Long Reads

The Strange Story of the United Soccer Association

The history of the beautiful game in the United States is long and oftentimes complicated. Infighting among officials and the prominence of other sports in the country stunted the growth of football in the United States. As a result, the country has historically grappled with complications relating to the establishment of a viable nationwide to flight league capable of competing with the big four leagues of North America.

Before the novel popularity of Pele, Beckenbauer, and Cruyff’s North American Soccer League of the late 1970s and the more sleek American model of Beckham, Donovan, and Zlatan’s MLS in the 21st Century, there was another attempt at bringing quality football to North America to jumpstart domestic interest.

Two leagues in the 1960s, the International Soccer League and the United Soccer Association attempted to import European talent from abroad by relocating full clubs from Europe and South America to play summer seasons in North America. Neither league survived the decade and the experiment remains on the fringes of the history of football in North America. Despite this, the attempts at the model and the history leading up to them are worth looking at to understand the past of football in America and even some of the elements present in the North American game today.

The United States FA, now known as the United States Soccer Federation, was founded as the governing body of the sport in the country in 1913. However, leagues such as 1884’s American Football Association and 1893’s American Amateur Football Association, had been bringing organized football to the United States since before the turn of the century. Despite the appearance of many early leagues, the sport found itself confined largely to colleges, without a major nationwide professional league. Smaller leagues, such as the American Soccer League, found modest success in regional areas, as the ASL persisted mostly in New England and the Mid Atlantic from 1933 to 1983.

The issues of producing quality nationwide in a country where football to this day is not a top three sport hampered the popularity of domestic leagues. However, football still enjoyed some popularity when European and South American teams came through on tours, thrashing local teams with ease.

After diagnosing the problem to be the lack of stateside quality, American businessmen in sport prescribed their own remedy. Their solution, first attempted by William D. Cox, owner of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies in his International Soccer League, was to bring clubs from Europe and South America to North America in their summer breaks and preseasons to contest each other.

The International Soccer League began this model in 1960, working through the American Soccer League in order to avoid being classified as an illegitimate outlaw league by the USSFA and FIFA. The league’s intention was to become a respectable intercontinental competition alongside being a high-quality professional league in North America.

However, 1960 also saw the establishment of the Intercontinental Cup, a brainchild of UEFA with the endorsement of CONMEBOL. The high profile backing of the Intercontinental Cup, a two-legged tie between the winner of UEFA’s European Cup and CONMEBOL’s Copa Libertadores, greatly undercut the potential for the International Soccer League to carry any weight as a major competition.

Despite the success and publicity surrounding the Intercontinental Cup, the International Soccer League survived six seasons. From 1960 to 1965, the league attracted the likes of Bayern Munich, West Ham, Monaco, and Sporting Lisbon, among others, though teams mostly fielded reserves. The league also garnered enough attention to secure regional television coverage and expansion outside of its original New York base. The league’s format consisted of two separate season halves with completely different groups of teams. The winners of each season half then faced off in a championship tie. Though it enjoyed modest success, debts and political infighting in the US Soccer hierarchy proved to be the league’s demise.

The following year, a new league took an even more deliberate approach to the club importation model. The United Soccer Association, funded by a group of American businessmen interested in sport, gained USSFA and FIFA approval to form another league based on importing European and South American clubs.

In their model, the clubs were paid around $250,000 (just under $2,000,000 today), to move to the United States for the summer, where they would be relocated to a host city and branded with an American style sports team name. The league intended this to only be a short term arrangement in order to draw fans to the league before installing a domestic club structure, as the United Soccer Association faced direct competition from the rival National Professional Soccer League, founded the same year.

While the United Soccer Association had the blessing of the USSFA and FIFA, the NPSL gained a national television contract with broadcaster CBS. This is what ultimately convinced the United Soccer Association to adopt the importation system, as they hedged their bets on superior quality on the field to draw attention away from the more widely televised league, comprised of mostly American players. After the first season, the clubs in the United Soccer Association had plans in place to operate with their own domestic rosters, rather than the importation method, which operated largely as a stopgap solution to establish relevance in the North American Sports scene.

