By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jul 13, 2020) US Soccer Players – World Cup history can often reveal some surprises, especially in the tournaments early era. Uruguay hosted the first World Cup 90 years ago this month. No one back then had any idea of what the tournament or the sport might become. The World Cup is now the planet’s most-watched sporting event and a commercial and marketing powerhouse.
Only 13 nations decided to embark on the long trip to the tiny South American nation. France, Yugoslavia, Romania and Belgium were the European countries making the transatlantic voyage. Yugoslavia would join the hosts, Argentina, and the United States in the semifinals. In a tournament where everything was new, the USA advancing may have been the biggest surprise.
This week mark’s the anniversary of the very first World Cup match. France’s 4-1 rout of Mexico at the Estadio Pocitos in the capital city Montevideo on July 13 and the USA’s 3-0 win against Belgium at the same time at the nearby Estadio Parque Central before 18,000 spectators. The United States would lose to eventual-runners up Argentina 6-1 in the semifinals. A FIFA report in 1986 would later credit the USA with finishing 3rd. It’s the best finish in the history of the USMNT program.
What was surprising about the USA’s run at the World Cup was what had happened at the 1928 Olympics. In Amsterdam, the United States lost to Argentina 11-2 in the opening round, one of the most lopsided results in international play. Uruguay was the gold medalist at those games, foreshadowing their victory at the first World Cup.
For the USA, the game was growing in the country throughout the 1920s. The rise of the American Soccer League, which was considered the second most popular sports league in the country behind Major League Baseball, spurred great player development.
Launched in 1921, the ASL mostly featured teams from the Northeast. It was successful, with teams like the Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel dominating the ASL in those years. The league attracted players from Europe alongside immigrants to this country that helped maintain a high standard.
The USMNT’s opener against Group 4 opponent Belgium gave everyone a glimpse of how good this team could be. The Americans had an attack that featured two of the best players of their generation, Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves, nicknamed the “Babe Ruth of American soccer.” Both had grown up in Fall River, Gonsalves the son of Portuguese immigrants.
Against Belgium, the US dominated play from the start. They took the lead after 23 minutes with a goal from striker Bart McGhee. The Scottish-born winger, who played for the ASL’s New York Nationals at the time, scored the very first goal for the United States at a World Cup. McGhee would only earn three caps and his strike against Belgium his only goal in a US jersey.
The Americans doubled their lead in the 45th minute via a Tom Florie goal. A New Jersey native and son of Italian immigrants who would represent the USA at the 1934 World Cup, Florie played for the New Bedford Whalers. The Whalers had been involved in the power struggle a year earlier between the ASL and the US Football Association. Referred to as the “Soccer Wars,” it led to the creation of a rival competition organized by the federation and known as the Eastern Soccer League. The Whalers had been part of the ASL in 1929, but defected to the ESL. They eventually returned to the ASL.
It was Patenaude’s goal in the 69th minute that sealed the victory. The Fall River Marksman star would score the first-ever hat trick at a World Cup in the US’s 3-0 win against Paraguay on July 17 to win the group and advance to the semifinals. In all, Patenaude would only make four appearances for the US, scoring six times.
The very best of the ASL had been on full display at the World Cup, giving a global audience who followed games via radio and in newspaper accounts a real taste of what American soccer could produce. However, the years after the World Cup were not so positive. Soccer, on the verge of becoming a major spectator sport in the United States, suffered as a result of The Great Depression. The industries that had bankrolled teams were no longer in the business of funding the game. That led to the swift demise of the original ASL in 1933.
The game in this country would never be the same. After beating Mexico in Italy to qualify, the US would lose to the hosts in the opening round of the 1934 World Cup. They would go on to stun England at the 1950 World Cup but failing to qualify for the world’s biggest soccer tournament for four decades hurt the program’s reputation. It all changed 30 years ago with a berth to Italia ’90, followed by hosting the World Cup four years later and the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996.
It would take soccer nearly four decades before another national soccer league would capture the hearts and minds of Americans. The exploits of the United States in Uruguay 90 years ago read as if they occurred during a long-forgotten era. They live on in the form of sepia-toned photographs and box scores in record books. Strong economic growth and immigration helped soccer grow in this country. Now, nine decades later, Americans can relish in the fact that the United States has always been a soccer nation. Just look at those record books.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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Image courtesy of FIFA