When American Soccer Moved West

The USA starting lineup against England in the 2010 World Cup.  Credit: Joe Toth - ISIPhotos.com

By Tom Dunmore - CHICAGO, IL (Jan 15, 2013) US Soccer Players - When the whistle blew at 3pm on July 13, 1930 inside Estadio Gran Parque Central in Montevideo, Uruguay, 11 men were on the field representing the United States in its first game at the inaugural World Cup. Of those US National Team players, only one was born west of Philadelphia: Ralph Tracy, from Gillespie in southern Illinois. Tracy grew up playing soccer in nearby St Louis. Four of the other ten players had been born in the Northeast: New Jersey’s Jimmy Douglas and Tom Florie, Massachusetts's Bert Patenaude, and Rhode Island’s Billy Gonsalves. The remainder of the team had been born in the British Isles: Scots Jim Brown, Andrew Auld, Bart McGhee, Jim Brown, and Jimmy Gallagher, along with Englishman George Moorhouse. On the bench were five reserve players: four born on the East Coast and one from St Louis.

Eighty years later, when the USA kicked off its first game at the 2010 World Cup against England at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, all 11 players were born in the United States. Those players also presented a more inclusive picture of the country as a soccer nation than that original World Cup squad 80 years earlier. Four hailed from the East Coast (Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Oguchi Onyewu, and Edson Buddle), two from the Midwest (Steve Cherundolo and Jay DeMerit), three from the South or Southwest (Clint Dempsey, Ricardo Clark, and Robbie Findley) and two from the West Coast (Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan). On the entire roster, 11 of the 21 American-born players had birthplaces south or west of St Louis.

In the eight decades between the 1930 and 2010 World Cups, American soccer had not only become homegrown, but - due to an explosion in youth soccer that had begun in the 1960s - now produced National Team players from across the country. Until the 1980s, only a handful of Americans born west of St Louis wore the USA shirt. By 2010, the US World Cup roster featured no fewer than six players born on the West Coast: five came from California alone, with others (such as Brazilian-born Benny Feilhaber) also learning the game in the Golden State. Southern states also started to contribute National Team players from the 1980s onward.

The balanced inclusion of players from the West in America’s National Team took most of the Twentieth Century to happen. Though soccer in cities like Portland and San Francisco dates back to the nineteenth century, distance was always an issue for a National Team program that lacked resources. American soccer players with National Team aspirations had a better chance playing in the soccer hotbeds in the Midwest and East Coast.

For generations, US National Team players - those that weren’t born overseas - grew up playing in the semi-pro ethnic leagues of the Northeast and Midwest, raised in hard-working urban immigrant communities in New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and in overwhelming numbers by the 1950s, in St Louis. They played for teams like New York Hungaria, Ukrainian Nationals, or the Greek Americans.

By the time of the 1950 World Cup, five of the 11 starters in the famous victory by the Americans over England came from St Louis (Frank Borghi, Harry Keough, Charlie Colombo, Frank Wallace and Gino Pariani), a rare outpost where soccer had come to be played as a game native to the city, rather than contained to immigrant communities. Two more came from Fall River, Massachusetts (Ed and John Souza), one from Philadelphia (Walter Bahr), and three were born overseas (Joe Maca, Ed McIlvenney and the scorer, Joe Gaetjens). As in 1930, none of the 11 had been born west or south of St Louis.

Little changed in the unsuccessful World Cup qualification campaigns that followed in the 1950s and 1960s. The National Team was made-up of players born and bred in the Northeast and Midwest, along with a sprinkling of foreign-born Americans. By the 1970s, the South and the West remained close to being barren zones for producing soccer players, with even larger doses of immigrants filling the National Team ranks. In the USA’s last qualifier for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, a 3-0 defeat to Canada, the lineup read as follows by place of birth: Mausser (New York), Smith (New Jersey), Skotarek (West Germany), Pecher (St Louis), Pollihan (St Louis), Ralbovsky (Yugoslavia), Trost (St Louis), Flater (Chicago), Grgurev (Yugoslavia), Bandov (Yugoslavia), Veee (Hungary).

Then everything changed. A generational shift was underway by the 1970s that would transform the US National Team. A boom in youth soccer began in suburban America in the 1960s and it was as explosive as it was surprising. Kids playing the game bloomed south and west of St Louis in numbers that grew in mindboggling fashion. This allowed states such as California to catch up, and in some places surpass the popularity of the game in its old Midwest and Northeastern strongholds.