The imported sides made up an interesting myriad of established European and South American clubs. The twelve clubs were divided into two divisions of six, east and west, each vying to win their division in order to qualify for a one-off championship final.

In the east, Irish club Shamrock Rovers became the Boston Rovers, Stoke City became the Cleveland Stokers, Northern Irish champions Glentoran became the Detroit Cougars, Uruguayan Primera Division regulars C.A. Cerro became the New York Skyliners, and two Scottish clubs, Hibernian and Aberdeen, became Toronto City and the Washington Whips respectively.

In the west, a third Scottish club, Dundee United, became the Dallas Tornado, Brazilian club Bangu, who had been previously imported to North America in the ISL, became the Houston Stars, on the heels of promotion to the English First Division, Wolverhampton Wanderers became the Los Angeles Wanderers, Eredivisie club ADO Den Haag became the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales, and a lower mid table English First Division Sunderland side, featuring World Cup champion Gordon Banks, became the Vancouver Royal Canadians.

The league began to play in late May of 1967 for a twelve match season. Rather surprisingly, Houston recorded the highest attendance in the first round, packing a reported 34,965 into the 44,000-seat Astrodome, shared by Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros, whose season was also underway. Three of the American owners also owned baseball teams, making their already used baseball stadiums a low-cost option for the United Soccer Association in a country where no major stadiums existed for specifically association football.

Like Houston, New York also shared their stadium with a baseball team though they were not owned by a baseball team owner. New York played their matches in the iconic Yankee Stadium, home of the New York Yankees. The Uruguayan Skyliners drew a commendable 21,871 fans in their opening match. No opening match drew less than 7,000 spectators.

The lowest-drawing match, which saw Boston host Detroit, was likely the most controversial. Boston, represented by Shamrock Rovers, and Detroit, represented by Glentoran, brought the deep political differences between Dublin and Belfast to a high school stadium outside of Boston. Shamrock Rovers had been placed in Boston because of the city’s deep history of Irish immigration. Despite trying to strike interest locally and perhaps draw a bit of controversy, only a little over 7,000 spectators made their way into the Manning Bowl in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The match ended in a 1-1 draw, with three disallowed goals for Detroit’s Northern Irish representatives. Late in the match, Detroit’s player manager John Colrain was accused of punching the 40 year old linesman after the team’s third disallowed goal, though Colrain said he after the incident that he merely brushed the linesman’s flag.

Because the two played in the same division, Detroit and Boston met in the reverse fixture in early June. In a rainy University of Detroit Stadium, only 628 fans showed up to watch the rematch. Before the match could even start, the teams were lined up to take the field behind a flagbearer holding an Irish tricolour. Clearly directed by someone who did not know the history of the club they were housing in Detroit, the issue incensed the home team.

The match eventually got underway, as Boston walked out with the tricolour before Detroit walked out without a flag. Like the first meeting, the match ended controversially, as Detroit won and dispatched a dodgy penalty. The referee, a doctorate student at nearby Wayne State University, became the point of attention, as the match finished 1-0. Animosity towards the less experienced American referees ran through the life of the league, with Colrain and others even claiming referees would ruin the league.

The controversy for Detroit’s Northern Irishmen did not end there, as a cross-division clash with the Houston Stars, represented by Brazilian club Bangu, ended after only 71 minutes because of fighting on the pitch. The melee, which reportedly included two-footed dropkicks, flying camera bags, and weaponized corner flags, only ended when Detroit policemen fired two warning shots into the Michigan sky from the centre circle.

Houston, or Bangu, took home the 2-0 win, despite the abandonment of the match. The Stars, though not having the supposed ties to their adopted cities, such as Shamrock Rovers to Boston, boasted the leagues best attendance. The adopted Brazilian club averaged over 19,000 fans to their six home matches in the Astrodome, 10,000 clear of the next closest team, Dundee United playing as the Dallas Tornado. Houston’s Brazilian representatives even managed this feat while finishing fourth out of the six clubs in the Western Division on twelve points, winning four matches, drawing four, and losing four.

