Commentary

Once upon a time in America

Once upon a time in America, there was a strange sport played by men not from America. In the fishing ports of Massachusetts, the steel towns of Pennsylvania and other places where immigrants gathered, worked long hours and held on to their customs, what little free time they had was spent at soccer clubs, with a soccer ball. It was not “American,” but it was theirs, and it was good.

When wars came and Americans fought around the globe, they saw other ways of life. They saw “football,” but it was not their football. So when they returned home, they returned to their football and baseball. Soccer was still a foreign game, and it was not good.

A very good thing happened in 1950. A team of players who barely knew each other – a textile worker, a postal clerk, a man with a Haitian mother and Belgian father – beat the most famous team in the world, in the World Cup. Most of the world noticed, but most of America did not, so it was not very good.

But slowly – very slowly – it became good. In the prep schools of New England and the Catholic schools of St. Louis, boys began to play soccer. In New Jersey, a Scottish soccer club reached out and drew in youngsters from nearby towns. In years past they would have been playing baseball or football. Now they were playing “soccer.” That was good.

Around the same time, across the river in New York, the most famous player on the planet came to play. At first he played on a terrible field, then in a baseball stadium, but in the third year he moved across the river – to New Jersey. Finally he had a worthy place to play. That too was good.

The grass was artificial, but the crowds were not. And he was joined by teammates – superstars and future stars and people who would never be stars – from around the globe. They played teams from unlikely places: Minnesota, San Antonio, Portland, Hawaii. And those teams had players from across the planet too. The quality of the game varied wildly, but in all those places, seeds of soccer were planted. And it was pretty good.

The soccer league had grown too far, too fast, and it imploded. But boys – and girls! – kept playing. Their parents learned how to form teams and associations, and even how to coach. Their children played in their backyards with friends, and on newly built or converted fields. They had fun, because they were running and passing and scoring with their friends. There were more and more high school teams too, just like football and baseball. And it was very good.

As the sport of soccer grew in America, so did the “industry.” Clubs added teams, and coaches. They added “coaching directors,” and levels of play. There was recreational soccer, travel soccer, premier soccer, elite soccer. Entire organizations grew, and split off, each with its own acronym and agenda. It was hard to keep track of who was who and what was what. Some people thought it was good. Others were not so sure.

A very elite boys “academy” developed in Florida. Others followed. Then came an actual league, or perhaps it was a program, or maybe an entire platform, with “Academy” in its name. The aim was audacious: develop players to win the World Cup. American women had already done that, of course – twice, in fact – and won Olympic gold medals to boot, but the men had not come anywhere close. That was embarrassing, so some powerful people decided to throw money and American know-how at the problem. Some people thought that was good, while others thought it was not good.

Still, soccer continued to grow. There were heart monitors and “college showcases” and journeys by plane from one end of the country to the other. People continued to play high school soccer and recreational soccer of course, but (they were told) it paled in comparison to “real” soccer. Still America was no closer to a men's World Cup championship. They did not even always qualify, and that was definitely not good.

And then a strange virus swept across the world. It did not spare America, although many Americans thought they were invincible to everything. Suddenly, just like that, life as the nation knew it stopped. Schools closed. Churches, movie theaters, nail salons closed. Soccer closed too. That was really and truly not good.

Or so people thought. But as boys and girls stayed home, doing distance learning and playing Fortnite, they did something else. Brothers and sisters started kicking around in the backyard, with each other. Down in the basement they juggled, set up obstacle courses and invented new moves. They watched YouTube videos of classic matches and great goals. And it was not so bad, after all.

They did not travel all over the country for games. They did not have “drills,” or beep tests, or even coaches. They did not have parents asking them why they did not score, or why their teammate did not score despite the perfect pass she had just received. They had none of that. But they did have soccer, and themselves. And that was pretty good, when you thought about it. Finally, the virus receded. Masks came off. Restaurants and movie theaters and nail salons reopened. Soccer came back too. And that was very good.

