Reviews of recent U.S. soccer research

Bunk, Brian B. From Football to Soccer: The Early History of the Beautiful Game in the United States. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2021. Pp. 296. 33 illustrations. $24.95 paper and ebook.

Dure, Beau. Why the U.S. Men Will Never Win the World Cup: A Historical and Cultural Reality Check. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Pp. 246. $29 hardback and ebook.

Lisi, Clemente A. A History of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Pp. 182. $23 paper and ebook.

Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowksi

Despite being one of the earliest sporting activities in the history of the United States, men’s soccer does not have a rich tradition in the country. It lacks a significant fanbase, likely because American club teams have yet to achieve any sort of success on the international stage. While the women’s national team is a powerhouse –– always considered among the favorites to win big competitions –– the men’s national team struggles to even make it to the World Cup. While much is being done to build the infrastructure necessary to mold future soccer superstars, the sport lacks certain cultural foundations that would make it important for the casual sports fan. Based on the rich history of soccer in America, this should not be the case. Its beginnings actually gave the United States a head start in putting in place the foundations for a soccer culture that exists in countries as various as Argentina, Russia, Saudi Arabia or New Zealand.

To understand how the beautiful game became inferior to the likes of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey in the United States, one must travel as far back as the first half of the 19th century, when soccer’s status on American soil was being undermined even before it became well established. The fact that Americans renamed what was universally known as “football” to “soccer” suggests that the game was never fully accepted nor embraced. It was not that football was un-American; it just was not American. For a relatively new country like the United States, sports played a crucial part in establishing a sense of belonging and a source of an own identity. With time, soccer was accepted as an element of the sports landscape in America and various efforts were made by Americans to expand the discipline’s popularity.

Understanding how this has unfolded and is ongoing is possible thanks to three very different, yet very informative, books: Brian D. Bunk’s From Football to Soccer (2021), Clemente A. Lisi’s A History of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (2017), and Beau Dure’s Why the U.S. Men Will Never Win the World Cup (2019). Bunk’s book describes the first years of soccer in the United States. Lisi’s, as the title suggests, retraces the history of men’s national team. Dure’s tries to answer the titular question with a mixture of history, sociology, and humor. The three books complement each other and provide the reader with a fuller, but far from complete, understanding of why Americans are still struggling to make an impact on the international scene in the most popular sport in the world.

As early as 1586, an English expedition arrived in Greenland and played a game of what was the predecessor to soccer with locals. Bunk claims that the game was important for two reasons. Apart from being the earliest documented game of soccer on North American soil, it marks a rare instance when Europeans and indigenous peoples played the sport together. This, in turn, means that indigenous peoples of North America knew how to play an early iteration of soccer. It was one of the pastimes of Native Americans, which the colonists found unique. The goal of these games was the same –– caring for one’s body by staying active in one’s free time while tightening local bonds by forming teams focused on a common goal. Yet, the shared activity did not bring Native people and white colonists closer.

University of Illinois Press, 2021.

Since its inception, soccer was associated with youth and with time. Because hunting long was considered a true, manly sport, soccer earned a reputation for being childish. The idea perseveres to this day in the United States, as evidenced by the number of young girls and boys who play the sport, as well as by the ever-present figure of the soccer mom. While the benefits of the sport were widely touted, there also were numerous efforts to ban or outlaw it. Nevertheless, on December 20, 1856, the first football rules for adults were published in the United States, furthering the institutionalization of the game. This, in turn, led to the creation of the first soccer leagues, the American League of Professional Football (ALPF) and the American Association of Professional Football (AAPF), in the United States. They also were the first leagues formed outside of Great Britain. On September 29, 1894, the first professional soccer matches in the United States were played. 

Thus, presenting soccer as relatively new to the United States would be to dismiss its history. The research by Bunk and Lisi shows that soccer has been in the country for over 150 years. It is, therefore, not new to America. Yet, it was never as culturally significant as it was in other countries. Lisi’s book is especially informative explaining why, using the men’s national team to chronicle how the sport has struggled for attention and respect, despite considerable achievements at local levels. 

The perception of the sport has been heavily influenced by the fact that the immigrants often have been some of the best players on the pitch. The first national team consisted of players from the Northeast and was, in fact, called the All-American Soccer Football Team. The first official game the team participated in took place in Stockholm in 1916, when the American team was on a six-game tour in Scandinavia. The Americans beat the Swedes 3-2, and then drew 1-1 with the Norwegians. These early successes were validating for the United States Football Association, which had formed just three years before the team embarked on the tour of friendly matches.

