One hundred years ago today, a group of men from around the United States convened at New York City’s Astor House Hotel to codify what would become the United States of America Foot Ball Association. The newly formed body would later become the US Soccer Football Association and ultimately, in 1974, the US Soccer Federation.
The original meeting, called by Thomas W Cahill, secretary of the American Amateur Football Association, and featuring delegates from as far away as Utah, is being celebrated this week in New York City as the “100th anniversary of US soccer”.
The meeting did not mark the birth of soccer in America, of course – though to those convinced (not without occasional tacit encouragement, it should be said) that the sport is a recent import to the country, the idea of it being even a century old seems extraordinary. As it happens, soccer in the US goes back well beyond 1913. As the American soccer historian Tom McCabe points out, the American Foot Ball Association was founded in 1884, a National Association Football League was founded in 1895, and various ad hoc teams, in particular in colleges in the North East, were playing their own versions of football well before that. Princeton, for example, played an annual game against the Princeton Theological Seminary for around a decade from the mid-1860s – though like most such games of the time, it was a hybrid of what today would be rugby and soccer.
Just as in England the Football Association celebrates its anniversary from an 1863 meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in London’s Long Acre, though, US Soccer is marking its centenary from this first serious attempt to implement a national organization and code
If the sport’s pre-1913 incarnations are slightly effaced in the telling, that is pretty consistent with the story of US soccer since then, which is a tale of continuous false starts in a huge country, of national and regional leagues rising and falling in parallel with industrial powerhouses, isolated flashes on the international scene – such as Joe Gaetjens‘ infamous goal against England in the 1950 World Cup – the boom-and-bust spectacle of the NASL, and the current incarnation of Major League Soccer
The US Soccer Federation, under president Sunil Gulati, has for the most part successfully navigated the globalization of the sport, while maintaining what has been at times an ambivalent relationship to its own longer history and a focus on the game’s reinvention over the last quarter of a century. The starting gun for US Soccer’s most recent reinvention off the field was arguably primed by the successful 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but it was fired by the 4 July 1988 Fifa vote that delivered the 1994 World Cup to the US. In 1989, perhaps inspired by this new horizon, the so called “lost generation” of players who had been stranded by the post-Pele collapse of the National American Soccer League, in 1984, were offered a route in from the wilderness by Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard round the world” that saw them qualify for a first World Cup in 40 years.
The US have been consistent World Cup qualifiers since, and with the foundation of MLS in 1996, and the joint venture Soccer United Marketing arm that seeks to monetize the growth of the game in this country, there has perhaps been little incentive for US Soccer to remember folded leagues past, such as the NASL or the mid-century American Soccer League, or even to fully embrace the knockout competition that has somehow survived all these incarnations – the US Open Cup, which is now in its 100th season of continuous play, as covered on this site last year.
But there has been a thawing in recent times, as MLS grows into its skin (it just started its 18th season and is now the longest running top-level American soccer league). The lower leagues are inching into a more stable order and a new women’s league is about to launch under the direct control of US Soccer (unlike MLS, which is merely ratified by the governing body). The mens’ international team, under Jürgen Klinsmann, progress under a weight of expectation and scrutiny that would have been unthinkable just 25 years ago, while the women’s team, which started play in 1985, goes from strength to strength as Olympic champions and World Cup finalists. There are still difficulties in developing the game in competitive or challenging markets across a huge country, but the sense of holding one’s breath around something fragile has eased and now the talk is generally of just how big the game can grow, and when.
As dignitaries gather at City Hall this morning to celebrate the anniversary, steps away from the site of that original meeting, they will be marking what at times seemed the most unlikely of histories. Few present in 1913 could have predicted that the small gathering at the Astor House Hotel would be marked by a centenary ceremony. As it was, the fledgling organization outlasted the building it was born in – the august Manhattan institution closed a month later, being abruptly demolished for a subway line.