After twelve matches, the Washington Whips, represented by Aberdeen, and the Los Angeles Wolves, represented by Wolverhampton Wanderers, topped the two divisions, qualifying them for the USA Final. Both teams finished on 15 points, with five wins and five losses. Boston and Dallas, represented by Shamrock Rovers and Dundee United, found themselves rooted to the bottom of the two divisions with only two and three wins, respectively. The San Francisco Golden Gate Gales, represented by ADO Den Hag, were the highest scoring team in the league with 28 goals scored, but finished second in the Western Division. Chicago Mustangs striker, Roberto Boninsegna claimed top scoring honours. The Cagliari striker and future Italy and Inter talisman bagged 11 goals in nine appearances.

The final was held on 14 July of 1967 in the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Los Angeles Wolves won the right to host the final on a coin flip, despite Washington owning a superior goal difference. The 90,000-plus capacity coliseum only welcomed 17,842 fans to the final, but the small crowd witnessed a dramatic match. A rapid-fire goal fest ended 4-4 after 90 minutes, and extra time was needed to decide a champion. Two more goals, including the completion of a hat trick for Washington’s Frank Munro, left the match level at five goals each after 30 minutes of extra time, triggering a second period of overtime to be decided by a golden goal, rather than opting for penalties.

Despite the excitement of the match through a full period of overtime, the deciding goal came just a minute into the golden goal period in anticlimactic fashion. Washington’s Ally Shewan poked a pass by his own goalkeeper for an own goal, giving Los Angeles the 6-5 victory. A fitting end to the short but chaotic life of the United Soccer Association.

After the season, and the departure of the league’s temporary representatives, it became clear to the executives of the United Soccer Association that another season was not feasible. The league’s rival, the National Professional Soccer League, faced similar straits. The United Soccer Association held USSFA and FIFA approval, but the NPSL held the major broadcasting contract. Because of this, the two had largely cancelled each other out, leaving them to opt for a merger after the 1967 season.

The outcome of the merger was the North American Soccer League, which would eventually become a cult sports success in North America from the 1968 season until its disbandment in 1985, featuring some of the world’s biggest footballing names, including Pele and Franz Beckenbauer with the New York Cosmos, Johan Cruyff with the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats, and George Best with the Aztecs; the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and San Jose Earthquakes.

Of the United Soccer Association teams, the Chicago Mustangs, Cleveland Stokers, Dallas Tornado, Detroit Cougars, Houston Stars, Los Angeles Wolves, Vancouver Royal Canadians, and Washington Whips survived the merger, but most only lasted one season.

The end of the United Soccer Association did not signal the end to the club importation system it used. In 1969, after the folding of 12 of the league’s 17 inaugural season teams, the NASL organized the NASL International Cup, which brought in five European clubs to represent five US cities. This double round-robin tournament bought time for new teams to be established for the actual season. In this competition, Aston Villa became the Atlanta Chiefs, West Ham United became the Baltimore Bays, Dundee United became the Dallas Tornado, Wolverhampton Wanderers returned to become the Kansas City Spurs, and Kilmarnock became the St. Louis Stars. Wolverhampton won the competition, repeating their imported dominance from 1967.

Since 1969, there has not been an imported club rebranded to play as an American team. However, events such as the United States-based International Champions Cup still bring in clubs from around the world to compete on US soil and in other countries in a strictly preseason tournament. The preseason competition has drawn massive crowds, including 109,318 fans to watch Manchester United face off against Real Madrid in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is generally a success each summer. Other events, such as the MLS All Star Game, also recruit clubs from abroad to play against a team comprised of North America’s top league’s best, though the league is now shifting to play their match against Mexico’s Liga MX.

The United States’ long and confusing history with the game it calls soccer moves ever forward. In recent decades, the establishment of Major League Soccer has helped to stabilize the game’s presence in the public eye, though the league and its fans still march to the beat of their own drum. However, it was the colourful and chaotic efforts of the leagues of the 1960s that helped lay the groundwork for the more stable establishments to come in the six decades after.

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