Lisi, Clemente A. A History of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Pp. ix + 171. Photos, appendices, bibliography and index. $35.00 hardcover, $33.00 e-book.
Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke
Soccer has always had a contentious history on American soil. Prone to cyclical boom and bust periods, the sport seems finally to have found solid footing in the 21st century. Major League Soccer continues to grow in ways never imagined by predecessor leagues such as the American Soccer League of the 1920s or the North American Soccer League of the late 1960s through early 1980s.
Much of this growth has been predicated on the U.S. men’s national team finally becoming a consistent player on the global stage. While the men have failed to come close to matching the success rate of the women’s national team, they have still evolved into a regional giant.
Since 1990, the United States has participated in every FIFA World Cup. That streak, however, ends this summer. The United States men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, marking the first time since 1986 that the Americans will miss the tournament.
The release of Clemente A. Lisi’s A History of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team last October was intended to coincide with preparations for the World Cup in Russia. Though that fell through, Lisi’s book still provides an elementary overview of more than a century of international soccer matches played by the national team.
It is at once a necessary addition to the historiography, and at the same time it is a book that leaves one wanting more. Lisi, it must be noted, is not a historian by trade. Instead, the author is an assistant associate professor of writing and journalism at The King’s College in New York City with a long history of work in newsrooms as a reporter and editor. He has written several other books on soccer history, including a corresponding history of the U.S. women’s national team and an overview of World Cup history.
This book, however, leaves something to be desired. Broken into nine chapters, Lisi’s book takes a chronological look at American involvement in international competitions from 1916 through the present. The early chapters offer a rudimentary glimpse at the early rise of the U.S. men’s national team. A third-place finish at the inaugural 1930 World Cup in Uruguay and the upset of England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil are given the most attention in these early chapters, though their coverage still felt incomplete given their significance to the broader history of the sport and the national team.
The bulk of the page count, instead, focuses attention on the developments of the national team from the 1980s onward. Understandably, the period of limited participation in the international soccer scene that transpired between 1950 and 1990 is given only basic coverage. The preeminent focus on more recent developments is an interesting authorial decision for the production of history. Lisi passed up the opportunity to flesh out more fully the earlier zeniths reached by the national team on the international stage in favor of this contemporary focus.
Beyond the editorial decisions by Lisi about which parts of the history to focus on, this offering is limited by some serious historical oversights. It is evident that Lisi did conduct considerable research to produce this volume. But that research largely goes undocumented in this book, an omission that limits its functionality as a foundation for further study. The lack of citations or a functional bibliography is a glaring omission that hampers the usefulness of this book from a historian’s standpoint.
Without being able to trace more specifically the sources that informed Lisi’s text, the author missed a prime opportunity to place this work more fully in conversation with the broader scholarship on American soccer history. The limited bibliography reveals only two secondary sources on the subject of American soccer: Tony Cirino’s 1983 book U.S. Soccer vs. the World and David Wangerin’s 2008 title Soccer in a Football World. What Lisi apparently fails to draw upon is a rich corpus of scholarship that has taken place over the past few decades that incorporates regional American soccer histories and their impact on the broader narrative of international participation.
Given the short length of the chapters, a pair of appendices at the rear of the book are of limited utility. Thirty years ago, when soccer was at a nadir in the United States and prior to the spread of the internet, the lists of all-time team records and World Cup box scores would have been far more useful as an addendum to the tome. In the digital age, though, the content is something that is easily searchable online. As such, the addition of these two appendices comes off merely as padding to bulk up the page count than as a substantive addition that fortifies the content in the main body of text.
Where the book is at its best is in providing character sketches of many of these historical figures. The book is arranged in an easily digestible fashion, with breakout sections on key players throughout history. In this regard, Lisi’s background as a journalist proves beneficial in helping to humanize these figures. Photos interspersed throughout the work offer additional context and enrich the work.
What Lisi provides is a quick read that aggregates a choppy history and tries to provide a coherent narrative arc. In this regard, Lisi’s book can provide a worthwhile introduction to the history of the U.S. men’s national team for those without much background on the subject. For those already grounded in the history of American soccer, however, there is finite value to be gleaned from this title.
This book is a fun and fast read, designed especially for those without a comprehensive understanding of this history. But it is definitely a popular title rather than an academically-focused work, and its utility as a secondary source and as a learning tool are both limited by the decisions made during production.
Zachary R. Bigalke is a recent M.A. graduate from 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 website FanSided and its college football vertical Saturday Blitz. Reach Zachary at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @zbigalke.