Distant Corners by David Wangerin: Book Review

With his 2006 work Soccer in a Football World, David Wangerin shone a light on the murky history of American professional soccer in a way that other historians hadn’t. While most writers concentrate on the NASL era and beyond, Wangerin filled in the gaps between Belo Horizonte and Port of Spain, documenting the failures and missed chances of the United States national team alongside the well-worn story of the NASL’s death and MLS’s launch.

His latest book, Distant Corners, continues that trend, focusing on five pieces of overlooked domestic soccer history. Sure, the NASL is represented in the final chapter as Wangerin celebrates the 1979 season and arguably the greatest game in league history. But the battle between the Cosmos and Whitecaps isn’t where the heart of the book lies. It’s not far from the site of the departed Giants Stadium in New Jersey, as Wangerin discovers the gravesite of long-forgotten pioneer Tom Cahill.

Corners is every bit as engrossing as Soccer in a Football World. In many ways, it’s a great sequel to the earlier book, detailing parts of the American soccer world that have been forgotten. Cahill’s life is a perfect encapsulation of the book’s subheadline: “American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes.” Dysfunction is a theme throughout the book, from Cahill’s troubles with the organizations of his day to the grand dreams of the NASL brass and the sensible people left behind.

A chapter on 1950 national team manager Bill Jeffrey deals with his time at Penn State and the ramshackle nature of pre-NCAA college soccer. The 1967 Oakland Clippers are given their due in a chapter that points out that the NPSL was, if nothing else, a grand experiment that didn’t work. St. Louis’ love for soccer and the early days of the US Open Cup are also given a chapter of their own. It’s a fascinating and an essential read for the amateur historians among us.

One hopes that Wangerin isn’t done chronicling American soccer. Distant Corners is important, if for nothing else to remember where American soccer came from. Dark days where losing by two goals to Mexico was a good result, not the end of the world.

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