Matthew L. McDowell
University of Edinburgh, Moray House School of Education
My soccer career ended on the pitch of my town park, aged 14. This was two years after my basketball career ended, and five years after my baseball career reached its untimely denouement. I was certainly within soccer’s target audience – a white, middle-class male from a leafy New York suburb – and, two years earlier, I had watched my fellow middle schoolers of Hyphenated-Americans route for Ireland, Italy, Colombia, Mexico, and even – in some cases – the United States in the 1994 World Cup, held in America. (In fact, Ireland’s famous 1-0 defeat of Italy happened just down the road from my hometown, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.) But football, as most of the rest of the world called it, was not my calling. The long-retired Pelé was the only footballer of note I could name; I knew little of the exploits of Kobi Jones, I would not hear of Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan for awhile, and it was over two decades before I would recognise DaMarcus Beasley in a Glasgow sandwich shop. By contrast, I can still (mostly) recite the entire 1996 New York Yankees championship baseball squad off the top of my head.
The collection of American stereotypes listed above goes to the very heart of what Dennis Seese discusses in his new volume, The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association. While Seese’s book encapsulates a small moment in time in the US during the late 1960s, the surrounding issues which he discusses – namely, the lack of an historical narrative for soccer that was perceived to be indigenous, and a lack of capitalistic knowhow to market the game within the confines of the established US sports canon – are instantly recognisable to anybody with a passing familiarity with US soccer. The title itself is perhaps a misnomer: Seese does not just discuss the United Soccer Association (with the obvious but still unfortunate acronym of USA); he also examines its rival league, the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). Both leagues existed for one year only – 1967 – and their merger would create the North American Soccer League (NASL); which, while lasting longer than either league, created much sound and fury in its existence, but still ultimately amounted to very little (with a few key exceptions).
Problems existed from the outset of these two leagues. The names of impresarios and owners associated with the leagues and ‘franchises’ – Bill Cox, Lamar Hunt, Jack Kent Cooke, etc. – reads like a who’s who of American football and baseball owners, and most of the people hired to run the day-to-day corporate operations of these clubs had experience in these sports. Quite a few even bragged about knowing nothing about soccer. Here, the public relations people who often ran the leagues themselves understood little of the nuances of the sport; and, in an era of increasing consolidation and league mergers in other US sports, believed that their marketing knowledge alone would see the sport become a success on their terms. Their decision to attempt to create something from nothing was a bad one; soccer indeed had a long and often quite successful history in the US, but as a sport that was heavily associated with the industrial working-class of Hyphenated-American (Seese’s term) extract in the likes of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Fall River, Massachusetts. Ironically, the Welshman Phil Woosnam, brought in to manage the NPSL’s Atlanta Chiefs, and who would later become a pivotal figure in the NASL, years later would refer derisively to an implied-ethnicised ‘tradition’ as being an obstacle to overcome in the creation of a new American soccer league. The USA and the NPSL were thus precursors to the NASL’s more aggressive targeting of a middle-class, aspirational crowd for the sport in America’s suburbs.Worse still is Seese’s occasional reference to Dundee United as ‘Dundee’, the name of another club who are Dundee United’s bitter inter-city rivals.
The USA was officially sanctioned by FIFA, but had no television rights. The NPSL had the opposite problem: it had a contract with CBS, but no governing body recognition. (CBS liked having injury ‘time-outs’ so they could cut to advertisements, and were known to pressure referees to arrange this.) Despite the need to create a new tradition of American soccer, the key to doing this was importing footballers from all over Europe and South America. But both leagues had very different approaches towards this. The USA imported whole sides to fill their shirts: this included Aberdeen (Washington Whips), Dundee United (Dallas Tornado), Wolverhampton Wanders (Los Angeles Wolves), Stoke City (Cleveland Stokers), Cagliari (Chicago Mustangs), ADO Den Haag (San Francisco Golden Gate Gales), Shamrock Rovers (Boston Rovers) and Cerro (New York City Skyliners), amongst others. This was a method which earnestly attempted to create ethnic rivalries amongst populations based within these cities – how a marketing person acknowledges ‘tradition’, in this context. While the USA went forward with this disastrous idea, the NPSL clubs attempted a slightly more sophisticated means of talent development and scouting. The end result, however, was similar: after promising starts attendance- and quality-wise, crowds dropped off heavily, and European footballers struggled mightily in the hot, humid American summer after their club seasons back home were finished. Clubs in both leagues were reliant upon arranging tours/friendlies with major overseas club sides to attempt to offset the brutal expenditure of the leagues. The leagues’ merger was thus inevitable, and several franchises disappeared overnight. To compound matters, the attention from the newspaper press never fully arrived: city titles typically sent their junior reporters to cover the matches, and their reports display a mix of apathy, confusion, and ethnic stereotyping. This was, after all, the time of civil rights and the Vietnam war: such discourses about Latin temperament and European effeminacy were frequently aired within the media, and thus the product on the pitch – and in some cases the violence which accompanied it in the stands – was easy to identify as something ‘other’. The leagues themselves were scrambling to capitalise on the well-watched (in the US) victory of England in the 1966 World Cup final, so it is only logical that the American press also reproduced the worst elements of the Anglosphere’s rhetoric on the sport: everything from overt bigotry to criticism of football perceived to be too tactical and defensive (read: Italian).
Seese’s approach is not flawless. The broadly chronological structure of the book makes sense; but, in the early chapters which describe the league play in painstaking detail, there are one too many narratives of goals and game play, which will likely be ignored by those less interested in the quality and style of play than with the cultural and internal politics. Some might not like the more episodic treatment given to certain clubs/cities in later chapters, but it makes for better reading and analysis than a strictly narrative account. Then there are other instances where Seese – whose encyclopaedic knowledge about American professional soccer is unquestioned – makes some faux pas regarding European football. He continually makes reference to Aberdeen FC (colloquially nicknamed ‘the Dons’) as ‘the Aberdeen Dons’, a combination of words no one in Scotland would ever use. Worse still is Seese’s occasional reference to Dundee United as ‘Dundee’, the name of another club who are Dundee United’s bitter inter-city rivals. In one case, Seese also misses a golden opportunity to add another wrinkle to the USA’s Detroit Cougars’ attempts to lure a Northern Irish side. Glentoran would assume the colours of the Cougars (so named after a model of Ford cars, which owned the team), but this was only after Linfield turned them down due to their refusal to play on Sundays; Linfield, unlike Glentoran, telegraphing their staunch Protestantism outwith Northern Ireland, a society which, like the US, was seeing its own civil rights struggle and counter-reaction at the time. And yet, despite these minor flaws, Seese’s book not only works as a solid piece of academic sports history/studies, but as something that can be used in later-year and master’s sports studies courses of various stripes: it is an historical monograph which is conversant with marketing, management, and development, and utilises media content analysis and theory. It adds another layer to the way in which academics and practitioners can analyse the uniquely American experience of soccer, a ubiquitous feature of many an American childhood that is still largely referred to as a new kid on the block.
Copyright © Matthew L. McDowell 2016