The story of soccer in America is a long, convoluted, sometimes crazy tale. It is a saga of mismanagement, unreasonable expectations, and mistake after mistake. Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin, is a chronicle of that saga, from US Soccer's intrepid beginnings, its rise, it's dark ages, it's resurrection, and catastrophic near collapse. It is an educational, sometimes wry, incredibly entertaining look at the history of our great sport in the US. With the US hosting Copa America Centanario and Crew SC entering in to the US Open Cup, the oldest tournament in the US this month, it was the perfect choice for June's edition of the Massive Report Book Club.
Through the years the various stewards of soccer in America (of which, as you'll read in the book, there were several) have done an extremely bad job of preserving the history of the game. In the introduction Wangerin writes of statistics from the first coast to coast league (in 1967) being non-existent, and "the US's early international record" being "largely worked out after the fact". His book is an attempt to correct this, or at least preserve what we have left for future generations.
He is largely successful, weaving together the sometimes disparate regional narratives in to a cohesive, easy to follow whole. It's broken down by "era", and offers a fantastic look at the progression (or lack thereof) of the game, both in terms of the various leagues that came to prominence over time, as well as the US Men's National Team. This is one of the two reasons that I think Soccer in a Football World falls in to the category of Very Important Book.
There were quite a few things in its pages I found interesting and surprising.
The first was the "history repeating itself" factor that seems to pop up throughout the history of domestic soccer leagues in this country. From infighting and competing leagues, to a lack of cohesive vision, to rapid over-expansion, the problems that plagued the early leagues in the states continued to haunt successive leagues, often fatally. Reading through the history of the game, chronologically, patterns begin to emerge. Slow growth to begin, a boom, rapid expanding beyond what's sustainable, crowds die off, collapse.
It is, however, fascinating (at least for soccer nerds like me, your mileage may vary) just how popular some of the teams in the states were, in their time. These days the popularity of the sport before the Pele-induced boom of the NASL glory days is played down or just forgotten. However, Soccer in a Football World challenges that narrative, showing that there were several well supported teams in the early days of soccer. They may have been geographically disparate, confined mostly to hotbeds of soccer like Chicago, St. Louis, and New Jersey, but they were there. The NASL, despite what many of us have been led to believe, was not the first popular soccer league in America.
Another surprise I found in the pages was how much of an afterthought the National Team was for much, if not all, of the 20th Century. For those of you out there convinced the Klinnsman era has set US Soccer back would do well to read it. No matter how confusing and seemingly arbitrary his selection standards and coaching decisions are, they are nothing compared to the "standards" of the early days of the National Team, where squads were selected mere days before tournaments, given no time to train together, and shipped off. The ‘tactical' considerations were of about the same caliber. Reading about these times made me cringe, and made me appreciate just how far we've come.
That ability to put the current state of the game in context is the second reason that Soccer in a Football World is a Very Important Book. And not just for the National Team. Before reading Soccer in a Football World I felt, like many other fans I know, that MLS was an awful excuse for a soccer league, clueless or corrupt depending on the day. Complaints about favoritism, "football guys" owning clubs and wielding too much influence, filled my twitter timeline and greatly impacted my perception of the game here in the states. I was of the belief that one of, if not the major thing holding the United States back from being a major soccer power was MLS. After reading this book, that is no longer the case.
Soccer in a Football World opened my eyes to how amazing it is that we have the league we do today at all. Having not been aware of soccer at all during the league's early days, let alone a "hardcore fan", I had no idea just how dire the league's outlook was when Don Garber, the in some corners much reviled MLS Commissioner, took over. While there are still many decisions MLS makes that I don't entirely understand or agree with, I can no longer bring myself to think of them as the Evil Empire, with Don Garber, Palpatine-like, lording over the game in the States.
But don't take my word for it. Pick up a copy of Soccer in a Football World. Read the harrowing tale, and judge for yourself where today's problems stand compared to those of the past. Whether you're a soccer nerd looking to gorge on the history of the game in our country, or just a fan of MLS wanting to know where the league came from, Soccer in a Football World is a must-own.
Use the comments section below or the hashtag #MRBookClub on twitter to discuss this book, the state of soccer in America, and the history of the game. Stay tuned for the announcement of next month's entry in to the Book Club.