But it came back in a different way. There were games and leagues, of course. But children also continued to play with their friends, in their yards and streets and wherever they could find a field. They did not travel all over the country, because there was very good competition to be found next door. They played because they loved to run and kick and dribble and try new moves and defend. They played because they realized that soccer is a really, really great game, no matter where and how you play it, and no matter who you play it with and against. And that was amazingly good.

As for the World Cup? Well, that was not played in Qatar in 2022. And that was fine.

Photo: U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame/Harry Keough and Frank Borghi defend against England in the 1-0 1950 World Cup USA win; USA wins the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991/American youth soccer early 2020

25 comments about "Once upon a time in America".
  1. Mike Lynch, May 4, 2020 at 2:49 p.m.

    Good article Dan! If life after COVID looks like more pick up and backyard games, less club travel, state cup is the state champion, high school soccer particpation is allowed, multi-sport participation encouraged, etc, then the game will be in a better spot than before the pandemic!

  2. Blane Shepard, May 4, 2020 at 3:15 p.m.

    Dan, Great take and good read. 

  3. Thomas Brandecker, May 4, 2020 at 3:16 p.m.

    Nice piece except for dig on Americans thinking they were invincible 

  4. George Vecsey, May 4, 2020 at 3:35 p.m.

    Dan, very nice essay. Great to see your name. But wait, what is this with kids playing games with each other. No adults? No refs? No coaches? How does that work? Do girls play with boys? For a few years in growth pattern, some girls look like the great Michelle Akers next to the boys. 
    For the moment, in my little corner of the world, I see a lot of kids riding their bikes with their pals, or their parents, not helicoptering.  Thanks, George Vecsey 

  5. John Polis replied, May 6, 2020 at 10:24 a.m.

    George, great to see your comment. Hope you are well. It reminded me of an interview I set up for you with the highly unique Bora Milutinovic not too long after he took over the USA team. You had barely walked into Bora's room for the interview when he popped open the mini-bar and said: "George, you want to drink somsing? My bar is your bar." A classic Bora. Great memory. Hope you are well. JP

  6. Ric Fonseca, May 4, 2020 at 4:15 p.m.

    Dean Woog, very good article and the topic is for sure a captivating one, I specially liked how you linked the minute history of our sport and melded it into a readable essay, just the rirght length for our esteemed and venerable Soccer America, and  for which - as a retired professor emeritus of history - its an A+!  Muchisimas gracias! 

  7. Mike Mcglynn, May 4, 2020 at 4:34 p.m.

    very nice Dan - waxing poetic - backyard play is the key !  from Mike at Lake Placid Soccer Centre. 

  8. Michael Saunders, May 4, 2020 at 5:07 p.m.

    Thank you Dan .... wonderful aricle!

  9. Walter Burenin, May 4, 2020 at 5:37 p.m.

    I have been reading your magazine since 1971 (in the Soccer West days). That is your best article I have ever read!

  10. Tom Merchant, May 4, 2020 at 6:08 p.m.

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.pressofatlanticcity.com/sports/open-nights-draw-big-soccer-crowd-in-stafford-township/article_1372ced9-ce4c-53f4-94a3-9c00d2a6fb5a.amp.html

  11. tom kain, May 4, 2020 at 7:58 p.m.

    thanks Dan... just the players and a ball.... 

  12. Peter Bechtold, May 4, 2020 at 9:21 p.m.

    Thanks, Dan; cute and well-written.

    Just one fleeting thought: How would you compare this to softball ? (just as open, no special body-type required, community oriented,etc.)

  13. Dan Woog replied, May 5, 2020 at 6:46 a.m.

    Definitely no special body types required for softball! (I'm kidding, I'm kidding ...)

  14. Wooden Ships, May 4, 2020 at 11:49 p.m.

    Fun read. Thanks, from one of those St. Louis players from the 60's and 70's. 

  15. frank schoon, May 5, 2020 at 8:58 a.m.

