By Tom Dunmore – CHICAGO, IL (Jan 29, 2013) US Soccer Players – “US MNT Opens Centennial Celebration Year Against Northern Rivals Canada,” reads the headline in the US Soccer Federation press release ahead of a friendly international with Canada this Tuesday. That rivalry between the United States and Canada is a long one – longer even than the press release title indicates – but, unfortunately, it hasn’t stoked the development of soccer in North America, as we can see by looking back at the history of the “Northern Rivalry.”
It is, as the press release says, the centennial year for US Soccer, founded in 1913. The series with Canada is older, dating all the way to 1885. In fact, the United States and Canada played the first international held outside of the British Isles, with the Canadians claiming a 1-0 win in Newark, New Jersey.
US Soccer doesn’t recognize that game. That’s fair enough, considering the circumstances. It was, after all, played a full 28 years before there was a national governing body for US soccer. Roger Allaway, a renowned historian of American soccer, says US Soccer has good reason beyond that organizational fact not to recognize the game, noting that “the American Football Association, which organized the United States team, was really a regional organization, centered in New Jersey, not a national one.”
Indeed, it was the parochialism of the American Football Association (AFA) that in part prompted the formation of the United States Football Association (USFA) in 1913, now known as the US Soccer Federation. The AFA had managed to organize one more game against Canada in 1886, once more held in Newark, with the US this time recording the victory with a 3-2 score line. Decades would then pass before the US played another international against anyone else. On August 20, 1916, the US played Sweden, winning its first official international under USFA auspices 3-2 in Stockholm.
After that second annual game in 1886, what might have become a rivalry that stoked soccer on both sides of the border fizzled out. Even after the formation of the USFA in 1913, a further dozen years would pass until the US and Canada met again. The two countries did play three games in 1925 and 1926. The middle game from November 1925 is notable because Archie Stark scored four goals for the USA. One of the greatest goal scorers in American soccer history, Stark only appeared twice for the National Team.
Once again, though, the Northern Rivalry failed to flourish. Three more decades passed before Canada and the US met again, in June 1957. That marked the start of a new angle to the rivalry. The game was a World Cup qualifier, marking the first time Canada entered the competition.
In real terms, very little was on the line. By now, both Canada and the US were third-rate in the North American region. The US had lost 6-0 and 7-2 to Mexico earlier in the year in qualifying, while Canada succumbed 5-0 over two games to the Mexicans. They were playing for second place in a qualifying competition that only saw one team advance to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. The US did not even bother sending a proper national team, instead represented by the entire St. Louis Kutis club team. That did not work out well for the Americans, who lost 5-1 in Toronto and 3-2 in St Louis.
The 1960s did not see the rivalry gather much pace. Canada and the US again only met in a pair of World Cup qualifiers in 1968. This time, there was more at stake. With Mexico hosting the World Cup in 1970, CONCACAF’s lone qualification spot was up for grabs. The qualifying draw placed Canada and the USA together in a three-team first-round group. The US lost 4-2 in Canada and won 1-0 in Atlanta to advance, losing in the semifinal round. It’s hard to argue there was much interest in the USA – Canada rivalry. Less than 6,000 fans showed up in Toronto, and under half that in Atlanta.
In the 1970s, Canada and the US met more frequently, playing six games against each other – and even ones at that. The US won twice, Canada won twice, and two games ended in draws. Both teams played in the shadow of Mexico’s regional dominance. In qualification for the 1974 World Cup, held via the CONCACAF Championship, Canada, the US, and Mexico played through a three-team qualification group, with Mexico advancing after winning all four games.
The same set-up took place in qualification for the 1978 World Cup. Though it was a closer contest this time, Mexico still topped the qualifying group with Canada and the US eliminated. Crowds, at least, were growing for the Northern Rivalry games at a time that the NASL provided a relatively thriving base for professional soccer in the two countries. Over 15,000 attended the September 24, 1976 qualifier in Vancouver. In the return date, more than 17,000 showed up at the Kingdome in Seattle.
In different circumstances, perhaps that should’ve been the beginning of a true USA – Canada soccer rivalry. Instead, as the North American Soccer League collapsed and soccer moved indoors in North America, attendances in outdoor games between the countries regressed to pitiful levels. Only 4,000 fans attended a US – Canada friendly in Portland, Oregon in April 1985, for example. Less than a year later, the cavernous Orange Bowl in Miami saw a little over 5,000 spectators treated to a 0-0 draw between the US and Canada in an exhibition tournament.
1986 also marked the first and last time Canada appeared in the World Cup, and the last time to date the US has not. Since then, the rivalry has failed to develop not because the two countries do not play each other frequently enough – they’ve played each other 13 times since the 1990 World Cup – but because it has become a dismally one-sided affair. The US National Team advanced to become a regional powerhouse, a genuine rival for Mexico, while Canada’s soccer adherents have only been able to look on with envy.
The numbers tell the story. Canada has failed to defeat the US since 1985, spanning 15 games. Indeed, Canada has only scored in two of those games, conceding 22 goals and scoring only three times. As Canadian soccer writer Richard Whittall noted in 2011, “as far as international rivalries go, Canada US in men’s senior soccer is about as evenly matched as a piñata and a hyperactive 8 year-olds birthday party.”
There have been moments when rivalry seemed liked the next step. The 2007 Gold Cup semi-final in Chicago was one, when the referee waved off what appeared to be a last-minute equalizer for Canada. Still, despite a history stretching back almost 128 years, the “Northern Rivalry” has yet to really become one.