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World Cup Flashback: The Great 1920s American Soccer Craze

3 years ago
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Though there may only be one true American soccer fan watching this year's World Cup (Googler's, get FIFA's official printable World Cup schedule here) there was in a fact a time when the sport was very popular in the United States, so popular that it threatened to derail the global "football" order. In the 1920s, "the top American soccer league had tens of thousands of fans, featured some of the world's best players, and looked set to challenge the fledgling NFL in the competition to supply the nation with a post-October pastime," writes Slate's Brian Phillips in a fascinating article.

The American Soccer League was confined to the Northeast, but there were also smaller outfits running in other parts of the country. Many of the teams were sponsored by industries and stocked with player-employees fresh from Europe.

"Clubs affiliated with American industry had a significant advantage over their rivals at home and abroad. With business booming in the United States, American clubs were able to pay much higher wages than their European counterparts. And at a time when almost no one made a living exclusively from playing soccer, clubs like Bethlehem Steel were also able to offer their players high-paying factory jobs. As soon as the ASL took off, American teams started luring players from some of the top clubs in Europe. Before long, there were 50 European internationals-players good enough to be included on their countries' national teams-playing in the American league."

At the first World Cup, in Uruguay in 1930, the United States came in third -- still it's best finish to date. But around that time, the ASL began feuding with the United States Football Association, which started a rival league. The Depression, which crushed the industrial companies that sponsored teams, was the final blow. "But as a new World Cup rolls around and the media prepares to make room for this curious foreign sport, it's worth remembering how easily elsewhere could have been here," writes Phillips. "In the 1920s, soccer -- driven by wild economic growth, propelled by immigration, wrecked by a massive crash -- might have been the most American sport of all."
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