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The First XI: US Soccer Trips Overseas

Posted on by & filed under Issue Two.

In a new series here on the XI Quarterly blog, I’ll be looking at the first eleven of something regularly – today, with issue two of XI, Americans Abroad, approaching publication, I look at eleven of the first trips taken overseas under US Soccer auspices.

I. 1891 – Breaking Ground in Britain
Okay, this one wasn’t really a U.S. Soccer trip in the strict sense of it: after all, in 1891 we’re 22 years prior to the actual establishment of what would ultimately become the United States Soccer Federation (USSF, or U.S. Soccer) in 1913. But it is – as far as I know – the first U.S. soccer (lowercase) moment overseas, and so it deserves inclusion here.

It wasn’t supposed to be an American tour at all. According to Colin Jose’s history of the tour, it was to have been an all-Canadian affair, a follow-up to a successful trip in 1888 by a select team drawn from Canada’s Western Football Association (WFA). The 1888 visit was no powder-puff affair; visiting Britain in the year the Football League was founded in England, the Canadians took on Newton Heath (now slightly better known as Manchester United), Glasgow Rangers, a Scotland XI and Aston Villa amongst others in a 23-game trip in the fall.

The tour was planned to last from August 1891 until January 1892, with over 50 games scheduled. However, the WFA saw a number of players back-out from participating and instead called on what was a relatively thriving soccer scene in New England for additional players. Nine Americans and 10 Canadians made the trip. The Americans were drawn from Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts.

The 1891 trip was not a success, at least from a results point of view, though doubtless it was an enormously educative experience for the 19 players who headed overseas. Out of five dozen games, the North Americans won barely a dozen; they played teams representing both Scotland and England, losing 5-1 and 6-1. But the overseas adventures had at least begun.

II. 1912 – Joining the World’s Game
FIFA was eight years-old in 1912, a nascent organization still living in the shadow of England’s Football Association, who had been less than interested in organizing the game outside of the British Isles. In the U.S., the sport was then nominally governed by the Anglophiles leading the American Football Association (AFA), but their focus was almost entirely on New England, ignoring the growth of the sport at the college level and in the big eastern and midwestern cities. The AFA’s administrators pocketed the profits from the game in its existing stronghold for themselves, rather than expanding American soccer with new national or international competition. In a subservient move, the AFA did not attempt to join FIFA, but instead affiliated itself to the Football Association in England in 1909.

In 1912, New York City-born Thomas Cahill was chosen by a group challenging the AFA’s authority to travel to Europe and affiliate the upstart American Amateur Football Association (AAFA) to FIFA at its Congress in Stockholm. The AAFA had been founded just a year earlier, but quickly attracted nationwide support. F.A. Secretary Frederick Wall represented the AFA in Sweden, while Cahill urged FIFA to recognize the AAFA, arguing the future of the game’s organization in the U.S. depended on proactive, nationwide support from an association standing on its own feet, not beholden to England. FIFA demurred, and asked the United States to return the next year with a single voice; Cahill’s trip bought the AAFA enough time to outflank the AFA, and in 1913, the United States Football Association (USFA) – as the AAFA had been renamed – joined FIFA unopposed. Almost 100 years later, it’s still a member, and is now known as the United States Soccer Federation.

III. 1916 – A Scandinavian Tour
The United States played its first officially recognized international game on 20 August 1916 against Sweden in front of a crowd of 16,000 in Stockholm that included King Gustav V, on a trip organized by Thomas Cahill, the USFA’s Executive Secretary.

The original plan for the debut of the men’s national team had been for the U.S. to participate in the 1916 Berlin Olympics soccer tournament, but the small matter of the outbreak of world war led to its cancellation. Instead, the U.S. – who would remain officially neutral in the war until 1917 – headed to fellow neutral nations Sweden and Norway for a six-game tour, making the transatlantic trip aboard the steamship Frederick VIII.

“I do not know just how it will strike you people, but to me it seems that our United States Football Association has some reason to be proud of its achievements,” Cahill said on arrival in Sweden. “Here we are, in only the third year of our national existence in the world domain of association football, sending a team for a series of games in this far country.”

The result of that first game was impressive, too. Fall River’s Thomas Swords had been elected captain aboard the Frederick VIII, and he repaid his teammates by scoring the first goal in a 3-2 win for the Americans. The U.S. team went on to win three, tie two and lose one on the tour.

