Six Lost Teams That Helped Build American Soccer
On Saturday, the US plays the Netherlands in the World Cup knock-out rounds, after games against England and Iran that even got the President talking. While it can seem like the world’s biggest sport always just arrived in America–because of Pele, David Beckham or Ted Lasso–the game truly has a deep, quirky, almost-secret history here. The story threads through immigrant communities and scrappy, oft-forgotten teams, with the glorious vintage team portraits you might expect.
Before Saturday’s big game, a glimpse of bygone squads from American soccer’s hidden past.
Fall River Marksmen
Massachusetts, 1920s and ‘30s
Soccer enjoyed big days in pre-War USA, especially in East Coast industrial towns full of immigrant strivers. The Fall River Marksmen, repping a textile town rich with Portuguese culture, dominated the Roaring ‘20s, toured Europe and then … vanished. [The club has been revived as a minor-league team with some sweet merch.]
Saint Louis Kutis
St. Louis, MO, 1950s-present
St. Louis–brawny city of breweries and riverboats; Germans, Irish and Italians–was long the American soccer town. Scroll back through the list of national champions: America’s best soccer team was often the house team of some Saint Lou department store or local Ford dealership. Case in point: Saint Louis Kutis, top team of the 1950s, sometimes even the de facto US national team, sponsored by … a funeral home. Amazingly, the club still exists!
Kansas City, MO, 1960s
You could dig through grassroots American history and find 1,000 teams like Los Latinos, but let them stand for all: immigrant dads and kids, traveling the midcentury Midwest to find opponents in places like Des Moines, at a time when onlookers wondered if they were playing “kickball.”
Soccer had a big-haired ‘70s heyday, thanks to the North American Soccer League. One of the early champions, the Atoms became a brief sensation in Philly, then starved for titles, winning the league in 1974. True to American-soccer form, they disbanded just a few years later, but the old Atoms brand remains a cult favorite and Philly remains a strong soccer town: the modern-day Union almost won Major League Soccer this year.
North Carolina Tar Heels
late 1970s-early ‘80s
Women’s soccer is its own thing–the World Cup is coming next year, when the USA will defend its title down in Australia. But the women’s game is foundational to the sport’s growth in America. And in important ways, that story goes back to a student club team at the University of North Carolina in 1978 and ‘79. The team petitioned to become an official UNC program, then–along with the University of Colorado–pushed for the establishment of the first national competition. That led to a legendary early ‘80s squad, featuring goalscoring phenom Stephanie Zeh and plenty of salty grit. In the words of coach Anson Dorrance: “They were the sort of girls who would go downtown, burn it to the ground.” That’s the spirit.
There were some sad times, it’s true! In the ‘80s, with the NASL unraveling and international success nowhere in sight, American soccer leaders tried putting all the best US players on one pro team, based in Washington, D.C. The results were not good–last place in their NASL division and quick dissolution–but the style was on point. Most importantly, in soccer as in America as a whole, better days were still to come.
Not one team, but many: New York’s storied Cosmopolitan Soccer League turns 100 next year.
– Wildsam editor Zach Dundas