In my other life as a PhD student in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, I am conducting research on the growth of youth soccer in the United States since the 1960s. I chose that decade in no small part because that is when the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) was founded. And I am interested in the founding of AYSO because I believe that the organization was fundamental to reframing soccer for an American audience, in particular in “Americanizing” the sport.
I have long been interested in the idea of whether soccer is today an “American” sport. The theory I have developed is that insofar as the sport is seen as less foreign today than it once was, this is because years of an Americanization process have taken place. Prior to beginning my research I had a vague notion that AYSO had helped to present the sport in a new light to American audiences, but what I have come to realize recently is just how conscious the process of Americanizing the sport was.
I have recently been talking with people involved in the founding of AYSO, visiting the organization’s national offices in Los Angeles, and perusing old issues of Soccer America to see how the sport was covered during the 1960s and 1970s. Through this work I have come across interesting some interesting snippets about the role AYSO played in Americanizing the sport.
One of these snippets is this letter to the editor of Soccer America in 1973 by Bill Hughes, one of the founders of AYSO. Hughes, a Brit, sought to make the sport appeal to a wider audience than the immigrant community who were its primary followers in 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles.
Hughes had attempted to create a youth program within the Greater LA Soccer League in 1956. This endeavor failed, Hughes was convinced, because of the explicitly ethnic nature of the league. As he states in the letter here, the “ethnic” names of the teams sent a message that they were only for members of certain communities. When AYSO was founded in 1964, one of the rules that Hughes and his four partners put into place was a prohibition on the use of “ethnic” names.
There were several other measures put in place to put an “American” face on AYSO. Calling the league the American Youth Soccer Organization, of course, sent a message about the new organization, as did the selection of Hans Stierle as its first president. Of the five founders, Stierle was the only one born in the United States and the group decided it would be best to have him as the face of this new organization (Hughes himself actually turned down the opportunity to be president, urging the American-born Stierle to assume the role instead).
Once AYSO was underway, it established philosophies that continue to define the organization. But the establishment of these philosophies was in no small part a reaction to what Hughes had experienced in trying to start a youth program in an ethnic league. In particular, the idea of accepting everyone who wants to play (AYSO calls it “everyone plays”) and the idea of dividing up players into more or less equal teams each year (AYSO’s ”balanced teams” philosophy) were actually responses to the ethnic league model.
Where teams in the Greater LA Soccer League (GLASL) were limited to children whose parents were from a particular ethnic community, AYSO took anyone who wanted to play. And where players in the GLASL were intended to remain with their team year after year, remaining within their ethnic community (something which became moot when the youth program folded after a single season), AYSO sought to mix all players who signed up each year. AYSO promoted a model of compulsory integration, seeking to define soccer less as an activity associated with ethnic communities. In doing so, the organization played a large role in transforming youth soccer in the United States. And this role that AYSO played in Americanizing soccer was not simply a by-product of their promotion of the sport, but integral to this process.
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