 In 1930, the United States was one of the 13 teams to participate in the inaugural World Cup. Taking place in Uruguay, the tournament would turn out to be the best in the national team’s history, as it placed third following a devastating 1-6 loss at the hands of the Argentinians. Not only did the team finish third, but American striker Bert Patenaude also became the first player ever to score a hat trick at the World Cup (on July 17, 1930 against Paraguay in a 3-0 win). Nevertheless, newspapers still wrote that soccer was not for Americans. Little mind was paid to the fact that the 14 players who went to the tournament were immigrants –– six English-born and the rest Scottish. Nor to the fact that they trained aboard the ship which took them to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, for the tournament. 

Three years after the tournament, in 1933, the American Soccer League (ASL) ceased to exist. Established in 1921, the league allowed for local talent to develop into players that could be used for national team competitions, which were still the most important matches. That mostly immigrants and ethnic groups not only played but attended soccer games was crucial for the development of soccer in the United States. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Because immigrants’ countries of origin were more successful in soccer than America, rooting loyalties remained with homelands, not with the solid, but not spectacular, U.S. soccer team. When the ASL was reactivated in 1950, it did not fulfill fans’ expectations, as the level of competition was rather low, partially due to the fact that players needed to hold regular jobs in order to make a living. Being underdogs also did not sit well with American fans. This makes the 1950 World Cup 1-0 victory over England worthy of its name –– The Miracle on Grass –– because, unlike the professional English athletes, the Americans were basically amateurs, playing soccer in their free time.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

In 1960, with the creation of the North American Soccer League (NASL), it seemed that Americans were about to take over the global game. It originally was hoped that the league would develop homeborn talent. Instead, it relied on foreign superstars, as only big names generated the revenue necessary to keep the league afloat. In 1975, the New York Cosmos brought in Pelé, the best player in the world, much to the jealousy of well-established European clubs that had been trying for years to snatch the Brazilian away from Santos, the only team he ever had played for. At the time of his arrival in New York, Pelé was 35 and past his prime, yet still capable of playing two solid years before retiring. His arrival in the United States at such an advanced age presaged a trend that would be renewed decades later with the MLS, with players like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming to the States to earn big money as they were nearing retirement.

Lisi’s book follows the up-and-down, success-and-failure trajectory of the national team. Oftentimes, just when it has seemed that the team has finally gotten right the recipe for international recognition, something bad happens. Such a mishap happened in 2018, when the team failed to qualify for the World Cup. The fact that A History of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team was published a year earlier somewhat excuses the optimism of the author, who writes with conviction about America’s local supremacy. The loss would undoubtedly have influenced the narration of the book. 

Beau Dure, the author of Why the U.S. Men Will Never Win the World Cup, is on the other side of the spectrum, stating his thesis in the title of the book and defending it throughout. His argument concerns soccer’s lack of popularity in the United States. The top four American leagues in baseball, basketball, football and hockey pull in more revenue than all the top soccer leagues around the world, except for the United Kingdom, making the Premier League the biggest non-American league in the world. While all countries use organized sports in order to forge a national identity, Americans clearly are the best at it, as their leagues in their sports are by far the best in the world. When one wants to prove that he is the best basketball player, he needs to play in the NBA. If its hockey, it must be the NHL. Baseball? MLB. Football? NFL. The MLS? Not so much. It is not only not as popular as these leagues, but also is less engaging to American fans than the Premier League or the German Bundesliga. With easy access to these competitions, fans prefer to follow them, not the local league. Europe is still the proving ground for the best soccer players and it is hard to imagine a situation when another continent –– let alone another country –– will take over its position.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

In order to fight for the viewer’s attention, MLS has resorted to the same strategies the NASL did –– bringing in big-name players past their primes in order to boost ratings. While the MLS has a salary cap in place, each club is allowed to utilize the Designated Player Rule, which at first allowed a franchise to sign one player for a large sum of money that counted only a small portion against the salary cap. Later, the rule was expanded to three players. It is not that the league is not developing local talent, though. The MLS limits the number of international players on each team to eight, yet those slots can be traded so that one team has ten Americans and another has six, and so on. This, however, puts into doubt the enforcement of these rules, leading to such events as the 2018 game between New York and Portland, where only one American player appeared on the pitch. Because the league is constantly struggling for viewership, it cannot focus solely on calmly creating the best environment for the domestic players to blossom. Ever since 1996, when MLS was created, it has relied on various quirks in order to be more interesting. For example, the hockey-like penalty shootout after games that ended in a draw. That idea was quickly abandoned, as it made the league seem less professional. It was only in the 2000s that teams started to build their own stadiums. Before, they had to play on small football stadiums, with capacities of about 20,000, in order for the venues to look full on television. 

The enduring efforts to make American soccer more successful highlight a deeper problem of American sports fans in general –– that of wanting to be the best at everything. The attention paid to other sports prevents Americans from dominating at soccer. Yet, in a twisted quest to still try to be the best, the infrastructure of American soccer has failed to establish the sport as a valuable cultural institution, one that unites people of various backgrounds and ethnicities. The three books reviewed here show that soccer is at its best when it is directed at common goals and not individual gains.

Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021)

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