IV. 1919 – Bethlehem Steel Goes East
The USFA then organized for a representative team to visit Scandinavia again, with Cahill leading the charge once more. This time, most of the players were drawn from Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Steel, the best-known of America’s still relatively obscure early champion club teams. Sponsored by the eponymous steel giant, they drew large crowds. Players earned well, and in 1919, Cahill led Bethlehem – along with gifted guest players such as Archie Stark and Davey Brown of Paterson FC – on a summer tour of Scandinavia. On his second trip there, Cahill was now accorded the status of a visiting dignitary, attending banquets each day and keeping company with his old friend King Gustav V of Sweden.

Bethlehem’s journey from New York to Gothenburg took 12 days. Their arrival was much anticipated in Sweden, and over 20,000 fans showed up for the first game of the tour against AIK, a 2-2 draw. The Americans played nervously, relying more on pace and strength than the stylish “Scotch” combinating passing apparently expected of them.

A total of 154,000 spectators watched the Americans’ 14 games on the tour, as they racked up an impressive record of seven wins, five ties and only two defeats.

V. 1924 – Americans Become Olympians
Before the establishment of the World Cup in 1930, the peak of international soccer competition was the Olympic Games.  The 1924 tournament at the Paris Games was a significant affair – 22 nations took part, with four continents represented: 19 nations from Europe, one from Africa, one from South America, and one from North America, the United States. The USFA handicapped the American selection by drawing almost all of its players not from the thriving semi-professional American Soccer League, but instead resolutely sticking to amateur principles, a distinction all-but-ignored by most other competing nations at the games.

The American style of play, based on athleticism, speed and resolute defense, irked many European eyes. At Stade Pershing in Vincennes, the U.S. ground out a 1-0 win against Estonia in the first round. It was not an impressive performance: The New York Times reported that “The victors were outplayed during the entire second half, but the speed of the Americans was too much for the Estonians, with their smooth-working attack and expert knowledge of the fine points of the game. . .the Americans owe their victory more to speed and physical strength than to skill.”

The Americans moved on to the second round, but they now faced Uruguay, the eventual champions described by Eduardo Galeano as “workers and wanderers who got nothing from football but the pleasure of playing.” And such pleasure: the Parisians were enthralled by the South Americans’ entrancing style. A capacity crowd of 15,000 attended a 3-0 win for Uruguay over the U.S. at Stade Bergeyre in Paris and according to the Times “went wild at the South Americans’ spectacular skill.”

The Americans did well to keep the score down to a three goal defeat, and headed home.

VI. 1930 – To The World Cup
Six years later in 1930, the inaugural World Cup was held in Uruguay. The Americans boarded the SS Munargo and became one of the 13 teams to take part. A talented crop of players was selected from the American Soccer League, including goalkeeper Jimmy Douglas – a veteran of the 1924 Olympic team – and the Fall River Marksmen pair of Bert Patenaude and the brilliant Billy Gonsalves (the prolific Archie Stark, though, stayed home to manage a new business he had opened). The Americans arrived in Uruguay on a cold, rainy June day in the capital Montevideo, but were greeted by a welcoming crowd.

The Americans continued to play in a style dependent largely on stamina and speed rather than skill, with the exception of the marvelously gifted Gonsalves. It was enough to see the U.S. advance in a fortunately weak group, dispatching Belgium 3-0 and Paraguay 3-0 – in the latter game, Patenaude scored what FIFA would take a long time to recognize as the first hat-trick in World Cup play. The field was “a bed of wet, sticky clay with pools of water too numerous to count,” American trainer Wilfred Cummings said. The Americans played with gusto, earning a grudging respect.

Those victories took the U.S. into the semi-finals, facing Argentina in the magnificent Estadio Centenario, built for the competition. 73,000 fans – many from across the Río de la Plata there to support Argentina – provided an atmosphere unknown to the Americans, who arrived flanked by a military escort. The 6-1 final score does little justice to what had been a tight game in the first half, the U.S. only trailing 1-0 at the break. The referee did the Americans few favors, as Argentina’s physical play saw center-half Raphael Tracy withdrawn from the game with a leg injury, which in an era before substitutes meant they played with ten. Forward Andy Auld and goalkeeper Douglas also had to hobble on hurt.

