On January 12, 2007, a new era in American professional soccer was launched with the announcement that David Beckham had signed on to join the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. That the deal could be worth as much as $250 million US over 5 years grabbed headlines worldwide and shone the spotlight directly on a league that had survived for over a decade of virtual anonymity.
The announced deal brought to mind the defunct North American Soccer League, which also sought to draw crowds by going for big names such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. The NASL had some heady times, with the Cosmos regularly selling out Giants Stadium but ended up folding after an ill-conceived expansion failed and the league failed to grow any American-based talent, relying instead on expensive foreign players. Only time will tell if Beckham’s arrival becomes a similar beacon of hope to MLS. There is no doubt that so far he has caused a media frenzy and an increase in season ticket sales.
It was with these events in mind that I read David Wangerin’s “Soccer in a Football World”, which is published by UK-based When Saturday Comes book division. WSC is more famous for their magazine, which began life as a fanzine and has evolved into an important voice in football media. Wangerin, who was born in Chicago and grew up in Wisconsin, but immigrated to the UK in 1987, has taken on the daunting task of writing a comprehensive history of soccer in the United States. You might have heard Wangerin talk about his book during his interview on Episode 34 of the EPL Talk Podcast. If not check the EPL Talk Podcast Archives for a fascinating interview conducted by The Gaffer.
His book covers soccer from its early common roots with what has become American football (or “gridiron” as it is referred to in the book) through its myriad of attempts at creating a sustainable professional league. American soccer history is interesting and littered with very strange club names like Todd’s Shipyards of Brooklyn and New York FC of the Bronx and the game enjoyed what could be considered its “golden era” during the 1920s. Negative attitudes toward soccer were not nearly as ingrained in sports fans minds as they would later become but the fact that soccer was largely seen as a sport for the “immigrant American” hurt its chances of drawing a large mainstream audience during the post-war years.
Despite the dramatic peaks and valleys of the game over the first part of the 20th century, the book really grabbed my interest when it covered events I had either witnessed or been aware of as they occurred. Chronicling the rise and inevitable crash of the NASL, the emergence of the US national team as a real player on the world stage and the founding of Major League Soccer, the later chapters were a walk down memory lane for me. NASL, as we learn, was not immune from bizarrely named clubs like the Minnesota Kicks or the San Diego Jaws. However, the arrival of world-class talents like Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Eusebio captured the imagination of the North American fans. As a Canadian, I took particular pleasure in recalling Toronto’s NASL entry winning the unfortunately named SoccerBowl back in 1976.
The book’s narrative arc is slightly fractured at times but the slight jumps back and forth in time have a minimal impact. Taken as a whole, the book was well researched and quite enjoyable to read. I’d recommend the power brokers in MLS grab a copy and read what can best be viewed as a cautionary tale of failed franchises, incompetent administrators and blindly idealist visionaries. I would also recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of the beautiful game.
Note from The Gaffer: An autographed copy of the book is available for readers in the United States for $20 plus S&H. For more details, visit author David Wangerin’s web site.