The US National Team by the Decades

The 2002 USA World Cup squad.  Credit: John Todd -

By Tom Dunmore - CHICAGO, IL (Feb 15, 2013) US Soccer Players - The US Soccer Federation celebrates its one-hundredth anniversary in 2013. The history of the men’s national team managed by the Federation in that period is not one of an inexorable rise, as a close look decade-by-decade illustrates. Instead, such a look gives us a series of snapshots of the state of the team throughout its history that illustrates its wild ups-and-downs.

The 1910s: P2 W1 L0 T1

The U.S played two games in the 1910s, both on a 1916 tour of Scandinavia that marked the beginning of the team’s official existence following the foundation of the US Football Association in 1913 (now known as the US Soccer Federation). Thanks to a win over Sweden and a draw with Norway, the US boasted an unbeaten record in the decade, albeit a brief one. The US did not play any competitive games in the 1910s - the Federation planned to enter the 1916 Olympic Games in Berlin, but the small matter of World War 1 led to the competition’s cancellation.

The 1920s: P9 W4 L4 T1

The future for American soccer looked bright in the 1920s. Fueled by good economic times that attracted new waves of immigrants from European countries, American soccer flourished with the American Soccer League briefly threatening to become a major professional venture. At the amateur level, too, soccer was thriving. With the Olympics at the peak of international competition at the time, those amateurs formed the US teams for the 1924 Games in Paris and the 1928 competition in Amsterdam. The United States only won one game in those tournaments (1-0 over Estonia in 1924), and faced South American opposition for the first time in Paris. Uruguay, the Associated Press reported, “outplayed, outgeneraled, outscored, outrun” the American team in a 3-0 win for the South Americans. Still, wins by the USA when it did feature its professionals that decade, like the gifted Tommy Stark and Davey Brown, included a pair of wins over Canada. In terms of wins-per-games-played, it would take until the 21st century for a decade to match the 1920s.

The 1930s: P10 W3 L7 T0

The US started this decade with a peak it has yet to scale since. With the World Cup debuting in 1930 in Uruguay, the USA finished third. The US then won its first game with Mexico, a qualifier for the 1934 World Cup held just days before the competition began in Rome. Then everything fell apart, the US losing 7-1 to Italy in its only game at the 1934 World Cup, and failing to win another game over the next 15 years. The promise of the 1920s had dissipated, as the “Soccer War” saw the end of the promise of the first American Soccer League. By the late 1930s, any hopes of a US National Team made up of full-time professionals became far-fetched. By then, another depressing pattern had developed: losing to Mexico. The US played a three-game series with Mexico in September 1937, scoring six times. Unfortunately, they gave up 19 goals.

The 1940s: P10 W1 L8 T1

By the numbers, the 1940s can claim to be the worst in National Team history. A tie with Cuba in Mexico City on Sept 14, 1949, followed 12 straight defeats that stretched back to the debacles of 1937. The US wasn’t unlucky in any of those games, either. They lost games 0-5, 2-5, 0-9, 0-11, 0-5, 0-4 and 0-6. Such results were hardly a surprise: the governing body, then known as the US Soccer Football Association (USSFA), had no funds and no staff. This was bad timing, as competition in the region increased. 1947 was the year of the first North American Football Championship, and it was clear Mexico was now well ahead of the US and the only other competitor, Cuba, easily winning both competitions. Yet oddly, the 1940s proved to be the prologue for the most famous win in US National Team history.

The 1950s: P17 W3 L14 T0

The US won only three games in the 1950s, but that included a famous victory. That, of course, is the team’s 1-0 win over England at the 1950 World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a score line that some news agencies presumed must have been missing a digit (a “1” before England’s “0”). As usual, the US was a scrambled together team of part-timers who loved the game, but could hardly prepare for international play in the same professional manner as England. England would get some measure of revenge, winning 6-3 in New York in 1953 and 8-1 in a thrashing in L.A. six years later. Apart from the win over England, the only other team the US beat in the decade was Haiti (twice). The United States failed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup, electing - due to a lack of funds - to play its home games away from home in Mexico City and Haiti. 1958 qualifying went no better, with a broke Federation even fielding the entire St Louis Kutis club team in lieu of the national team in a pair of games against Canada.

