By now you’ve likely heard that rightwing arch-agitator Ann Coulter thinks soccer is a dirty socialist plot to turn middle class American kids and their overprotective mothers into baguette-wielding pansies when they should be striking out in tee-ball or suffering the odd concussion playing football. As vile as she wants to be, Coulter’s anti-soccer screed has more than a splash of racism, sexism, and nativist anxiety of immigration gone wild. For her troubles, she has been unmercifully mocked on social media for being generally loathsome, but much less has been made of her ignorance of soccer’s long and checkered history in the United States. Fair enough, I suppose, because she isn’t making a historical argument so much as she’s merely making associations between things she thinks are objectionably un-American. Soccer, the TV show Girls, Hilary Clinton, and gulags are all part of the same contemptible landscape.
But that’s not to say that Coulter does not inspire some reflection. To the extent that there are genuinely productive ways to consider the written diarrhea of a charlatan, one is to look back upon America’s early relationship to soccer and its connection to nationalism, ethnicity, and belonging in the United States. As the late American soccer historian David Wangerin has revealed in his excellent books Soccer in a Football World(2006) and Distant Corners (2011), there was a period in the early 20th century in the United States when one’s favored way of playing soccer was a subtle (and sometimes quite blatant) reflection of regional idiosyncrasies, xenophobia, and anxieties about America’s growing immigrant communities.
In the 1920s and ‘30s soccer competed with professional football on virtually equal terms in the United States, before a combination of poor management, inter-league fighting, and the Great Depression sank the American Soccer League (ASL) in 1932 and stopped the game’s potential rise as one of the big three American sports. The Roaring Twenties marked a golden age of soccer in the United States, when a fan could see some genuinely world-class talent in what are now depressed and derelict areas in the Northeast like Fall River, Massachusetts and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Bethlehem Steel’s diminutive Scottish-born, New Jersey-bred striker Archie Stark, for one, scored an absurd 67 goals in 44 league games in the 1924 season alone, often in front of crowds listed between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Relatively high player wages were financed by the booming industries affiliated with the clubs, which attracted European talent from abroad. In one period, so many Brits made their way to American shores that the British press decried an “American menace” depriving them of some of their best footballers. Clubs in the Northeast also generally benefitted from the immigrant communities’ enthusiasm for soccer.
In the same period, soccer’s popularity further west in St. Louis rivaled that found in the Northeast. In contrast to New England and the Mid-Atlantic, where soccer’s success was largely based on the impetus of club owners, foreign players, and the readymade reception of immigrant communities, soccer prospered in St. Louis on the basis of the local Catholic Church and its decision to include soccer in its recreational programs in the late 19th century. In 1915, the city’s two competing professional leagues merged into the St. Louis Soccer League, which comprised the four best local teams. At the same time, the amateur Municipal League included 18 teams in four divisions. Match-going on winter Sunday afternoons in St. Louis became a citywide tradition. While churchgoers, fans, and players alike were mostly Irish Catholic, they were nearly all native-born and identified as American.
Moreover, the relative insularity of the St. Louis soccer scene proved ideal for the formation of an indigenous game with its own rules. Up until World War II, teams in St. Louis played 30-minute halves, allowed substitutions for injured players, and used two referees and goal judges. The “Americanization” of the game in St. Louis was also reflected in the style of soccer played there. Because of the British influence, teams in the Northeast played a style modeled on the then-ascendant Scottish passing game, also adopted by the best Central European teams. St. Louis, in contrast, developed a fast-paced, concussive, kick-and-run style based on episodic sprinting and explosiveness — inspired, oddly enough, by baseball. In fact, so many of the St. Louis’s best footballers played baseball that teams would sometimes forfeit competitions when the baseball season began. Shorter halves and more liberal substitution regulations also contributed to a more breakneck version of the sport, which emphasized a compact defensive shape, quick, long-ball counterattacks, and crossing from the wings. Referees were also significantly more lenient when it came to tolerating violence and robust challenges, further contributing to the ferocity of the St. Louis game.
Matches between clubs in the Northeast and St. Louis offered a stark contrast in soccer styles and tactics. These occasions became more numerous when St. Louis clubs entered the national Challenger Cup for the first time in 1919. In that year, the all-American St. Louis club Ben Miller beat an all-British eleven from Quincy, Massachusetts 2-1 to claim honors for the city and the style. After the match, a sportswriter from St. Louis’s Post Dispatch exclaimed, “In the end it was the dash and aggressiveness of the truly American soccer that conquered over the more scientific but slower foreign game.”