As space opened up, the talented Argentinians took advantage and rattled in the goals to see off the U.S. team, who went home with a third place finish yet to be matched in the 82 years since by the USMNT.

VII. 1934 – A Brief Roman Adventure
Travelling thousands of miles in the 1930s across the ocean was no small undertaking, especially with the limited resources available in American soccer.  Yet FIFA’s organization of the 1934 World Cup meant that the U.S. only played one game this time: with the competition in Italy set-up as a knockout contest, a comprehensive 7-1 defeat to the hosts in front of a hostile crowd under the Mussolini regime was all the Americans got before heading home.

Still, getting there itself had come thanks to a fine win overseas. Only three days before the World Cup proper began, the U.S. played Mexico in a one-game qualifier, held in Rome, to decide who would represent the North and Central American region in the competition. Under the watching eyes of Mussolini at Nazionale PNF Stadium, “Buff” Donelli scored all four goals for the Americans in a 4-2 win that earned them a short and less than sweet shot in the 1934 World Cup finals. And perhaps more significantly, the international competition between Mexico and America had begun.

VIII. 1936 – Berlin
American participation in the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin is, of course, remembered somewhat more notably for Jesse Owens’ performances than that of its soccer team. Before the games began, there was heated debate over whether Americans should take part in the games in Nazi Germany. The USFA had sided with Avery Brundage, who ran the American Olympic Committee and strongly supported participation in the games despite vehement calls for boycott from many quarters, especially and unsurprisingly from Jewish groups.

The U.S. sent a team that consisted of a majority of German-Americans, then influential in American soccer. They doubtless were not happy to be drawn again against Italy, but in Berlin, the Americans put in a battling display in a brutal encounter. Italy’s Serie A veterans pulled out all the stops, including considerable harassment of the referee, and eked out a 1-0 win with a 58th minute goal, eliminating the Americans, who had performed creditably in a hostile environment.

IX. 1947 – Continental Competition
A year after the North American Football Confederation had been founded, the first continental competition in the region was organized in Havana, Cuba. While American soccer had stalled over the previous decade – it hadn’t played an international for a decade – Mexican soccer had grown apace: in fact, Mexico had remained unbeaten in 13 games since their defeat to the U.S. in Rome in 1934. The American team was not a select group of the best players from across the country, but instead, the entire Ponta Delgado club from Fall River, who had just won the 1947 U.S. Open Cup.

The growing gap in quality between Mexican and American soccer became all-too-evident on 13 July in Havana in front of 5,000 fans: Mexico recorded a 5-0 win. Things got little better for the U.S. against hosts Cuba a week later, losing 5-2, and they returned home chastened.

X. 1948 – Humiliation in London
America’s increasing inability to compete well in international play became all too evident at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Slapdash organization sent an unprepared team to the competition, a lengthy selection process giving the final roster no time at all to train together.

At Brentford’s Griffin Park, Italy again inflicted a devastating defeat on an American XI in a  first round knockout game, a 9-0 scoreline that the USSFA could only soften in its post-tournament report by noting that the team had at least “conducted themselves as gentlemen and sportsman [sic].”

XI. 1950 – Miracle
Paradoxically, just two years later, the U.S. team earned a result that almost requires no further description: in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, England was of course defeated by the United States in Belo Horizonte 1-0, thanks to a goal from Joe Gaetjens.

Curiously, it was perhaps that humiliation in London two years previously that had sowed the seeds of the famous victory, as American soccer administrators finally realized that a team can hardly be a team if it does not even have a chance to play together regularly ahead of international competition. The North American championship in 1949, held in Mexico, doubled as a qualifier for the 1950 World Cup, and the U.S. performed far better than in their previous effort two years previously, finishing second behind Mexico thanks to a 5-2 win over Cuba in front of a large crowd in Mexico City. They had learned how to play together effectively, and they had qualified for the World Cup.

It was off to Brazil, then, and Haitian-born Gaetjens scrambled in the goal that shocked the English. America’s patchy adventures abroad had a defining moment, but with losses to Chile and Spain sandwiching the upset over England, the U.S. was eliminated and another 40 years would pass before the nation would again play in the World Cup finals.

Tom Dunmore lives in Chicago and is an editor of XI.

One Response to “The First XI: US Soccer Trips Overseas”

  1. OAlexander

    Thank you for writing this very informative piece – and writing it well. OAlexander.


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