The progress of American soccer has been less dramatic, though there have been truly dramatic moments, and if the thread of the story has been lost at times, US Soccer is still standing and looking to the future.
To mark the 100th anniversary, key figures from within the US game spoke to the Guardian about their thoughts on the landmark date and some of the most significant moments from their involvement in the game in this country:
Sunil Gulati, president of US Soccer
“Obviously to have been in existence for 100 years and to see the game continue to take a foothold in mainstream American society brings us all great pleasure. And increasingly, whether it’s as players, coaches, referees, or increasingly more the case recently, as spectators, whether on TV or the stands, it’s clear that the game has become much more important in the United States and that’s something that everybody who’s been involved in the game has been working towards.
“An individual moment? You know that’s much harder, because there have been so many individual moments, and almost all of them are iconic moments on the field involving one of our national teams, whether that’s Landon Donovan’s goal in 2010; whether it’s being up 3-0 and winning 3-2 against Portugal in 2002; the goal that qualified us after 40 years of missing the World Cup in 1989; the Women’s World Cup in 1999 here in the US; the start of Major League Soccer … I think all of those are iconic moments, so it would be impossible for me to pick out one. I’ve been at all of those games that I just mentioned, and some others …
“Can you say the modern era starts with the award of the World Cup announced in 1988? I think one could do that. I actually set it back slightly earlier when I think of it, which was the Olympic Games in 1984, because that’s what gave Fifa the thought process that the US could host a big event, because we were so successful there. But whether it’s 84 and hosting the games, and there was an important election at the federation at that time – we got a new president – or the decision in 1988 which makes it a quarter century to now, I think that’s the time period when things really started moving in the right direction.
Alexi Lalas, ESPN commentator, former US international
“We deal with an American culture that is relatively young and naive (about American soccer history), but the reality is that there is a history and it is vital, and it’s interesting and entertaining – maybe not to the extent and depth of other countries, but when you talk about American soccer there are incredible stories out there. And they don’t get told enough, and I think this [anniversary] is a wonderful chance to do some of that.
“The American soccer public has certainly grown in the last 10, 15 years, but the idea is to expose them to this, have them recognize it, and hopefully be proud of it and maybe explore some of it themselves. That’s a long way of saying I’ve been part of this American soccer culture for a long time and had a good time on and off the field being a part of it, but even in the early days when I was playing for the national team, your Tony Meolas , your Bruce Murrays etc made a point of telling what I was then, which was kind of a young, green buck, that there were people who’d come before us, that probably will never get the credit that they deserve, but were the reason I was there at the time. I hopefully have passed that on through the years.
“For me, still the best moment to have been a part of was the summer of 1994, certainly for what it did for me individually, but even more so for how it changed the perception of what soccer can be when it’s played at a high level in the United States. I lived the power of what a World Cup can do for an individual. Some people forget that myself and some other players on the team did it kind of backwards – I played in a World Cup in front of a billion people before I’d ever been on a professional environment; never been on the books of a club team. I don’t suggest that that’s how you do it but that’s how it worked out.
“About two weeks before the tournament started I got on my commercial flight, sat in the middle seat and found myself sitting next to a kind, older woman and we got to talking, and she started to ask me what I did. And I said, ‘I play soccer,’ and she said, ‘That’s so nice. What do you do for a living?’ And I had to explain that that was my job and that there was this thing called the World Cup that was coming up. In two weeks I got the two extremes, and maybe the perfect example of what soccer was at the time and then what it matured and evolved into even within that summer.”
Carli Lloyd, USWNT player, Olympic gold medalist
“I think the celebration’s great. You look back over 100 years of US soccer and see so many great people that have come out of it and accomplished so many things, and I’m honored to put on the US shirt. And having a chance of representing my country doing something I love. Not to say that I’m really happy about being injured at the moment, but it’s a great week to be able to be part of it, to be with fellow team-mates like Jeff Agoos, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas.
