Often it’s easy to assume that soccer is a recent import to America’s shores. You can sometimes get the impression that the sport didn’t exist before 1994, or perhaps as far back as the NASL. But while its current popularity is a relatively recent thing, the sport has a history in the U.S. that extends back to the 1800s. Though it has only rarely broken into the American mainstream, it has never fully disappeared, either.
In Distant Corners, by David Wangerin, the author explores that history in depth that I was previously unfamiliar with. While his best-selling Soccer in a Football World tells the broad story of American soccer, here Wangerin uses a narrower lens. Through seven smaller, more personal stories, Wangerin illustrates the highs and lows of soccer in this country. He’s done a lot of research here, and it shows.
In the early 1900s, touring European teams occasionally drew crowds of over 10,000. The US Open Cup, before the depression, could draw similar numbers in cities like Fall River, Massachusetts. St. Louis had a wildly popular league of its own. As Wagnerin portrays the history, soccer’s repeated false starts weren’t the result of an uncaring populace, but of the sport’s governing bodies getting in the game’s way.
Wagnerin provides a laundry list of people, typically the bumbling administrators, who prematurely predicted soccer’s rise to prominence.
“This English soccer game will take place of the present college game.” – Jake Stahl, 1905.
“Football of the soccer variety could be made an entirely popular sport in this country were it managed right.” – Unnamed writer, 1908
“[Soccer will] undoubtedly be the football sport of the future all over the country.” – Unnamed writer, 1909
“We are sure that in a few years Americans will be leading the world in soccer football.” – Swedish newspaper, 1919.
“When the present war is over and the boys come home again, there is no question but that there will be a tremendous growth in soccer popularity.” – Tom Cahill, 1919
“[Soccer will soon be] the number one sport in the United States.” Ken Macker, 1967
“Soccer, the kind that has hypnotized 80 percent of the globe, had arrived.” – Oakland Tribune, 1968
“[Soccer] will take off. There is absolutely no way that it will no bypass everything else.” Phil Woosnam, 1977.
Depending on how you feel about Major League Soccer, you might even interpret all this as a warning. I am an optimist, and I believe that the sport has reached a point of no return in this country. It may not, as many expected, surpass football, basketball, and baseball, but it won’t go into hiding as it so often has in the past. Soccer is no longer tied to the shaky mooring of its various associations and leagues. If MLS disappeared, there would still be fans of the USMNT and European leagues. The draw now is the game, and not stars or gimmicky marketing ploys.