The 1960s: P19 W5 L10 T4

The North American Soccer League (NASL) came into being in the 1960s, as broadcasts of the 1966 World Cup brought renewed interest and investment in American soccer. The decade had begun poorly, with failure to qualify for the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. In fact, the Americans’ 1-0 win against Honduras on 17 March 1965 was, amazingly, the country’s first win for almost 11 years. Things improved in the late 1960s: for the first time in its history, the US national team won three consecutive games in October and November of 1968, with wins over Canada and Bermuda (twice). The US was on the verge of qualifying for the 1970 World Cup, without Mexico (who qualified automatically as the host nation) to face, until it all fell apart in April and May of 1969 in the final round of qualifying, losing twice to Haiti.

The 1970s: P49 W9 L31 T9

With the NASL gaining steam, the Federation finally realized it needed to get serious about the national team, and had relatively greater funds to do so, giving a new coach, Bob Kehoe, new resources - and a ton of games to play. Probably, in fact, far too many: after playing 19 games in all of the previous decade, the US played 12 games in 1973 alone. In reality, the team only had marginally more preparation than previously. At one World Cup qualifier in Newfoundland in 1972, the US team found themselves sleeping five men to a room at an overbooked hotel. They lost 3-2 to Canada on the way to failing to qualify for the World Cup, as they would do again in 1978. The US hopped all over the world trying to improve the team’s experience - in October 1979, the Americans played in Bermuda, Paris, Budapest and Dublin in a space of 22 days. Perhaps it was worthwhile, with more games helping results improve over the next few years.

The 1980s: P55 W19 L19 T17

The US began the 1980s with a set of results unmatched in its history, including a 2-1 win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier in Fort Lauderdale on November 23, 1980. That was the first win over Mexico since 1934. In between, the two teams played 24 times, with the US losing 21 and drawing three. The win was not enough for the US to qualify for the 1982 World Cup - failure to defeat Canada proved fatal - but the US did win seven out of the first 13 games of the decade, dating to October 11, 1984. That same month, the NASL played its last outdoor game, and the National Team would suffer dearly. An attempt to support the squad via Team America taking part in the 1983 NASL season proved a doomed effort to help the US grow a team and bring fresh interest to the league. With no division one outdoor league in the US following the collapse of the NASL, a promising start to 1986 World Cup qualifying ended in disaster in May 1985, as Will Parchman has chronicled for American Soccer Now. Results spiraled down until 1988 - with only one win in 1986 and 1987 combined. Then, suddenly, a new generation of players who had begun playing during the youth soccer explosion of the 1970s clicked under head coach Bob Gansler. Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard around the world” took America back to the World Cup in 1990 for the first time in four decades.

The 1990s: P197 W71 L74 T52

The 1990s is a decade seen as the making of American soccer. The country played in the World Cup again after a forty-year absence, won its first regional title with the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 1991, hosted and sold-out the 1994 World Cup, and saw the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996. Players like Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda and Brad Friedel began playing in top-tier European leagues. The National Team now had greater resources and began playing far more regularly: 197 games in the 1990s, nearly four times the number of the 1980s. Results, though, remained a struggle. Compared to the previous decade, the Americans did play much stronger opposition, but still lost more than they won, albeit marginally. The performance at the 1998 World Cup in France showed that though the US had come far, and the 1990s established the team as a fixture on the biggest stage once again, there was still far to go.

The 2000s: P187 W108 L48 T31

And far the US went in the 2000s. Not only did the American team win more than it lost in a decade for the first time since the 1910s, it won more than twice as many games as it lost. The US qualified for the World Cup three more times in the 2000s and reached the quarterfinal stage of the finals in 2002 for its best result since 1930. Regionally, the US won the CONCACAF Gold Cup three times. By the end of 2009, the US had an all-time record of 215 wins, 209 defeats and 117 ties since its first game in 1916, meaning over half of the nation’s victories up to that point had come in the first decade of the twenty-first century alone.

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

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