'U.S. Favored To Win World's Soccer Title'
Wednesday, June 3, 1998
A recent newspaper profile proclaimed that U.S. national team coach Steve Sampson took up soccer at age 8, "when the sport was still in its infancy" in this country.
Ahem. That would be about 1965. U.S. soccer was not in its "infancy" in 1965.
Maybe the lull the sport fell into in the middle of the century blinded U.S. fans to their country's soccer heritage, or maybe the hype surrounding the 1994 World Cup wiped away all history. Americans live in the here and now. Anything that happened before 1980 is folklore.
In truth, soccer once had a real toehold in America, and the U.S. national team has done much better in the World Cup than its second-round appearance in 1994. It's almost criminal how few well-informed American soccer fans know that the United States once made it to the World Cup semifinals.
This was in 1930. In the '20s and '30s, big industrial companies dominated small towns in the Northeast and the Midwest, and for many people, those mill and mine jobs were the inducement to immigrate to America, where they could make a better living.
Many of these companies fielded soccer teams. And they attracted good players, some domestic and some coming from overseas, lured by wages that sometimes reached $50 a game and another $50 a week if they worked for the company. This was in a time when most big-time European and South American soccer was "officially" still amateur, and Jimmy Brown, a prominent member of the 1930 U.S. team who went on to play for Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, recalled "that $100 was a fortune in those days. A pack of cigarettes cost only 11 cents then."
As a result, teams like Ben Millers FC and Brooklyn Wanderers could hold their own with anybody. And they did, too, becoming so well known that they and other American Soccer League teams regularly undertook exhibition tours of Europe. That industrial heritage is why St. Louis, stuck away in the middle of the country and crazy for baseball, is one of the centers of soccer in this country.
But don't presume that American soccer's immigrant heritage means American soccer was somehow the province of foreigners. The conventional wisdom is that the 1930 U.S. national team was filled with British professional ringers, but the conventional wisdom is wrong, as Roger Allaway, now of the Philadelphia Inquirer, established three years ago in a groundbreaking report for the Society for American Soccer History. That team did boast six British professionals, but they were naturalized Americans who made their names in the U.S. leagues, by and large not joining the English and Scottish leagues until after the U.S. performance in Uruguay in 1930. Indeed, Allaway has established that members of the 1930 U.S. team boasted exactly two games in the British professional leagues.
The best-known player, in fact, was from Fall River, Mass.: Billy Gonsalves, considered the greatest American-born player for most of this century. Sports writers straining to explain him and his sport to the nation called Gonsalves the "Babe Ruth of soccer." And the team exemplified the sports traits we've come to identify as American. They were massive men who trained hard and were in peak condition; the French called them "the shotputters," to the delight of the European press.
Maurice Pinel was a center-halfback for the French. Years later, he said the Americans "always amused us when we saw them training, for they were always clad in tiny shorts which revealed enormous thighs, like tree trunks, and they would go lapping and slogging round and round a track like long-distance runners."
The American team, captained by ASL star Thomas Florie, was regarded highly enough that it was a top seed, drawn in a first-round group with Paraguay and Belgium, one of two European teams to make the long trip over the ocean.
In those days of five-forward formations and 5-4 scores, manager Wilfred Cummings's tactics were unusually modern; he relied on defense and breakaway counterattacks. And his team made short work of its group.
First it shut down Belgium, 3-0. Some historians credit the American forward Bart McGhee with the first goal ever in the World Cup, but because no one recorded the time on goals then, no one knows for sure. FIFA officially credits Lucien Laurent of France with the first goal, in a win over Mexico.
That got people's attention. As the United States prepared for its semifinal, the New York Times, under the headline "U.S. Favored To Win World's Soccer Title" (imagine seeing that headline today), wrote that the United States "is considered the most likely winner of the title as the result of its performances among the 13 nations participating in the tournament. Local papers now agree that they are serious candidates to take the world's honors homewards."
The Times, gulled by the hyperbole that characterized South American sports journalism then as now, was overly optimistic.
The semifinal opponent was Argentina, already a world power. The Argentines were a hard, brutal team, and they physically broke down the Americans. London's Daily Telegraph wrote that "Argentina ... proved too strong literally even for the fit and fast American 'shot-putters', who found themselves only one down at half-time but with one player missing (broken leg after 10 minutes), another suffering from a kick in the jaw, and their 'keeper also badly injured. It was not surprising that Argentina put five goals past them in the second half."
In 1930, substitutes weren't allowed, so the United States played on with only 10 men, several of them badly hurt. Four years ago, Jimmy Brown could remember the beating like it was yesterday. "They kicked us all over the place," he said. "We ended up with six sound men. They really went for us."
Argentina 6, United States 1. The last three goals came in one nine-minute spurt.
Argentina's domination wasn't the only vivid memory of that semifinal. The English soccer writer Brian Glanville tells the story:
"John Langenus, the celebrated Belgian referee who officiated, whatever the heat, in cap and plus-fours, gave a foul against an American. At this the team's medical attendant raced, bellicose, on to the field, to berate Langenus. Having had his say, he flung his box of medicines to the ground, the box burst open, various bottles smashed, including one full of chloroform, and its fumes rose to overpower the American. He was helped from the field."
Argentina went on to lose the final to the host Uruguayans, 4-2.
Reaching that 1930 World Cup semifinal is the crowning achievement of American soccer, 1994 or no 1994. Four years later, the United States was clobbered, 7-1, by the hosts, Italy.
The United States made it back to the finals in 1950, where 500-to-1 long shots it was eliminated in the first round, but not before causing one of the great upsets in sports. Joe Gaetjens scored a famously phantom goal was it a header? was it illegally punched in? did it even cross the line at all? as the Americans shocked fans around the world by beating (and helping to eliminate) England, 1-0. The legend is that sports editors, seeing the score on the wire machines, assumed that "United States 1, England 0" was a misprint and corrected the score to "England 10, United States 1."
When the score turned out to be true, the London press proclaimed it "England's footballing Dunkirk." That's a fair reflection of the contempt with which American soccer was regarded. The sport virtually fell off the map here until Paul Caligiuri's goal in Port of Spain qualified the United States for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy. But that doesn't change history, and it doesn't erase the accomplishments of the 1930 U.S. national team, World Cup semifinalists.
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