The growth of youth soccer across the country was the product of deliberate efforts to increase the game’s appeal in the fast-growing America’s suburbs of the post-war period. In 1964, the American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO) played its first games in Los Angeles. Hans Stierle, an AYSO co-founder, recalled, “When we started in 1964, we couldn’t field two or three teams. The kids had never heard of the game. They didn’t know a thing about it. We had to drag the young boys by their hair.” Within a decade, the AYSO had almost 2,000 teams and over 35,000 players. Californian suburbs became new hotbeds of youth soccer, embraced by parents who saw it as a safe, fun, and relatively cost-effective sport.

The organization of youth soccer attempted to break some of the links the game had in other areas. Unlike earlier efforts at propelling youth soccer in Los Angeles, AYSO purposefully avoided fielding teams defined by the ethnicity of their players’ countries of origin. That meant no foreign-sounding team names, instead focusing on participation in the game for its own sake rather than any focus on playing for ethnic pride. As southern California’s population boomed, youth soccer was ripe to appeal to suburbs full of newcomers to the state looking for ways to embrace their communities.

As David Keyes writes in XI Quarterly, “AYSO, having created a new “American” version of soccer, opened new arrivals to signing up their kids for a game they didn’t associate with ethnic otherness. The sport could grow, and grow it did.” Indeed: nowhere in the country would youth soccer find more fertile ground than in California, a state with a rapidly growing population, plenty of space, money, and sun-kissed, safe fields to play on.

By 1977, Tony Kornheiser would write a feature in the New York Times headlined “Americans Have Adopted Soccer, No Longer an ‘Immigrant’ Sport,” run alongside a photo of Pele in his New York Cosmos uniform. America’s youth soccer players now had a path to the professional game with the rise of the North American Soccer League. The NASL also followed the old model of American soccer, drawing the bulk of their American players from those old soccer friendly areas in the Midwest and Northeast along with the expected influx of foreign pros. There was one particularly notable exception to this, a harbinger of the future. Rick Davis of the New York Cosmos, the US National Team captain, was born in Denver and grew up playing AYSO soccer in La Verne, California.

Davis needed to be the expectation, not the exception, as soccer took its place as the game of the future. Across the South and West, as in the suburbs all across America, soccer was succeeding. The game was “chic,” Kornheiser wrote, with its “greatest appeal in the white, upwardly mobile segment of society.”

By the 1980s, soccer had transformed from a primarily ethnic game into a new way of life in suburban America. The Californian youth soccer boom of the ‘60s and ‘70s produced a generation of players embraced by colleges in the West. In 1970, UCLA’s roster of 30 players were from 22 different nationalities. Four years later, as Jose Malamillo explains, eight Americans started for the college. By 1978, UCLA had its first All-American, LA-born Ole Mikkelsen. In 1985, UCLA fielded a team entirely bred in California, recruited from the booming youth soccer scene, and won the national championship with a 20-1-4 record under head coach Sigi Schmid.

Six of that team would go on to play for the United States (Paul Caligiuri, Paul Krumpe, David Vanole, Eric Biefeld, Dale Ervine, and Tom Silvas). They would help the United States qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. It was, of course, UCLA’s Paul Caligiuri who scored the goal that advanced the US to the 1990 World Cup. Fellow UCLA alums and California natives Chris Henderson, David Vanole, and Paul Krumpe joined Caligiuri on the roster for Italia 90 along with Californians Eric Wynalda and Christopher Sullivan. Also from the West Coast was Kasey Keller, born in Olympia, Washington and a former star for the University of Portland.

That World Cup served as the launching point for American soccer’s next big move. Hosting the 1994 World Cup, launching Major League Soccer, and building on the promise of youth soccer to use the American talent from across the country to advance the game at all levels.

In his feature on MLS’ inaugural game in San Jose, California, George Vecsey in the New York Times pinpointed one player in his opening paragraph: “Tom Liner was born in California, went to school in California, lives in California - and now he plays professional soccer in California.” California became a state that could breed soccer players who would learn the game and play the game professionally within its borders, an unthinkable proposition only three decades earlier.

In suburban America at least, playing soccer has become part of growing up across the country. In a 2000 Soccer America interview, Rick Davis remembered what it was like as a soccer playing kid in Southern California in the 1960s. “When I started playing soccer as a 7-year-old, people looked at me like I was a freak. Today my 8-year-old has already played soccer for four years, and all his friends play it. They’d look on him like a freak if he didn’t play.”

Tom Dunmore is a Chicago-based writer and an editor of XI Quarterly. You can follow him on Twitter @tomdunmore or email him at tom@pitchinvasion.net.

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