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Brews and Views Essay Series: Why American Soccer?

We continue our new series on the Free Beer Movement. It's called “Brews and Views” and we pose a question or topic to various prominent soccer persons and, well, they give us their view on it.

We've got loads of get people that have already responded to our call for essay submissions and each week we'll feature a unique perspective on the current topic/question at hand. Kicking it off (pun intended) we're asking our respondents the question, “Why American soccer?”.

As inhabitants of the U.S. of A we've got loads of soccer viewing options and limited amount of time. We want our panel of essayists to make their case as to why the American version of the world's game is the one we should all invest in.

Regularly readers know where we stand on this issue. Buy American. It's ours. Build and shape it so it ranks as one of the premier leagues in the world.

The series will include such diverse voices as former U.S. Men's National Team player Alexi Lalas, The Shin Guardian, MatchFit USA's Jason Davis, Church of Soccer, Nutmeg Radio, FutFanatico, MLS Insider, and many, many more.

Interested in submitting your own answer to the question, “Why American soccer?”, then send us an email with your response. Please keep your submission to under 1000 words (that's like 2.5 pages typed!) and include a picture that you feel goes well with your response. Send it to freebeermovement(at)gmail(dot)com.


“Why American Soccer for Chuck and I”

By Ted Westervelt / SoccerReform.Us

It’s almost embarrassingly American in scope and scale.  It’s an epic packed with gritty underdog performances, spectacular superclub failures, mind-boggling international upsets and it even features a few world record-setters.   It’s marked by spectacular club highs and bottomless league lows.  It’s a tragedy that our passion for the game and our great soccer legacy remains largely untapped, uncelebrated, and unrecognized.  It would be a comedy if we sacrificed that narrative for the financial needs of a few.

Like every sport, and every footballing nation, the story of our game – and Why American Soccer for Chuck and I, is rooted in old nationalist agendas, powerful passions and brash characters.  It’s also chocked full corny clichés and examples of our incredible stubbornness, remarkable resilience and dramatic passion for the game.   I wish we showcased a few more of them, and shrouded a few less.

Here’s one.

May 6, 1916 – Pawtucket, Rhode Island:

Coats Field stands filled to the gills for the third annual National Challenge Cup Final – a competition known today as the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.The Fall River Rovers are in a pickle in the 89th minute.  Any Red Sox fan would recognize the anger building the partisan New England sports crowd.  Their team was in the process of getting robbed.    Bethlehem Steel, FC – the first great behemoth of US club soccer – had converted a dubious penalty nine minutes before to make it 1-0.   Since then, Charles Schwab’s Pennsylvania Steelmen, stacked with highly paid British talent, weathered wave after wave of underdog yankee pressure from the hotheaded Rovers – American born to a man.  On top of that, Pawtucket is barely twenty miles from Fall River, making it a virtual hometown crowd.  The referee looks down at his watch just as an attacking Rovers player is sawn down in the box…. And there is no whistle.

10,000 pour onto the field – some of them literally from the rafters.   The final whistle blows – in the midst of a full-blown riot.

That’s Why American Soccer for me.  It’s coffee with three sugars in a seedy diner, not lukewarm tea with curdled cream at your auntie’s.   No, it’s not New England hooliganism, or lax building codes, but it is scrappy underdogs fighting against all odds, not two teams limited in quality to produce a close match.   It’s a team of American club stars from teams like the Providence Clamdiggers and the New Bedford Whalers taking us to the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930 – without giving up a goal.   It’s guys from teams sponsored by local laundries and car dealers in St. Louis and recent immigrants from NYC that stung the great English two World Cups later.   It’s a mullet headed mob of Cosmos fans that that led us back to the competition again forty years later.  It’s the lowly LA Blues taking a one-goal lead on David Beckham’s LA Galaxy in the 2011 installment of the competition, and the look on Bruce Arena’s face when they did it.  It’s the bloody mug of a lanky forward from Schaumburg, Illinois.   His left eye swollen entirely shut, he’s pouring everything onto the field in match between two teams limited by nationality, but not a salary cap.

We are separated from the star spangled events in Pawtucket – and Why American Soccer for me – by time, space, and philosophy.   In 1916 our first bona fide top-flight league, the ASL, was still eight years away.   Two years after FIFA sanctioned US Soccer, owners like Charles Schwab top were not limited to a certain caliber of club, or painted into a caste system of leagues. Leagues were simply amalgamations of teams – much like their European cousins. Teams moved freely in and out of them based on the quality of their play, support from fans, and the resources of their owners.   There is no evidence that our federation had official conversations on codifying this status quo with an official system of promotion and relegation.  Neither did they discuss any possibility of leagues owning and limiting the quality of independent clubs for competitive balance and a hedge against owner financial risk, like MLS does today.

Schwab built arguably the greatest club in US history – and a soccer specific stadium to boot – to make his company and community proud.  By all accounts, his employees and Bethlehem residents were pretty psyched that he financed the best soccer club in the US – and arguably one of the better clubs in the world.   As evidenced in Pawtucket, there no doubt whatsoever that Schwab’s superclub stirred the passions of rival supporters.  If you recognize his name, chances are it’s not for his fiscal recklessness.

According to some reports, Steel games were often sparsely attended – but Bethlehem wasn’t Pittsburgh or Philly in size and scope.   Wily old Chuck must have gotten something out of building that first US superclub.   He certainly didn’t subscribe to slow, responsible growth.   I bet he figured his shrewd supporters wouldn’t take to a club limited for parity and competitive balance by an agreement he signed with Rockefeller, Carnegie and Astor.   I think he was probably right.

Some may point to the demise of Bethlehem Steel FC a decade and a half later as an example of Schwab’s financial folly and the unsustainable nature of unlimited soccer clubs.  To them I pose this caveat:  On the eve of the Great Depression, European federations were lining up behind the FA to open their leagues and implement promotion and relegation.   It was a brilliant move that ushered in a period of remarkable stability.  Leagues couldn’t financially collapse if clubs were true independent entities.   Eighty years later, that system has never allowed the financial irresponsibility of any one club to collapse an entire league.

In contrast, after the crash of ’29, top flight American club soccer suffered a financial implosion so complete, even Charles Schwab couldn’t escape.   It would be the first of many.  By themselves, corny cinderella stories of rag tag local teams fighting their guts out against behemoth superclubs like Bethlehem Steel couldn’t sustain the US club game.

In order to maintain the Why American Soccer narrative that Chuck and I appreciate – and a stable system of leagues – brave leadership from our federation was required.
We’re still waiting.

It pisses me off that Europeans figured out how to accommodate Why American Soccer for guys like us almost a century ago.  It’s kooky that US Soccer still hasn’t.  Thank goodness the US Open Cup remains alive.  God Bless the Pacific Northwest for caring about it, because today our federation and leagues hardly lift a finger to promote the legacy-laden competition.  They even scheduled a regular season MLS match on top of the Final this year – an incredible oversight considering the fact that an MLS executive runs US Soccer in his spare time.

Mad as I am that Europe beat us to Why American Soccer in the age of jazz, I’m not going to hold it against them.  It’s time to be forthright and magnanimous about this, give them full credit, and come in last in the race to promotion, relegation, and independent clubs.  That way our unlimited teams can battle theirs for first place on the pitch.

Chuck wouldn’t send his team into a match limited for competitive balance.   That wouldn’t be Why American Soccer for him, and it definitely isn’t for me.

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