American Soccer History 101


Seasoned Supporter
Mar 20, 2014
Herts, UK
I've been reading Major League Soccer 101, but you talk about MLS only starting up in 1996. Was soccer even played in the USA before then?

Of course. Soccer has actually existed in the US almost as long as it has in England, and longer even than some major European countries. The first national governing body in the USA, for example, was the American Football Association, founded in 1884. Compare that to Genoa F.C. - believed by many to be the first team in Italy - which only came into being in 1893. However, as in other sports, soccer in the US has a history of leagues competing with each other to be top dog, or going out of business altogether, and unlike in most other countries in the world, it has never quite managed to solidify a firm structure, with something always seeming to happen every 10 or 20 years to rock the boat, for better or worse. However, many hope that with MLS becoming a major league in nature as well as name, that that has changed.

So give me a run-down on the history of soccer in the US before MLS.

Sure. We've already discussed the ASA in 1884. That organisation only lasted until 1925, but in its short-ish existence it still managed to create America's first ever national cup competition, called - amazingly - the "American Cup". The American Cup ran from 1885 to 1924 and featured such giants of the early game as Jerusalem Steel F.C., Clark O.N.T. and Disston A.A. Never heard of any of them before? Well neither had I before I researched this article, so you're doing as well as me here. It also served as an umbrella for a number of regional

The ASA's downfall came from the creation of a rival in 1911: the American Amateur Football Association. The following year, both the ASA and the AAFA applied to FIFA to be recognised as the US' governing body for all soccer nationwide. The ASA was critically weakened when the AAFA managed to persuade a number of its members organisations to defect, and in 1913 it fell apart. In the meantime the AAFA rebranded itself in the same year as the United States Football Association, and FIFA rapidly awarded them the status of national governing body. You will now know the USFA by its current name: the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The USFA was responsible for the creation of a number of cup competitions, some of which still exist to this day. The National Challenge Cup was founded in 1913, for example, and is now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The ASA and the AAFA were not the only organisations running soccer in this period, however. One such rival was the American Soccer League, founded in 1921 by the merging of two largely New England-based semi-professional leagues. The ASL is regarded as probably the US' first serious professional league, and its booming popularity meant it rapidly came into conflict with the USFA over which group was the more important in US soccer. This led to a period known as the "soccer wars", which served to all but write off soccer as a major sport in the US for some time. Scheduling issues led to an ASL boycott of the Challenge Cup, but it was also exacerbated by corruption and by sanctions placed on the ASL by FIFA over its high foreign player percentage and its tendency to recruit players who were already under contract in Europe. On top of all this, many ASL club owners were also MLB franchise owners, and pushed to make the ASL more like MLB, especially with respect to making it a closed shop league. Their innovations were however notable for creating the first iteration in soccer of a two-conference system and play-off finals.

The wars finally ended in 1929, when other national bodies began to involve themselves, supporting the USFA and pressuring the ASL to back down. When several teams boycotted the ASL to compete in the Challenge Cup, it was the final straw, and the ASL gave up and agreed to step back in line. Their timing could not have been worse, however. Two weeks later the stock market crashed, the US economy tanked, and all professional soccer in America ceased. Soccer in the US would be amateur- or semi-pro-only for almost the next 40 years, and soccer's popularity plummeted as a result, in addition to it losing all interest to the foreign players who had made the USL such an attractive competition.

The revival of US soccer was, funnily enough, started by England. The English triumph in the 1966 created an explosion in the English-speaking media worldwide for soccer, and in less than a year two new leagues were formed in the USA to capitalise on this new-found interest. One competition - the United Soccer Association - enterprisingly invited European teams to come to the US during their off-seasons to play a mini-league against each other under assumed American names, while the National Professional Soccer League attempted to innovate in other ways, such as by instructing referees to call fouls at regular intervals and hold up play while they were resolved, allowing TV companies to run mid-game commercial breaks. The two leagues merged in 1968 to form the North American Soccer League (not the one which exists now), where above all, the Cosmos and their star Pele took centre stage, rekindling soccer in America almost overnight. Despite this, there were still issues with working out the magic formula for making a soccer league appeal to a generation of fans who had not been brought up with any knowledge of soccer, and the NASL would be the cause of a number of changes to soccer in the US in an attempt to appeal to fans of other sports, such as banning tied games, awarding league points for goals scored, holding penalty shoot-outs from the centre circle and creating a 35-yard line in order to eliminate the offside trap tactic. Many of these were removed again on the insistence of FIFA, though some survived to the early MLS era.

The NASL would last until 1985, although it began dying a death several seasons before. In a short period of time the league had opened up to more expansion teams than it could handle. With cash-strapped owners demanding extra teams be added so that they could be given some of the expansion fees, the league running out of players to distribute to its teams, and new expansion owners increasingly seemed to be the sort who had no interest in the sport, and only craved the attention and the profits. To try to reinvigorate the league, U.S. Soccer (the renamed USFA) added its own national team to the league as "Team America" but it did not have the desired effect. Unsurprisingly, teams began to fall apart, and by 1985 only two clubs were willing to play, causing the league to fold.

With the NASL gone, US soccer fell back into regionalism for a decade. The Western Soccer Alliance was founded in 1985 to serve the West Coast, and reintroduced the idea of inviting European teams to compete as guests. The American Soccer League was recreated in 1988 to mirror this on the East Coast, and the two merged in 1990 to form the American Professional Soccer League, later called the A-League. However, FIFA refused to recognise it as it included Canadian clubs, defying FIFA's rule on leagues being single-country only (later repealed). The APSL continues to the present day, though it has rebranded a number of times, and it currently goes under the name USL Pro.

In 1993, Major League Soccer was announced as part of the incentives plan the USSF had to offer FIFA in order for its 1994 World Cup bid to be accepted. It played its first season in 1996, and as they say, the rest is history.
No discussion about US Soccer is complete without talking about the 1950 US World Cup team. It shows anything is possible.
This is true. I was specifically looking at league history, I was barely even thinking about international football. In truth, this page started off being just one part of MLS 101, but as it grew longer and long it increasingly drowned out the rest of that article, so I chose to split it off.
No one truly knows where football came from, as various forms of it have been played all over the World throughout history: ancient Egyptians, Native Americans, et al. All we know is that England brought what we know as the modern game circa 1760, eventually culminating into the formulation of the World's first FA in Manchester, England, in the late 1800s.

I used to follow the NFL quite rigorously and was learning about how it all started, and that it came from the game rugby and evolved into what it is today (albeit with different rules and laws - the 'v' line being outlawed due to players actually being killed on the pitch).

It is a pity that these American-centric sports took a hold and the World's game (what other sport, save for running, requires no equipment? You could kick a can or small pebble to play the game) was pushed to one side. Had it not been, can you imagine where the US might be today?
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I see the future for American Soccer to be bright indeed. It may take some time but every worthy accomplishment takes time. I look forward to a future World Cup where the US advances to the finals and breaks the bounds of all that is possible. The moon was an impossible destination at first, but we got there.
Thank you so much BlueWolf BlueWolf for saying "pitch" in regards to American football. Maybe some of the soccer fans from America who think it makes them more authentic will learn to say "field" since that's what it's called here.
We use both, just like many people like FC and use soccer. Its all good.