    A nice heartwarming read Dan and very meaningful for all the guys that experienced the growth of soccer from the 60's on. As I was reading ,I kept thinking of Ric Fonseca's and his historical feedbacks. Hopefully, some of what Mike Lynch states will be set in motion after this virus. I hope once the reigns are a loosened ,kids will call each other and decide to meet at a location in the neighborhood to play a little pick up soccer....We as posters who have kids ought to encourage them to call each other and let them DECIDE where to play some pickup soccer...we have a chance to jumpstart pickup soccer......


  16. frank schoon replied, May 5, 2020 at 9:06 a.m.

    That was a nice picture of Harry Keough in the action shot. Harry did a wonderful job with St.Louis University for they were 'THE' college soccer power in the nation. When I played against his team in 1968 , St.Louis had already won 5 NCAA championships. I hope someday SA will write a story of St.Louis Univ when they were 'the' team to beat.

  17. Martin Varley, May 5, 2020 at 1:11 p.m.

    I rather liked your article especially as it was simple in it's structure! But it was well written. However, you brushed over a major fact that the US Men's team is spiralling downwards and the so called experts at the top of the game have redesigned the professional game in it's desire to find players locally. It was sad to see the USA men's team eliminated in the previous WC qualification stage by a small Caribbean country before it could get started in the finals. And the "powers to be" seemed to have had nothing to offer.
    It is my contentation that the grass roots of the game is weak, not in the playing of the game itself, but in the lack of expertise from the grass roots upward. Especially in the quality of coaching at all levels. And until this factor is remedied by an administration that has much to learn, as other countries did in the past, from the bottom upwards! I am sorry to say there are no "World Cups" in the near future for a mens team that relies on American designed soccer in a country (before COVID 19 arrived) that had so much to offer.

  18. Martin Varley, May 5, 2020 at 1:11 p.m.

    I rather liked your article especially as it was simple in it's structure! But it was well written. However, you brushed over a major fact that the US Men's team is spiralling downwards and the so called experts at the top of the game have redesigned the professional game in it's desire to find players locally. It was sad to see the USA men's team eliminated in the previous WC qualification stage by a small Caribbean country before it could get started in the finals. And the "powers to be" seemed to have had nothing to offer.
    It is my contentation that the grass roots of the game is weak, not in the playing of the game itself, but in the lack of expertise from the grass roots upward. Especially in the quality of coaching at all levels. And until this factor is remedied by an administration that has much to learn, as other countries did in the past, from the bottom upwards! I am sorry to say there are no "World Cups" in the near future for a mens team that relies on American designed soccer in a country (before COVID 19 arrived) that had so much to offer.

  19. Kent James, May 6, 2020 at 10:24 a.m.

    I see what you did there...well done.

  20. John Polis, May 6, 2020 at 10:28 a.m.

    Enjoyed your artice, Dan. The "industry" of soccer, which we all had a hand in building through the years, has become the huge elephant that in many ways is holding the game back and your piece hit home on this with me. We have too many people trying to make money off our sport and not enough in it just for the good of the kids and adults who just like to play. Dan, hope this note finds you well.

  21. Dan Woog replied, May 6, 2020 at 7:32 p.m.

    Thanks, John - I appreciate the shout-out. And thank you for all your grassroots works, over many years!

  22. Bob Ashpole, May 7, 2020 at 2:05 p.m.

     Awesome article. Thanks.

  23. Kevin Leahy, May 7, 2020 at 8 p.m.

    Baltimore had a great period in the 70's with 3 national champions @ the college level. It was great to watch all those players compete against each other!

  24. cony konstin, May 9, 2020 at 4:59 p.m.

    Another reason why We need a soccer Revolution in the USA. We need 600,000 futsal courts so kids can play king of the court, 24/7/365, for free and no adult interference. We need a Rucker’s Park soccer environment. We need to create Courts of Dreams. You build them. They will come


     


    https://youtu.be/M7JBcu0MzvI

  25. Kevin Sims, May 20, 2020 at 5:03 p.m.

    Sweet. Echo sentiments expressed by Mike Lynch.

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