Thursday, September 15, 2011
Before Barcelona and Manchester United invaded the United States every summer to play in front of tens of thousands of adoring fans, the Pilgrims and Corinthians voyaged from Britain to play front of a few thousand skeptical spectators.
Before Bruce Arena became the most successful coach in U.S. soccer history, Bill Jeffrey led Penn State University to an unbeaten streak lasting nearly a decade and the men's national team to an upset victory over England at the 1950 World Cup.
Before the glitz and glamour of the LA Galaxy and David Beckham, there were the New York Cosmos and Pele. Before them, there were the California Clippers.
And before Jurgen Klinsmann said he would attempt to create a style of play that reflected the nation's culture at a crowded press conference, Thomas Cahill and the city of St. Louis carried the flame for a sport long deemed "too foreign" by "red-blooded" Americans.
Fans of world soccer could be excused for not knowing many of the aforementioned names and clubs. Even supporters of American soccer could plead their ignorance. Before David Wangerin wrote Soccer in a Football World in 2006, one would be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive and complete history of soccer in the United States. Flashpoints - like the nation's third place finish at the 1930 World Cup or Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" in 1989 - resonate strongly with flag-waving American soccer fans but, as evidenced by his first book, the history of the sport goes much deeper.
In Distant Corners, Wangerin selects seven "worthy diversions" from his seminal work that highlight the promise and perils of domestic soccer in the United States. From the inception of the National Challenge Cup (now the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup) in 1913 to the heyday of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the late 1960s, Wangerin is deservedly critical of a sport that until recently failed to live up to its potential.
He writes in the preface, "The history of soccer in America is more a story of what didn't happen than what did." That is not to say there are no heroes. Wangerin is particularly fond of Cahill, the "father of American soccer," and a man who spent the better part of his life trying to spread the game against the backdrop of an inept national federation, feuding professional leagues, and an economic crisis. Jeffrey, the Penn State legend, is also the subject of an entire chapter. Yet these men proved to be the exception to the rule; disorganisation, poor planning, and naivety ultimately characterised America's soccer history in the wake of the collapse of the NASL in the 1980s.
With Distant Corners, Wangerin has established himself as the preeminent scholar of the history of soccer in the United States. His primary research is extensive and his writing is clear. Complete with footnotes and block quotes, his sources range from the federation's meeting minutes in the 1920s to the NASL's Strategic Plan in 1977. Readers without a genuine interest in the development of the American game may have difficulty navigating Distant Corners precisely because Wangerin's diversions are so thorough and complete. At more than 200 pages long the book is dense, but, then again, so too is the history of soccer in the United States.
Distant Corners By David Wangerin is available to buy here.