Many commentators billed yesterday’s World Cup Round-of-16 match between the United States and Belgium as the biggest in the team’s history, and it’s at the very least an arguable point. Even in defeat, the United States’ gritty campaign is a welcome advertisement for the game of soccer in America. Just maybe, it has even sparked the kind of interest that advocates have envisioned for quite a long time — since the early years of the 20th century, in fact. Not only is the game’s history in the United States nearly as long as many other major sports, but prognostications about the future of “association football”, or soccer, in America have been articulated for well over one hundred years.
A 1905 tour by a team of English amateurs offers a particularly interesting chapter in this story. Over a month-and-half that autumn, the English side mustered an impressive record, losing only twice and recording one draw over seventeen matches. The tour made stops across the United States, including in Chicago and St. Louis as well as Canada. In New York, they defeated a team of area all stars 7-1 on October 21st at the Polo Grounds, attracting a crowd of 4,000 spectators.
Perhaps most important though is why they came: to popularize the sport of soccer in America. That reason is presumably why they also cheekily named themselves the “Pilgrims.” Either way, it’s hard not to see this as an early precedent for the now-annual summer exhibitions that major European clubs play across the United States in an effort to break into the American market.
And yet despite the Pilgrims’ tour, the United Stated had actually organized one of the earliest professional soccer leagues in the world. Formed in 1894 by revenue-seeking baseball owners, the American League of Professional Football teams bore the nicknames of the franchises that fielded them, hence the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, Boston Beaneaters, New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Phillies. Unfortunately, the league only lasted one season which explains the Pilgrims’ barnstorming. A core objective was to promote the amateur game by encouraging play at American colleges and universities, where the promoters believed it would earn a place alongside American football. Pilgrims are even reputed to have met with Theodore Roosevelt and gotten his approval which alludes to an important part of the story. American football was in a very troubled state in the early years of the 20th century with contemporary newspapers offering an unending chronicle of brutal injuries, and death, that plagued the sport.
This context explains why newspaper coverage during the tour offered comparisons of the two sports we now regard as characteristically distinct. Typical columns contrasted the “open” nature of the English game with the “close formation” of the American, with the former reducing major injuries. Questions also directly addressed whether soccer could de-throne American football. The Times Dispatch in Richmond, VA ran an article that had this to say:
do its many attractive features, both from the viewpoint of players and spectator, promise it a greater future in this country than the game [i.e., American football] now played by Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Michigan, Wisconsin and all the representative colleges of the East and West? Will it in time supercede the American rugby game in general favor? And eventually will it lead to great international matches, eclipsing in interest any of the great amateur sporting events of the year?
It’s curious stuff. We certainly have the pleasure of hindsight too, which is why the observations of a reporter in the Salt Lake Tribune now appear prophetic in light of the uphill battle that the sport of soccer has faced:
Even with the close mass plays, which now characterize the American game and make it difficult to distinguish the individual work of the players, and pretty formations, the occasional runs and hard diving tackles appeal to the spectators much more than the rather loose, open and individual play of the Briton’s game.
Fascinatingly, even though soccer has matured and made marked progress over the lat few decades, its progress has been at a relatively plodding pace given its long history here. Certainly, American football has never been in danger of losing out to soccer and that remains the case but it’s also quite possible that the 2014 World Cup has been a turning point in the history of soccer in the United States. Of course, only time will tell.