It was far from uncommon to see articles in the local St. Louis press touting the superiority of the “American” style over its “foreign” competitor. More than a few of these essays were laced with a boastful jingoism that made broader assertions of American exceptionalism. Teams with foreign players were referred to as “imported” or, on one occasion, a “foreign born aggregation.” Moreover, they were said to lack “bravery” and were lackadaisical or borderline indifferent to winning. Here’s a passage from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:
“My advice…is to play the St. Louis game. Forget the fouls. Never mind the falls of defeated players, lie fit. Play hard. Win! A Britisher refuses to punish himself that he may win, whereas the American will kill himself to win. Therein lies the great advantage the American has over the European. He will work harder to succeed.” (December 5, 1921)
Wangerin argues that an antipathy among many Americans towards immigration in the early 1920s played a not insignificant role in the full-throated defense of the St. Louis style. St. Louisans were wary of soccer’s popularity among immigrant communities further east and were defensive if faced with criticisms of soccer’s foreignness. So victories over Northeastern clubs became occasions to extol the virtues of American vitality and pep in contrast to the languorous foreigner. In the relatively isolated and ethically homogeneous confines of St. Louis, it was, for a time, positively un-American to play a patient passing game. Or, as one writer had it, “indirect and devious methods known as ‘combinations.’”
Successes for St. Louis teams became increasingly rare by the mid-1920s, however, as the top teams in the Northeast and others in the Midwest improved dramatically with an increase in foreign tactics and players. A series of heavy losses to teams playing a European style deflated the enthusiasm of nativist boosters of the St. Louis approach. Some sportswriters even went as far as conceding that St. Louis soccer would benefit from European-based players and tactics. Though potentially unrelated, the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which implemented restrictive quotas on the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States in an effort “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” possibly mollified an anti-immigrant fervor, as well. At any rate, nativist paeans to the all-American style faded almost completely — along with the overall popularity of soccer in the country — by the early 1930s. The sport itself, at least in the popular imagination, would be considered irredeemably other for decades to come even if it would continue to thrive in pockets of the country.
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St. Louis’s devotion to fast and physical soccer outlasted its xenophobic connotations, greatly influencing the way the United States played in the 1950 World Cup (one-third of the team that beat England were from the city) and how teams played at the college level thanks to the success of St. Louis University and their influential coach Harry Keough in the 1970s. In contrast to other countries with dominant club systems, the American style has been largely institutionalized in the college game, where idiosyncratic rules (including unlimited substitutions), short seasons, and rather unrefined tactics have cultivated a remarkably unbroken commitment to a physical counterattacking game. This has been transmitted to the national level given the continued reliance – notwithstanding some important exceptions – on a pool of former college stars and coaches, and a grossly classist pay-to-play youth development system that funnels most talent (largely drawn from the middle-class) to universities.
In the premier issue of Howler Magazine, Matthew Doyle underwent the task of watching 50 hours of tape of the USMNT from 1990 and 2012 to help him answer the question “What is American Soccer?” While acknowledging elsewhere that soccer in the United States has multiple genealogies and influences, here he settles on a few traits that have a great deal in common with the off-the-ball, hard-running kind pioneered in America’s western most soccer hotbed a century ago. “Unsexy as it sounds,” Doyle writes, “U.S. National Team players did (and do), habitually try hard and run fast. They eagerly compress space. They work in groups defensively and love to break forward.” It’s a suitable style “when you have players whose athleticism (with rare exceptions) exceeds their technical ability.”
And so it went in the USMNT’s grand 2-1 defeat in extra time against a young Belgium squad of marvelous talent. Michael Bradley ran and ran and ran — more than any other player in the group stage, plus an astonishing 16.69 kilometers in the Round of 16’s extra-time loss to Belgium. At the time of that elimination, Geoff Cameron had blocked more shots than anyone else in the tournament with eight. Clint Dempsey dutifully led the line with a busted-up nose in an advanced striker position he is mostly unaccustomed to playing. Even some of the German-American contingent followed suit, as Jermaine Jones played warrior-like throughout the tournament and John Brooks defeated Ghana with an unlikely extra-time winner from a corner kick. Effort was never found wanting, even if moments of genuine skill punctuated rather than peppered matches.
To my mind, at least, no one player sums up the simultaneously pulsating and flawed performances of the USMNT more than midfielder Graham Zusi. I am reminded of famed American soccer writer Paul Gardner’s description of the Sporting Kansas City player, which delightfully captures the charm and limitations of American soccer. Of Zusi, Gardner writes, he is “the quintessential American midfielder, physically strong, super-high work rate, combined with good tackling and passing skills — but all utterly straightforward. Artistry and subtlety are lacking.” Except for the passing bit, it’s hard not to think of St. Louis.
In a climate that still suggests soccer comes from another world, it seems bizarre that such a workmanlike and earnest approach — that of “corn-fed college boys” — was once briefly marshaled in support of nativist desires to legitimate soccer as an American sport by degrading the country’s immigrant roots. But cultural politics is never far removed from spectacle, sporting or otherwise. It’s something Coulter, for all her revolting and willful ignorance, seems to keenly understand.