U.S. Soccer Team, taken at Bonn, Germany, c.1920. Library of Congress: Bain News Service Collection.
U.S. Soccer Team, taken at Bonn, Germany, c.1920. Library of Congress: Bain News Service Collection.

Soccer: a game played all over the world by almost anyone from those who have no money and lots of skill to those who have both and those who have neither of those things. No other sport unifies human beings quite so much. I’m one of those with neither skill at playing nor much love of the game, I’ve often deliberately avoided it – lamenting that sports history, at least in Britain, is much too enthral to this unbeautiful game. But there comes a moment when, putting together interests in cultural transfer, immigration, and the dynamics of globalisation, you have to confront it.

Long ago – well, nearly a decade ago now, which is long enough for me – I attended my first major conference, in fact my first conference full stop: the annual gathering of the North American Society for Sports History (NASSH) which was held that year in Lake Placid, New York. Together with my fellow MA buddy, Mac Ross, our supervisor Colin Howell and his wife Sandi, we travelled by car from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Lake Placid stopping off on the way somewhere in New England. It was the first – and only – I’d done a transcontinental car journey and my first introduction to the United States as it is, not as I’d imagined it to be. Down we went, through New Brunswick and into Maine (well, after a slightly awkward confrontation with the American border guards and their guns, they made sure I could see it just to make sure I knew what I was getting into, I left muttering bloody Americans in a very European kind of way). From there we went through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and then the long trail up through New York towards Lake Placid.

I remember two things distinctly from this journey; the first is stopping off in a motel half way. Wandering around Sturbridge and seeing the war memorial. Candles, flags, crosses, all marking the victims not of the old, famous wars, the Second World War, Vietnam, Korea, but the latest ones, Iraq and Afghanistan, those Bushian interventions that had shaken America and set it at odds with its own imagined legacies. If I close my eyes right now, I can still see the candles. The other facet of the town was the open-air museum – Old Sturbridge Village – dedicated to showing life in eighteenth century (it was closed, but I poked my nose through the surrounding trees). But that’s not the second thing, that’s the journey through the Adirondack Mountains which has to be just about the most spectacular sight I’ve ever seen. More than crossing into the Highlands of Scotland, more than journeying through Cape Breton, this was territory of the kind I’d never seen before or since. Only the marvel of being in New York City – and it’s a marvel, I think, that you get only as a tourist, living there is quite another task – competes with it in my memory.

At NASSH I met many of the historians that have since gone on to be friends and comrades. I sat through my first Allen Guttmann-Murray Phillips showdown (think arch-empiricist versus post-modernist), something I still don’t understand, but it’s the NASSH equivalent of a Punch and Judy show at an old fairground, and came face-to-face with another NASSH tradition, the historiographical notion of American exceptionalism. Not, I must add, through anything anyone said directly to me but in the sports that were being discussed and the frameworks that were being used: I came to know quickly that if I wanted to test out my understanding of Texan English, I should go to a panel either on Big-Time College Sports (it needs the capitals!) or on Football (a game that rarely seems to actually involve the foot). Nevertheless, I’ve never before or since been to such an intellectually stimulating conference: going for a hike in the mountains or sitting of an evening at the hostel drinking a beer and talking over copies of the New Yorker are how conferences should engage us as human beings. Or so I thought then, and still, romantically, do now. That first NASSH remains one of the absolute high points of my “career”.

The reason I offer these autobiographical snippets is not merely because they’re (I hope) interesting insights into a fast fading world of conferences as intellectually stimulating, collegiate environments, and a paean to the beauty of the American landscape, but because they reminded me of one of the consistent themes of my work over the last decade or so and that is sport (and politics and culture) in the transatlantic milieu. I’ve not really published a lot of it, but that will hopefully change next year (one of the reasons for wanting to move on from Welsh material is a desire to get back to the bigger questions that can be posed of the North Atlantic World). Amongst reams of research into ice hockey, lacrosse, basketball, and rugby, is some material that I’d gathered on soccer. It reflects an interest in the transatlantic and a secondary interest, for some inexplicable reason or other, in Pittsburgh. I’ve never actually been to Pittsburgh (though I have been to Philadelphia), but for most of my adult life I’ve been interested in that city, have taught aspects of its history, and am a big fan of the city’s hockey team (Go Pens Go!). Perhaps one day I’ll figure it out.

If we look back at the history of soccer in the United States – it stretches back well into the nineteenth century, indeed, a national association was formed there in 1884, the first anywhere outside the British Isles, – several things are apparent. The game is the product of immigration and interaction, both from the British Isles, continental Europe, and Canada; it develops multiple centres, especially in the northeastern, Atlantic, and mid-western United States; and more often than you’d imagine there is speculation – and hope – that soccer could displace more ‘traditional’ American sports as the leading winter game. Finally, if we look very carefully, we see soccer developing its own roots in the United States, through education – and here I don’t mean elite universities like Princeton, although they did have a team, I mean ordinary elementary, high, and grammar schools – and through the assistance of the parks services in major cities. In 1917, one American commentator even wrote that New York City ‘is probably the greatest center of scholastic soccer in the world to-day’. Yes, the Big Apple, not London or Manchester or Glasgow. Were the United States exceptional, then? Nah! What’s exceptional about is how blind historians are to things they don’t wish to see: soccer in the United States; a variety of non-soccer, non-rugby, non-cricket sports in Britain.

