Soccer, a country cousin

For years, football (or soccer as it is known in the United States of America) has battled American football and baseball for prominent space within the country’s sporting calendar and largely failed.

For years, football (or soccer as it is known in the United States of America) has battled American football and baseball for prominent space within the country’s sporting calendar and largely failed. Yet, the traces of the sport can be found as far back as the 17th century.

It was not until 1894, though, that the first professional league was established in the country — the American League of Professional Football Clubs (ALPFC) set up by six National Baseball League clubs who wanted to make use of their stadia during the off-season. But the unique nature of American history ensured that none of the previous ventures or ALPFC could ever acquire a popular following.

In The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt states two reasons to explain this:

Firstly, at no point during its development did the USA experience a successful socialist party and the institutions created by its working class remained conspicuously weak. Football’s obvious attachment with the working class worked against its growth in the country.

Secondly, sport in the USA has forever been influenced and dominated by market forces rather than a central national organisation. Such wasn’t the case in Europe where football became popular exponentially.

The ALPFC particularly suffered from a perception that the organisers didn’t take it seriously. Within three months, it collapsed.

The game continued to thrive among European expats, though.

In 1912, the American Football Association (AFA) and the American Amateur Football Association (AAFA) both sought FIFA’s recognition to be accepted as the sole governing body for the sport in the country. FIFA ordered them to come together and the USFA was born.

Due to the First World War, it wasn’t until 1921 that a well-organised league came into being. The American Soccer League (ASL) lasted 12 years — its downfall brought about by disagreements within the football establishment and the Great Depression — and ushered a period of memorable success. Its highest point saw the USA make the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930.

Three and a half decades later, another popular league was established in the country. The North American Soccer League (NASL) was born after the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and the USA Competition agreed to merge due to their remarkably low popularity.

After initial struggles, the arrival of Pele for the New York Cosmos engineered interest in the competition. Soon, among others, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller and George Best were also signed by the franchises. Although most top players were nearing retirement, the league’s quality improved markedly. The financial health, though, remained precarious and the competition was finally shut down in 1984.

It took another decade for the USA to embrace football again as the 1994 World Cup was played in front of packed stands. Financially, the competition was a success too as it was intensely televised and covered.

The host made it to the round of 16 before losing 0-1 to eventual champion Brazil. Eight years later, the USA went one step better. This time, in South Korea and Japan, it was defeated by the eventual runner-up Germany by the same margin.

* * * 57 strikes

USA’s all-time top goal-scorer at the World Cup is Landon Donovan (in pic). The forward, who can also play on the wings, has featured at clubs like Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Everton.

His eye for a goal and pace have brought him 57 strikes in a whopping 156 appearances for the national side. The 32-year-old is a footballing institution for his countrymen.

Bertrand Patenaude is not as well known as Donovan, but the striker shall forever be associated with the USA’s successful campaign at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay. Patenaude represented his country only four times and scored six goals, but it was his four strikes at that tournament that remain significant to this day.

Another striker, Brian McBride, was responsible for the American march towards the quarterfinals of the 2002 tournament. Strikes against Portugal in the group stage and Mexico in the round of 16 proved decisive for the USA.