Our friends over at the new soccer magazine Howler have shared one of the stories from their inaugural issue with us for us to share with all of you. There are some really great stories in this magazine and this is just one example. If you haven’t checked out Howler yet, you really need to. It’s a great magazine and the crew over there have done a remarkable job getting it off the ground. More on that shortly. In the meantime, check out the story “Homeless at 100″ by David Wangerin.
E D I T O R ’ S N O T E : When we came up with the idea for Howler, one of the first people we reached out to was David Wangerin, a writer whose dedication to recording the history of American soccer has been instrumental in shaping how fans here understand the legacy of the game. We asked him to do a column for each issue, to be called Back Heel, that would uncover a forgotten moment in the long story of soccer in America.
David handed in a draft of his first column—an impassioned plea to catalog the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame’s archives—in the spring, but, tragically, he passed away this summer before its publication. The editors of Howler have made some slight alterations to bring the column up-to-date, but it largely stands as David wrote it. We will miss him greatly, and we hope that his argument for the restoration of the United States Soccer Federation’s archives will encourage others to continue his important work.
HOMELESS AT A HUNDRED
The U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame sits in a warehouse in Hillsborough, North Carolina. American soccer historian David Wangerin ponders what is being lost.
NEXT YEAR the United States Soccer Federation is sure to be making loud noises about the hundred years that will have passed since its formation. Yet as the USSF prepares, one critical element will be largely missing: a complete sense of history. When financial difficulties forced the USSF’s Soccer Hall of Fame to vacate its residence in Oneonta, New York, in 2010, doors were closed on more than just an expanse of colorful exhibits. The less conspicuous work of a few volunteers who had spent years trying to bring to order its sprawling collection of archives—trophies and medals, game balls and jerseys, and box upon box of documents—was also brought to an unfortunate end. For the time being, at least, these archives, which record America’s soccer past, sit in a Eurosport-owned warehouse in Hillsborough, North Carolina. While the disagreements and mismanagement and setbacks chronicled in those boxes are far from pretty, the archives deserve a better fate. Without them, we lose the deep sense of history that should imbue our appreciation of the game.
Read the rest of Homeless at 100 after the jump.
While next year may be the official centennial, it could be argued that the USSF really got its start in 1911, when the Corinthian Football Club of England, cast out of its country’s own Football Association in a dispute over amateurism, announced plans for a tour of the U.S. At the time, the organization with the most realistic claim to represent American soccer was something called the American Football Association, a 29-year-old collection of British expatriates with a sense of independence so fragile as to warrant the payment of annual dues to the English FA. Not wanting Corinthians rewarded abroad for their misbehavior at home, the FA warned its American affiliate of the club’s renegade status. The AFA duly forbade its members from playing against them.
Taking orders from the old country was a fatal indication of the AFA’s limited ambition—not to mention scandalously un-American. Within a few months, Thomas Cahill, a sporting goods salesman, and G. Randoph Manning, an English-born, German-educated surgeon, had put in place a rival American Amateur Football Association. The new body quickly found purchase, such that by the spring of 1913 its leaders convened a meeting in Manhattan’s Astor House Hotel, joining forces with enthusiasts from as far away as Salt Lake City in the expectation of organizing soccer as an American game. “We have different associations, and they say they control football,” Manning observed, “but when you look around you find that not one association, whatever association that may be, really controls football.” At the meeting, the AAFA gave way to the United States Football Association—today’s USSF—with the AFA continuing to operate for several years as an often truculent subsidiary.
The 1910s were a heady decade for soccer in the U.S., even if the progress made that decade has been largely forgotten. The historian Mel Smith has identified no fewer than 100 American colleges as having taken up the sport between 1905 and 1920, an expansive roll-call that includes the likes of Brigham Young and Texas A&M. Migrants were pouring into the country from the British Isles; moreover, the fluidity of the sporting landscape had yet to be challenged by the “golden age” of the 1920s, which proved to work in favor of the familiar and popular. Crowds of several thousand for crucial matches in the U.S. Open Cup, the association’s main source of revenue, were not uncommon. By 1924, there was close to $24,000 sitting in the USSF’s treasury, something like $300,000 today.
Just a few years later, though, the federation wasclinging to life, ravaged by the Great Depression, a shameful amount of in-fighting, and other things besides. For a time during the Second World War, it was bankrolled by Joe Barriskill, a fearsome, Belfast-born linen salesman; as late as 1971 he was its executive secretary. Infusions of fresh blood were rare. Year after year, the USSF returned the same men to office, operating with a clannish irrationality and holding outsiders in suspicion. (“I’ve never met anyone who said they liked Barriskill,” one writer has told me.) Dissent, even from the federation’s own members, was rarely tolerated; protracted arguments often ended up in court.
Much from this long age of obscurity has been forgotten, although minutes from the annual meetings offer a teasing glimpse of the federation’s early exertions. Together with the attendant “reports of officers and committees,” they probably offer our best hope of getting to grips with American soccer as it used to be. The story-in-waiting is likely to be a tragedy—or perhaps a farce. “The Vikings… did not enter [the U.S. Open Cup],” one delegate is quoted in the minutes from the 1947 meeting. “They were the winners of your national championship last year, and by no argument could I persuade them to enter the national cup competition because they claimed, and rightly so, that they had lost $6,000 on the playing of the national cup competition last year.”
The present-day USSF may not wish to be reminded of this grim heritage, the years when the grand sum of $9,000 in the kitty prompted its president to declare “our financial situation is fairly good” (1936); when one officer complained of there being “not enough time to select a [national] team and go through all the paperwork that should be done. We do it all the time; every year it is the same thing” (1950); or when the very first sentence from the new man at the top begins, awkwardly: “This being my first report, as president, gives me a great deal of pleasure to announce, at long last, we have no more court cases or outlaw leagues” (1962).
For decades, the USSF regarded the growth of youth and amateur soccer as its focal point, even though it could do little to nurture it. Yet as far back as the 1920s, American-born votaries like Cahill, steeped in the fabric of organized baseball, sensed the tail was wagging the dog. Professional soccer—what there was of it—found itself kept in check by the rank and file of the federation, the amateur and junior interests with whom, one suspects, the volunteers running the show felt more at home.
That could have changed in the 1960s, when big-time sports entrepreneurs came calling and ponied up for a coast-to-coast professional league. Suddenly, the governing body was swimming in cash. But it had been operating out of a 200-square-foot office, and its president was a police officer in California. Barriskill, the only full-time employee, was 76 years old. Unable to marshal the sudden groundswell of millionaire interest into a single, coherent entity, the USSF watched a larger renegade league operate alongside the one it had sanctioned—and, as the season capitulated to fan indifference, found its name on an $18 million antitrust lawsuit.
By the mid-1980s, the brief promise of the North American Soccer League had been ground into dust, and the USSF was flirting with bankruptcy for the umpteenth time. Not until 1990, with the election of Alan Rothenberg to the presidency— two years after FIFA had awarded the U.S. the 1994 World Cup—did it gain a financial foothold.
One suspects that this, 1994, is the year the federation would doubtless prefer as its starting point: the birth of American soccer as a multi-million dollar enterprise, something to sink marketing teeth into. To say that, from that moment, it has never looked back may reek of cliche, but hardly anything connects the likes of Sunil Gulati to Joe Barriskill. Still, as Cicero wrote, not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child—and for all the progress professional soccer has made in America, it is still in the first flush of youth.