So where to begin? Well, it follows that the multiple centres idea needs fleshing out a little. Now, it’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a sports historian in possession of a good sport to write about must be in want of “THE FIRST MATCH EVER PLAYED”. But this is quite a farcical pursuit for many reasons – I won’t go into them, because Tony Collins already has and you can read some of his thoughts on it here, which I quite agree with. Searching for the first game of soccer ever played on the United States in an effort to prove a diffusion model of sporting development is a reasonable pursuit, insofar as sports history languishes in its antiquarian mode, but it tells us little about how things really transfer from one context to another. When Americans came to write the history of soccer for the Spalding’s guides published just before the First World War, they pointed to Detroit and to the influence of Canadians in the spread of soccer through the United States. The proximity of Detroit to southern Ontario – we might as well as call it a borderland – has often seen that city take up ‘Canadian’ habits and southern Ontarians take up ‘American’ habits in equal measure. Pushball, invented in the elite universities of New England, spread into Canada through Detroit, for instance, and soccer flowed in the opposite direction. Except, well, that’s only one way that soccer came to the United States.

As much as soccer was played in both Toronto and Detroit and shared between the two cities, it was also played in Chicago, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, none of which has anything much to do with the Canadians, although teams from Toronto did come and play in several of these places. The reason soccer grew in these places, it is traditionally argued, is because of British and Irish immigration – and, as the more sensitive historians note, in later years because of immigration from continental Europe (notably Scandinavia and Germany). That’s fair enough as far as it goes but immigration doesn’t really explain how soccer developed, simply that it had a place within the various sporting activities of the people of those places and that it could be sustained through the waves of immigrants that kept coming from the Old World. To understand the how, we need to delve a little deeper and move away from a linear telling of the story.

The concentration of soccer in Pennsylvania around the state’s principal cities – Pittsburgh in the west and Philadelphia in the east – offers an instructive case study (although what follows deals primarily with the former). We know, because the newspapers tell us these things, that a soccer league was established in Pittsburgh in 1890. Writing in November of that year, the Pittsburgh Dispatch observed that ‘there seems to be more “Association” players [here] than followers of the rugby rules’. One of the leading soccer-ites in Pittsburgh at this time was Charles White, a native of Sheffield. ‘I find that hundreds of young men who work in [t’]mills and [t’]factories desire to play football because it seems to be all [t’]rage this winter’. (The report doesn’t actually use the Yorkshire t’ but it seems appropriate to put it in, right!) The Western Association Football League was established at the end of that month, with teams reporting a boom in membership because of the excitement generated. One team declared at their pre-season meeting that they were ‘full of enthusiasm and ready for the warpath, no matter what fortune may bring’. Within a couple of years, soccer had established itself well enough in Pittsburgh that one journalist went so far as to declare that ‘if the monotony of baseball can be broken for one portion of the year good will follow’. It is clear he had soccer in mind to do the breaking.

By this point, soccer in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area had been placed on a relatively firm footing with an effective league and competent organisation. The senior club were the strictly amateur Pittsburgh Football Club, and this is the team about which it is easiest to say concrete things. The club was formed in 1891 as a breakaway from the Allegheny Athletics Association (known popularly as the Three As), which was itself established in the autumn of 1890. Before the breakaway occurred, the AAA’s president, John Moorhead, had commented that ‘we have […] put the game of football on such a footing that I can safely sa for next fall that the football team will not only take care of itself financially but will make a handsome sum for our treasury’. Soccer paid. Of course, they didn’t pay into the AAA’s coffers because the soccer players broke away in early February 1891 taking the name ‘The Pittsburgh Football Club’ (although in those days there was no aitch).

The first captain of Pittsburgh FC was a gentleman by the name of C. V. Childs. A British immigrant, he worked as a steel engineer for the Carnegie Steel Company and was ‘almost entirely connected with designing steel-framed buildings in New York, Pittsburgh, and the cities of the Eastern States’. One of his most important projects was the design of the steel frame for the Carnegie Building Pittsburgh, the world headquarters of the Carnegie Steel Company and the city’s first skyscraper. Childs was also a keen cricketer and played for the cricket section of the Allegheny Athletics Association. One of his successors as captain was a gentleman called John O’Brien, who came to the United States after several seasons playing with Ardwick Association Football Club (now, of course, known as Manchester City) including during their successful Manchester Cup runs in 1890 and 1891. His professional training told, as this potted biography from one of the Pittsburgh newspapers suggests: ‘A small man, only weighing about 130 pounds, but he is remarkably fast and clever with the ball, his passing tactics are a treat to witness, always feeding his men accurately’. The other figure from this early period was the club’s secretary John Matthews, who was born in Birmingham (not the one in Alabama), and was perceived to be one of the best judges of soccer talent in the United States. ‘And that’, remarked the Dispatch, ‘is the reason he has such a good lot of kickers on his team’. It’s worth noting that nineteenth-century sportswriters referred to soccer players as ‘the kickers’.

