Review of Soccer Frontiers

Bolsmann, Chris and George N. Kioussis, eds. Soccer Frontiers: The Global Game in the United States, 1863-1913. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021. Pp. 306. $65.00, hard cover and PDF.

Reviewed by Daniel Hart

Soccer––the “beautiful game”––swept back into the American consciousness this fall with a fine showing by the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) in the World Cup. Christian Pulisic led his squad out of the group stage and into the round of 16 teams, where they lost to a strong Dutch team. That game was watched by over 13 million American viewers, a sign, alongside the continued growth of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), that soccer is belatedly making an imprint on the American sports soul. 

Soccer’s place in the American cultural ethos remains complex. There is no doubt the quality of play and the quality of American players is improving: look no further than the dominance of the United States Women’s Team (USWNT), currently ranked number one in the world and winners of four World Cups, as well as the proliferation of American men in the best leagues in the world (Premier League, Serie A, and Bundesliga, among others). Soccer is America’s most popular youth sport, with over 3 million participants between the ages of five and 19. But soccer as a mainstream American pastime always seems just out of reach, regularly entering the collective American consciousness during the World Cup before again being relegated to second-class status behind American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. How to explain this phenomenon is an important question; to do so, one must start with the history of soccer in America. Thankfully, editors Chris Bolsmann and George N. Kioussis, both professors at Cal State Northridge, have compiled such a history.

University of Tennessee Press, 2021.

Soccer Frontiers: The Global Game in the United States, 1863-1913, winner of the 2022 North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) Anthology Award, is a collection of 11 essays on the origins of soccer in America, tracing the roots of the sport from east to west, with the first five essays exploring the Northeast, one essay on soccer in the South, two on the Midwest, and three on the West Coast. The book considers a 50-year period between 1863 and 1913, essentially an interwar period between the American Civil War (1861-65) and World War I (1914-18), to fill a gap in scholarship on the development and spread of soccer in the United States. This interwar period neatly matches with the creation of the Football Association of England, which codified the rules of the game, and the formation of the United States of America Football Association (USAFA, since renamed the United States Soccer Federation) in 1913. With rapid urbanization and industrialization brought by a dynamic economy and waves of immigrants, soccer flourished in many American cities. There was a tension with these new immigrants over assimilation as soccer battled with gridiron football and baseball for the imagination of the American sports psyche. 

In Chris Bolsmann’s introduction, he presents a useful historiography on American soccer’s origins, although it is more of a lamentation on the dearth of scholarship devoted to this history that avers that soccer’s origins in America is “only meagerly understood.” (ix) The 2001 publication of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism by Steven Hellerman has served as the standard text for soccer’s American origin story, explaining why the world’s most popular team sport was crowded out by a national chauvinism toward an “outsider’s game” by the indigenous American sports of football and baseball. The opening essay on the Oneida Football Club by Kevin Tallec Marston and Mike Cronin may be among the best of the collection. Unlike James Naismith’s invention of basketball (true) or Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball (myth), the origins of soccer in America is considerably cloudier. The Oneidas were a group of upper-class Brahmin school boys who played games on the Boston Common. The nature of these games––they were an amalgamation of soccer, football, rugby, and undefined playground play––is unclear, thereby allowing the Oneidas to stake a claim as the first participants in both soccer and gridiron football. Contrasting with the Oneidans and their privilege, immigration and industrialization also contributed to the growth of American soccer, as is described in Steven Apostolov’s essay on soccer in Quincy, Massachusetts, a ship building city five miles south of Boston. David Kilpatrick’s essay celebrates the rich history and importance of soccer in New York City, while Thomas McCabe’s entry does so for New Jersey. The highlight of McCabe’s essay is the fascinating story of Kearny, New Jersey, a small town of 35,000 which has been at the forefront of American soccer for one-hundred and sixty years. In 1990, three native sons represented the United States in the World Cup. Ed Farnsworth’s essay on Philadelphia explores the nascent soccer clubs at colleges and universities in that city, and the proliferation of teams and leagues that evinced the sports’ popularity, but also were doomed due to a lack of organization.

Though the American South is inextricably linked with college football, a review of recent NCAA finalists in men’s and women’s soccer reveals an interesting phenomena: Clemson, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida State, among others, have all appeared in the title game. Patrick Sullivan looks at soccer in the south, particularly Alabama’s status as a small branch in the American soccer tree that briefly flowered. Its effects are resonant today: the schools in college football’s dominant league, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), do not offer men’s soccer.From the American South, the book then heads to the Midwest with essays by Gabe Logan on Chicago and Dave Lange on St. Louis, where the sport flourished. In Chicago, the sport grew from three fledging teams to two men’s leagues containing 26 clubs and over 500 registered players. Twelve area high schools fielded teams, supported by 58 park teams for juveniles. In St. Louis, the growth of the sport was even more robust, thanks in large part to the “Father of American Soccer,” Thomas Cahill. Cahill, who helped establish the USAFA in 1913 and the professional American Soccer League (ASL) in 1921, was a native New Yorker who did not learn the game until he was 20 but would spend the rest of life in the sport. Cahill was in part responsible for inviting English teams to play a series of matches against American squads in 1905 and 1909.

The final four essays explore the sport on the West Coast. Zachary Bigalke’s essay on Portland details how soccer remained relevant even after interest waned on college campuses, where the sport was eclipsed by gridiron football, due to high-school participation. Two essays examine soccer in San Francisco. Derek Van Rheenan offers an overview that highlights how the factors that spurred soccer in cities around the United States––immigration, urbanization, and industrialization––had a similar impact in San Francisco. Yet, Van Rheenan emphasizes a distinction in the city by the Bay, writing, “the multiple meanings connected to the beautiful game in the iconic city by the bay have been strikingly emblematic of San Francisco’s rich cultural history.” (236) The second study on San Francisco is Brian Bunk’s fascinating portrayal of women’s soccer and sporting culture in the city, an important study that underscores the changing mores of American society as a whole. The final essay by co-editor George Kioussis examines the “revival” of soccer in Los Angeles from 1906-1910, where soccer proved to be a modestly successful alternative to the growing hegemon of gridiron football. Eileen Narcotta-Welp’s epilogue is a worthy conclusion to this fine collection, reminding that athletics play a significant role in “how and what it means to be American.” (291) She ends by situating Soccer Frontiers as the start of further study on how soccer fits in the lexicon of American sport and culture. 

After decades of false starts, perhaps it is soccer’s time in the United States. Soccer Frontiers, alongside Brian Bunk’s From Football to Soccer (2021), affirm a growing interest in the history of the sport. The volume’s essays together reveal that American soccer lacked an innovative coach or galvanizing force akin to Walter Camp or Pop Warner in American football, leaders who propelled the game. Even the aforementioned Thomas Cahill, “the father of American soccer,” was passed over as coach of the national team in the 1920s and saw his professional league fold in the 1930s. As some of the authors point out, soccer had an opportunity at the turn of the century when the violence of gridiron football caused many colleges to consider banning it. But it was not meant to be. For scholars and fans alike, the meticulously researched and accessible Soccer Frontiers is an essential tool in the effort to more comprehensively understand the game’s place in America; now that it is clear where the game has been, it can better figure out which way to go.

Daniel R. Hart was an all-conference football player at Bowdoin College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in history and government. He holds a master’s degree from Harvard University, and his book on the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge during the Vietnam War is scheduled to be published in 2023.

One thought on “Review of Soccer Frontiers

  1. Glad to see this collection of essays on the early development of soccer in the USA appear. Soccer needs more serious attention on its history, and Soccer Frontiers is a great addition.


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