“The 99 World Cup team was a huge pivotal moment for the women’s side, but I remember growing up and following John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones – all those guys. I remember the crazy hairstyles back then! But just watching the World Cup over the years and then watching the 99 World Cup team and what they did, as pioneers for the womens’ side, which paved the way for us, was great. And now we’re sitting atop one of the best teams in the world and doing what we love.
“I think there’s been a ton of moments personally. Obviously watching the 99 team as a youngster and saying to myself, ‘I want to be able to put on the US jersey and play for my country’, and then earning my first cap with the team, but I would probably have to say that the biggest and best moment of my career so far has been the 2012 Olympics – just the situation I was in, what happened, how I played and then taking home that gold medal.
“With the new league, I’m super excited, looking forward to getting back from the injury and getting back playing. I know that this is the third time with the league and it is a little bit of a set-up with the league with US soccer, the Canada Federation and the Mexico Federation funding all the players, so hopefully this will help jump start it, and it’s obviously not a sprint, it’s a marathon and we’ve got to take our time, we’ve got to be smart and we’d love to see it last. But I’m looking forward to getting with my team and playing and continuing on with the national team as well.”
Jeff Agoos, MLS technical director for competition, five-time MLS Cup winner, former US international
“Well, I think anytime anything gets to 100 years it deserves recognition, whether it’s a business or an individual. But I think US Soccer has had a very long and very successful 100 years. It’s ebbed and flowed from decade to decade, but it’s a rich history and I’m very honored to have been a small part of that history, and I hope that part of what I did helped the sport grow.
“All of us who come from the game stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us and I’m no different. I grew up in Dallas going to Dallas Tornado games, seeing Kyle Rote Jr and seeing Kenny Cooper and it just caught me – I had the bug. It was my passion, I loved the game, and from the old NASL, that spurred my love of the game. After the NASL obviously the sport fractured and there were a number of different leagues, and as I grew older and knew that this was something that I wanted to do as a profession I tried to play in some of those leagues – including the indoor league, the MISL.
“Soccer was essentially on life support after the NASL and there were very few opportunities to earn a living. But I got to be with the national team set-up from the age of 15, and I come back to the people who came before me — the Mike Windischmanns , the David Vanoles , the Hugo Pérezs — these were all people that continued that legacy till we got there, and my generation that got there just carried the torch that little bit further until Major League Soccer came around.
“I think without Paul Caligiuri’s goal in 1989 we may not be where we are now in terms of the league. Certainly Major League Soccer has been a successful league. It’s obviously had some very difficult times in its past, but it’s certainly a different moment right now in terms of its development. But there’s a very bright future, even if there’s a long way to go to get to our goal, which is to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022.”
Todd Durbin, executive vice-president, player relations & competition, MLS
“Obviously it’s a great moment to be celebrating 100 years of US soccer, when the sport has come so far so fast in recent years, and really one of the great moments and one of the defining moments for soccer in this country was the amazing job that US Soccer did hosting the World Cup in 1994, and how that really served as a springboard for propelling soccer forward in this country, as well as really the starting point to bring top-level soccer back in the United States.
“We [MLS] have an unbelievably close relationship with our federation. I think it’s something that’s actually unique in soccer around the world, so this anniversary is not only something that I’m personally proud to be part of, but I think the league are most proud of the enormous role that Major League Soccer has played in so many of the great national-team players that are playing today. So if you look at the most recent US national-team roster, Major League Soccer is either where they’re playing today or the launching pad for their career. And one of the things that we take enormous pride in is: the rise of the US national team – I don’t think it’s any accident that it corresponds with the rise of Major League Soccer.
“It’s really hard to single out a particular moment, but I will say that one of the most emotional moments we’ve had as a country and as a league was in the 2002 World Cup when the United States beat Mexico. That was a very important moment for us. Mexico is obviously our No 1 national team competitor in the region, so to win on that day and that stage was a great moment for US soccer and a great moment for United States soccer in this region because it very clearly demonstrated that the US is here for the long term, and we are a force to be reckoned with in international soccer.”
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