Distant corners : American soccer's history of missed opportunities and lost causes

Trying to find information on the history of soccer in the United States is not an easy task. Even though the sport has been played here since the 19th century, its past has been poorly documented. However, David Wangerin (who was born in the U.S., but now lives in Scotland) does a remarkable job of piecing together the fragmented history of the world's most popular sport in the world's richest nation.

Wangerin introduces us to the archive of Tom Cahill, who helped to start what is now known as the United States Soccer Federation in 1912. Prior to that, the only governing body for soccer in the United States was an affiliate of England's Football Association. Cahill was the most influential man in American soccer for the first half of the 20th Century, yet hardly anybody knows who he is.

From around World War I through the late 1930s, St. Louis became the center of American soccer, but the sport eventually was drowned out by other sports. Wangerin believes that, when presented with the choice between the brutal sport of American football versus switching over to soccer, early 20th century American sporting fans apparently enjoyed the violence more. Still, there were some attempts to start professional leagues in the U.S., though none of them succeeded.

In the 1970s, the North American Soccer League tried to move into the conversation. The Cosmos, which featured star players like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, would draw crowds of 70,000 to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. But the league could not survive in other cities - even in cities where one would expect soccer to be popular, such as Los Angeles. Ultimately, the league depended too much on foreign players and used too few American players, making the NASL more of a curiosity than an actual integral part of the American sports world.

Throughout the 20th Century, people tried to make soccer an American game, but no one could agree what that meant. Faced with a field full of people with names that looked "foreign," sports fans in the U.S. fell back on the sports they were familiar with. Baseball had a more nationalistic feel and football let people enjoy their violence. Soccer could not match either of those. The best soccer could do then is what it does now - which is settle for being one of many somewhat popular sports in an increasingly multicultural country.

This book is somewhat like soccer. If you are interested in the sport and its history, you will enjoy the work that Wangerin did in unearthing the history of the game. But if you think soccer is something that ESPN airs just to keep you from watching 24-hour discussions of Brett Favre, then you may want to give it a pass.