can survive without media coverage. Major League Soccer has struggled to bolster its visibility in the American sports marketplace, but it has benefitted from national television coverage in a way that was never available to the American Soccer League. Where the MLS has succeeded in carving out a market share beyond the local communities that house its franchises, the ASL failed to take advantage of new media that were beginning to dominate the sports landscape.

“Fall River Marksmen vs. Bethlehem Steel,” photograph (ca. 1920s), The Scoring Third, November 30, 2011, http://www.scoringthird.com/2011/11/trip-to-fall-river.html.

While the ASL gained prominent local newspaper coverage in places like Fall River and Bethlehem, and even maintained a regular presence in the pages of larger outlets like the New York Times, it never could capitalize on the growing influence of radio. At a time when baseball was beginning to disseminate its games through the emerging medium, the ASL struggled to land even 15-minute spots on which its scores and highlights could be broadcasted. When they did managed to gain coverage of this nature, it was broadcast on a limited basis only in the New York and New Jersey markets.[8] By the time radio coverage of sports became commonplace, soccer had already faded from the professional scene and would fail to benefit from the technological developments.

For most of its history MLS has struggled to gain a television media presence. In recent years, however, the long-term strategy for building the league has paid dividends. The league enters the third season of its multi-channel deal with ESPN, FOX, and Univision in the American market. Early returns show a large bump in recent years as the league has gained market share both regionally and nationally. It has also bolstered its presence on an international scale, both through its addition of three Canadian clubs in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto as well as thanks to foreign broadcasting deals with networks on multiple continents.[9]

As MLS has matured, it has also managed to capitalize on the development of new media streams that take advantage of mobile and online platforms. Though the ASL obviously had no access to such media, the league’s inability to capture any significant radio broadcasting space for itself was another aspect that helped doom it to the dustbin of American sports history.

The Value of Owning a Playing Space

During the heyday of the American Soccer League, most clubs lacked real control over their playing spaces. There were a few notable exceptions, including soccer-specific Mark’s Stadium outside Fall River, Massachusetts and the multipurpose Steel Field that was primarily constructed as a home for Bethlehem Steel FC in Pennsylvania. In general, however, most clubs in the league played their home matches in ballparks abandoned by baseball teams during the winter.

This had several key impacts on the development of the sport. First, the fact that most clubs were tenants renting their playing spaces meant that there was less flexibility. Matches were sometimes scheduled for weekdays to get around conflicts in scheduling, leading to a reduction in gate receipts as fewer fans could leave work to attend games. This became especially troublesome when inclement weather forced clubs to postpone matches, pushing seasons further into the spring when baseball was returning to the sports landscape.

Originally, MLS followed this model. Although instead of filling ballparks during baseball’s offseason as had the NASL, its used football stadiums when the NFL was not playing in the summer. Garber, the MLS commissioner since 1999, noted last summer that, “When the original business came together, there was no plan for soccer stadiums. They thought that MLS would play in everybody else’s large buildings as a secondary tenant.”[10]

Some clubs, such as the Seattle Sounders, have succeeded in regularly filling home fields originally designed for National Football League franchises. For the most part, though, the league has shifted its tactic toward building stadiums specifically designed for each of its clubs. Garber has framed this as an altruistic endeavor involving “billions of dollars of investment, and lots of support from public figures to help bring this sport to communities.” The advent of soccer-specific stadiums certainly provides fans with the best possible sight lines and a unique stadium experience for viewing soccer, though whether this has had any impact on more effectively bringing sport to MLS communities is questionable. Just like professional franchises in other American sports, MLS is seeking the same streams of public financing that are chased in communities across the country.

The clubs of the ASL had no such advantage, as they operated in the days before public financing of sports venues had become widespread practice throughout the United States. Even those clubs that did own their own stadium, however, were not immune from collapse. Sam Mark, the owner of the Fall River Marksmen, eventually deserted the 15,000-seat stadium he built for his club and moved the team to New York in hopes of attracting larger gate receipts. Like the club that preceded them as the dominant force in the American soccer scene, Bethlehem Steel, the Marksmen could not maintain success long-term outside of a larger metropolitan area.

Soon after buying into the ASL as the owner of the New York Nationals, Charles Stoneham insisted, “All soccer needs in this country to make it as popular as in Europe and as good a drawing card is to stage the games in a modern, well-appointed stadium and present well- balanced teams with high-class players.”[11]

By focusing on a strategy of expanding into cities willing to fund new stadium construction, MLS has avoided the scheduling issues and revenue losses that plagued most of the ASL franchises. What is important, though, is not just what the MLS got right in comparison to the ASL. Let’s now turn toward one aspect in which both leagues have managed to attract not just domestic but also foreign talent.

The Impact of Imported Talent on League Development

The fact that the league has become more popular not just domestically but also internationally has allowed Major League soccer to attract international talent. Beginning with the David Beckham signing in January 2007, MLS has increasingly utilized a strategy of bringing in high-profile talent to sell the sport. It is a move straight out of the NASL playbook of the 1970s, and, just like that league MLS, has suffered somewhat from the notion that it is little more than a retirement league for aging European stars.[12]

That is not an entirely fair accusation, however. While players such as Beckham, David Villa, and Andrea Pirlo might fit the caricature of the player who cashes in on a stateside extension of their careers, the broader demographic of MLS players is beginning to skew younger and more diverse internationally. Nearly 100 Argentine players have suited up for MLS clubs over the past two decades, while the league has also become a pipeline for African talent.[13] During the 2016 season, more than 40 percent of the league’s players were drawn from 57 countries outside the United States and Canada.[14]

The draw to foreign talent is one aspect in which MLS and the American Soccer League are similar. The ASL was an early example of a league that paid well and attracted overseas talent nearly a decade before European nations started opening their pipelines to South America. At one point, representatives of clubs in Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia called upon FIFA to expel the USFA for allowing the ASL to continue poaching overseas talent before the end of their professional contracts in Europe.[15] Nothing ultimately came of the request, but it speaks to the fact that the United States provided an irresistible draw for many European players.

