WASHINGTON DC (February 12, 2008) USSoccerPlayers — Last week the English Premier League announced plans to play a round of games in foreign countries, starting 2011, with the US one of the expected venues. But the idea is hardly new.
Major League Soccer’s Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis has hailed the EPL’s chief executive Richard Scudamore as a “visionary” in the wake of an idea that’s almost half a century old, and which has been seen in practice by the NFL as recently as last November. At least when similar experiments were first tried back in the early 1960s, the vision wasn’t so clouded with dollar signs.
International Soccer League: 1960-1965
“I’ve never been able to understand why soccer hasn’t caught on here,” said Bill Cox, a New Yorker and former owner of the Philadelphia Phillies (he was forced to sell them after gambling on his own team), and the man who instigated the International Soccer League in 1960.
A summer tournament at first staged in the New York/NJ area, and then nationwide, it attracted teams such as Burnley of England, Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia, Sporting Lisbon of Portugal, Sampdoria of Italy, and Bayern Munich (not a major team in Germany at the time). A token cobbled together ‘US’ team, the New York Americans, also played. The winners from two groups of six teams met in the final, Bangu of Brazil defeating Scottish side Kilmarnock 2-0.
Cox didn’t lose enough money to be discouraged from repeating the tournament, and in 1961 it was expanded to 15 teams — Montreal Concordia, who also hosted games in Canada, played in both groups. Everton and its star Northern Irish striker Billy Bingham also came, as did the dashing young Czech side Dukla Prague, who hammered Everton 9-2 over two games in the tournament’s final at the Polo Grounds in New York. Both finals drew over 15,000 per game.
Dukla played again in 1962 as the tournament was co-hosted by Chicago, with average crowds above 10,000 for the first time. The teams in an overall line-up of 12 were a little less glamorous — Reutlingen of Germany and Dundee of Scotland were part of a tournament won by America Rio de Janeiro of Brazil. The following year’s event in 1963 was also judged a success, even though crowds were down for the 42 games. West Ham United, bolstered after a poor start by the late arrival of England captain Bobby Moore (he won tournament MVP), edged Gornik Zabrze of Poland in two contentious final games.
In 1964, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Boston were also hosting games in a tournament reduced to ten teams. The barely pronounceable Zaglebie Sosnowiec of Poland beat Werder Bremen in the finals, then the following year in 1965 — the tournament’s last — the returning New York Americans, who had been ditched three years before, made the final, only to lose to another Polish team, Polonia Bytom.
Cox then became embroiled in a legal dispute with the United States Soccer Football Association (the predecessor to the United States Soccer Federation) over the right to import foreign teams, and the ISL ceased operations. Reportedly, timber magnate Cox lost $100,000 over the league’s lifetime, a relatively small amount for a US soccer league.
Bill Cox, who died in 1989, is one of the candidates on the 2008 Soccer Hall of Fame ballot in the category of ‘Builder.’
The United Soccer Association: 1967
This league started out, but never operated as, the North American Soccer League. For the 1967 season, it changed its name before merging the following year with the rival National Professional Soccer League to become, once more, the NASL. The synonym USA ironically invoked patriotic associations while entirely importing its teams from abroad, and re-naming them after their temporary homes.
So Stoke City of England relocated to Cleveland for the summer of ’67 and became the Cleveland Stokers. Wolverhampton Wanderers spent the European off-season in California as the LA Wolves, and Shamrock Rovers of Ireland became the Boston Rovers, a much better marketing idea than the New England Revolution. Other links stayed local, with teams like Aberdeen reincarnated as the Washington Whips to reflect DC politics rather than importing the concept of The Dons .
All in all, there were 12 teams, including Hibernian FC in Toronto, old ISL favorites Bangu in Houston, Sunderland FC as the Vancouver Canadians, and Den Haag of Holland as the San Francisco Gales. No Polish team for Chicago — the Mustangs were Cagliari in disguise, while poor Detroit got landed with Glentoran of Northern Ireland, and the resultant crowds were predictably low. At home to Boston Rovers they lured in just 648 fans.
Bangu as the Houston Stars regularly pulled in over 15,000, however, but most teams struggled to touch five-figure gates in the huge Bowls they were renting. Still, the season’s championship game, between the Whips and the Wolves at RFK Stadium, was an 11-goal thriller with almost 18,000 in attendance. Wolves won 6-5, reversing the previous day’s 3-0 defeat — a regular season game replayed because Wolves had used an illegal substitute in the earlier fixture.
That footnote tells you that the league was taking itself seriously, at least. Wolves and Dundee United had such fun that they came back in 1969 to play in the NASL proper. Wolves suited up as the Kansas City Spurs and were champions, while United once again returned as the Dallas Tornado. Aston Villa (Atlanta Chiefs), West Ham United (the disastrous Baltimore Bays, with regular three-figure crowds) and Kilmarnock (the St. Louis Stars) also came over that year. After that, though, it was individuals and not teams who headed to the US for soccer summers.