By the mid-1890s, soccer’s development in Pittsburgh had, on the surface, seemingly ground to a halt: the larger athletics clubs, together with schools and colleges, had adopted American football in the winter and had little need to propagate soccer. Ironically, soccer was actually quite stable – it had a league of about six clubs and was attracting between 500 and 1000 people to matches on a regular basis. That made it easy to overshadow, but not to wipe out entirely. By the early twentieth century, soccer had a ‘second wind’. In 1905, Spalding’s Athletics Library published their first soccer handbook, a sign that the sport had gained sufficient audience in the United States. It was edited by Jerome Flannery, who played with the Cosmopolitan Football Club of New York City. Flannery was also a keen cricketer and had previously edited the American Cricket Annual, which made its first appearance in 1890. Yes, indeed, there is such a thing! The soccer handbook was followed a few years later by How to Play Soccer edited by J.A. McWeeney of the London Football Star (it had been published prior to this in Britain).

Another reason for this ‘second wind’ was the adoption of soccer by public schools. In Pittsburgh this took place in 1913. In the city’s high schools it was established as one of the major sports, but in the city’s 105 grammar schools it was the only code of football that was played. By the 1915-1916 season, 300 league games were played between the grammar schools by as many as 1,500 boys; this was extended the following year to as many as 400 matches and participation by over 3,000. Not surprisingly, by the early 1920s almost every playground in Pittsburgh (however inadequate many of them were) was being used for school soccer matches and although the number of participants was less than for baseball –around 6,500 players by 1923, compared with 7,500 for baseball – given the clear establishment of that game as America’s ‘national sport’ by the interwar years such a difference is surely suggestive of the prominence of soccer in western Pennsylvania rather than indicative of its weakness.

What was taking place in Pittsburgh was hardly unique, indeed examples may be found of the integration of soccer into the public school systems in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St Louis, Rochester, Boston, and Newark. The situation at New York merits close consideration given the boast I mentioned earlier. Soccer was taken up by high schools and elementary schools in the city from 1906 under the auspices of the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL – it’s still in existence today), partly because it was felt that American football was both expensive, since it required special clothing, that it was ill-suited to lighter-weight pupils (code here, I think, for malnourished), and that it was more complex and therefore necessitated special coaching which would prove a distraction from the pedagogical purpose of school. One athletics co-ordinator put it pointedly: ‘we use rugby as a money-making spectacle, and soccer as a popular means of exercise for the mass of students’. By 1910, 8 high schools across New York were taking part in a competitive inter-scholastic soccer league; this had risen to fourteen by 1914, with almost 3,500 boys taking part.

To be introduced to, and encouraged to play, soccer in school is one thing, as we all know, but to carry on playing it outside of school is quite another – and the latter far more indicative of a more meaningful adoption of the sport. It is therefore notable, and I’ll end the empirical lay out of the blog with this fact, that the New York City Parks Department considered soccer to be one of the ‘big four’ sports played within its grounds – the others being baseball, tennis, and basketball, and it ran its own soccer tournament that had thousands of participants annually. It’s a lost world that historians have not really looked at properly, for, with a few honourable exceptions, soccer history in the United States has tended to be pursued in much the same way as it is (for the most part) in Britain, by fans posing as historians.

History is all about evidence and the willingness of the individual historian to search carefully through reams of paper to find what they were hoping they would find. But it is also about shifting perspective and seeing if that opens up a different trove of evidence. Tracing soccer through its scholastic adoption is one such shift in perspective and the snippets of information set down by parks administrators, educational and recreation administrators, and by the school boards, serves as a reminder that soccer was not thought of an a strange, alien pastime to be played by British, Swedish, or German immigrants, but as an American activity, comparable with baseball and basketball.

And so let me conclude with this thought. Ted Vincent, writing in his much forgotten classic The Rise and Fall of American Sport, described basketball as ‘the liberal’s game’. By this he meant that it is a sport played (not exclusively, of course) ‘in those tough neighbourhoods nobody wants to walk through at night’. We might – must, even – put it differently today, though the broad sentiments are sound: basketball and soccer (to add in our comparator) are sports played by anyone, the powerless and the powerful, but typically by those on the margins who have the most to complain about from the impact of capital on their lives but with the least power to do anything about it. Children in the slums of New York and Chicago, or the working-class districts of Pittsburgh and Detroit, were not playing the big-time sports that historians have long associated with ‘America’, those patriotic games that worship nationalism and capitalism, but soccer and basketball. Sports that along with boxing, in the words of Lucia Trimbur, ‘mediate the injuries of racial, class, and gender hierarchies, but [… do not] change those hierarchies’. As I often say, history always looks different from the margins. And in this case, America looks different with a soccer ball at your feet or a boxing glove on your hand.