For top talent in the 21st century, MLS has become a stopping point where the money available is on par with what second-tier clubs offer. While no MLS club is about to offer the sort of contract that pays Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo (nearly $500,000 per week), there are multiple players currently in MLS that are earning more per week than any player on current English Premier League champions Leicester City. The chance to capitalize on marketing opportunities in the United States offers further incentive for players to cross the Atlantic.

For emerging talent, though, the draw is just as large. Looking at the pipeline of Argentine talent, we see a group of younger stars either in or entering their primes who are choosing to travel north rather than remain in a volatile domestic league currently on strike due to financial crises at many of its clubs.[16] In the case of players such as the Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri, a robbery at gunpoint in his native Argentina also made a northward migration seem more attractive. Not only does MLS provide a professional opportunity where the paychecks are guaranteed to clear with regularity, but it also affords greater peace of mind to individual players who often hail from places where their status as soccer players put them in greater danger.

For both MLS and the ASL, the influx of foreign talent served to bolster the skills of both domestic as well as international players. This in turn improved the fortunes of the U.S. men’s national team in international competition. The ASL played a critical role in producing the talent that allowed the U.S. to advance to the semifinals of the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, and once it faded from the pro sports landscape the men’s national team stopped qualifying for international competitions. In turn, the growth of MLS has helped the United States develop into a consistent regional soccer powerhouse and regular participant in the World Cup.

Conclusions

One obviously cannot say with certainty that we would be watching another American Soccer League season if it had enjoyed the advantages of institutional support, media saturation, and stadium ownership that are the hallmarks of the MLS growth plan. What we do know, however, is that the absence of such advantages was an impediment from which the ASL could not recover. Even though it proved an attractive spot for foreign talent to relocate, the ASL never could overcome the restrictions on its growth that kept it mired as a regionally based entity.

MLS has survived in an unforgiving American sports landscape in large part because of these very advantages. As the league continues to negotiate broader and bigger media rights contracts and more of its clubs relocate into stadiums of their own, MLS enters its third decade in a state of health that no soccer league has previously approached in the United States. As we have seen throughout American soccer history, there is always a risk that this hold on the American public is tenuous and that it could vanish at any moment. But at this point MLS has positioned itself to become even more prominent both locally and globally in the 21st century.

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 an editor at Sports Unbiased, and can be reached at bigalkez@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.

Notes:


[1] A two-part interview with MLS commissioner Don Garber is available at Graham Parker, “Commissioner Don Garber on the Young Guns of MLS Ownership,” Grantland, March 26, 2014, and Parker, “Out of the Darkness: How MLS Commissioner Don Garber Took His League From Contraction to Expansion,” Grantland, April 8, 2014.
[2] “Plans of the Football League: The Association Game Will Be Played in Six Cities by Professionals,” New York Times, August 15, 1894, 3.
[3] For those interested in learning more about this aspect of early American soccer history, see Zachary R. Bigalke, “Anything but ringers: early American soccer hotbeds and the 1930 US World Cup team,” Soccer & Society (published online December 21, 2016): 1-21.
[4] “Soccer Magnates Bring About Peace: Long Feud Ends When American League is Voted to Membership in USFA,” New York Times, May 19, 1925, 18.
[5] “165 Clubs Leave US Soccer Body: Only 5 in Southern New York State Association Vote to Retain National Affiliation,” New York Times, October 27, 1928, S17.
[6] A deeper look at how Klinsmann’s tenure impacted American soccer is available here at the blog; see Patrick Salkeld, “Jürgen Klinsmann: US Soccer’s Diversion from USWNT and Chuck Blazer,” Sport in American History, December 19, 2016.
[7] Doug McIntyre, “Sunil Gulati responds to Don Garber’s latest criticism of Jurgen Klinsmann,” ESPNFC, April 25, 2015.
[8] Steven Apostolov, “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Forgotten Past and Clouded Future of American Soccer from the Perspective of Massachusetts,” Soccer & Society 13, no. 4 (2012): 525, 529.
[9] Darren Heitner, “How Major League Soccer Is Closing The Gap With The Big Four,” Forbes, December 22, 2015.
[10] Henry Bushnell, “How soccer-specific stadiums have (and haven’t) transformed MLS,” Yahoo! Sports, August 26, 2016.
[11] “Stoneham Obtains N.Y. Soccer Club: Buys Indiana Flooring Team of American League—Changes Name to Nationals.” New York Times, Sep. 9, 1927, 20.
[12] See, for example, Laura Wagner, “Major League Soccer Gambles On Star Power Of Aging Foreign Players,” NPR, July 27, 2015.
[13] For more on Argentine players in MLS, see Jack Williams, “In Major League Soccer, Argentines Find a Home and Success,” New York Times, March 4, 2017; for more on African players in MLS, see Zach Bigalke, “The African Influence in Major League Soccer,” Playing for 90, January 28, 2013 and Rahman Baba Osman, “Africa’s Growing Influence in Major League Soccer,” Lads Off the Pitch, May 5, 2016.
[14] “MLS Players by Birthplace 2016,” Major League Soccer, March 18, 2016.
[15] “Europe to Ask Ban on U.S. Soccer Body,” New York Times, January 25, 1927, 15.
[16] “Argentina weekend football matches postponed amid strike,” BBC, March 4, 2017.

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