The World Game in the USA
(This article appeared as ‘Shootin’ it Stateside,’ in Goal Weekly, ( December 2011, p.19).
Bruce Arena, David Beckham’s coach at Los Angeles Galaxy, was very upbeat about the Major League Soccer in the United States claiming that it was going onwards and upwards when many of the other indices in that country were heading in the other direction. But Arena will remember that there were previous episodes in the long history of football in the United States when it seemed that it might make a significant impact on the sporting landscape.
In the nineteenth century there were various forms of football being played in that country as there were in the United Kingdom and Australia. There was an early flourish among some colleges in the north-east, but then working class immigrants with some business support took over the game in the 1880s. As with Australia the game tended to rise and fall with waves of migration, with distance a major handicap to the formation of real national competitions. The American Soccer League of the 1920s was a competitive and impressive body, but despite its title it was really a north-eastern regional competition. After the Second World War, the United States national team caused a major upset by defeating England one-nil in the World Cup in 1950 in Brazil, but it was not till the 1960s that interest in the game grew to the point that another national league could be attempted. Bill Cox attracted a number of top European teams to play matches during their summer off-season along with a domestic all-stars outfit.
Then in 1968 two competing leagues merged to form the North American Soccer League (NASL) and it flourished for a few years before coming to an end in 1984. This time the clubs were American but the players were attracted from round the world, including a number of the stars of the day, usually, though not always, when they were approaching the end of their careers. So Pele, George Best, Rodney Marsh, Charlie Cooke, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, Gerd Müller, Denis Tueart and many lesser lights spent several years boosting the sport and enjoying rewards which were significantly better than they could have obtained in Europe and the United Kingdom. The popularity of the game peaked in 1977 when the New York Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers drew nearly 78,000 fans to Giants’ Stadium. But the league had major problems. It lacked national television exposure, it played fast and loose with FIFA regulations and it had little or no grass roots development. The American members of the rosters tended to be there to make up the numbers and the national team struggled to make an impact as a result. Nevertheless seeing the superstars in the flesh helped give many youngsters an idea of what was possible in the game.
George Best weaved his magic with Los Angeles Aztecs from 1976 through June 1978 with his great mate Bobby McAlinden, who did a lot of the midfield grafting for Charlie Cooke, Ron Davies and Best. They reached the play-offs that first season. Best scored 15 goals in 23 games. The Aztecs made the play-offs again in 1977 but then he was dropped and transferred to Fort Lauderdale Strikers. In his first match with the new club he scored as the Strikers beat Cosmos 5–3 their first victory over the NASL champions. It was while at the Aztecs that he and McAlinden bought a run down hotel called Hard Times and turned it into Bestie’s Bar, where my wife and I had a meal with Bobby McAlinden on a visit to the States in 1991. We also watched Australia beat England in the final of the rugby World Cup that year on one of the 47 television screens filling the walls of the establishment and serviced by huge satellite dishes on the flat roof.
The NASL folded but a relatively high quality indoor soccer league succeeded it and the women’s game began to grow into the dominant sport for females, something to which the male version could not even aspire. Title IX, a federal ordinance, which mandated equal provision for male and female athletes in the college system, underpinned the growth of the women’s game. Mothers seeing the horrendous rate of injury in the American code of football and ice hockey were keen for their children to play a less violent on-field game and so the phenomenon of the ‘soccer mom’ appeared.
In 1994 the United States hosted the World Cup for the first time. Great fears prior to the tournament that the USA would distort the game by trying to impose some of the innovations which had been adopted in the NASL days proved to be misplaced. The tournament drew huge attendances to excellent stadia and though the final was goal-less and had to be decided by a penalty shoot-out and Colombian player Andreas Escobar was murdered after conceding an own goal in the loss to the USA the experience was otherwise very positive. Pele returned to appear at the closing ceremony in Los Angeles with Whitney Houston and two Australian linesmen, Eugene Brazzale and Gordon Dunster officiated at the opening game in Chicago.