We Are A People, We Are Alive: A Look Into The History of Croatian-American Soccer

One of the great factors in American soccer through its over one hundred years of history is the ever-expanding inspiration of immigrants on the soccer community. These connections can be traced across the world, and while the higher divisions of soccer in the United States do not always acknowledge this connection- modern or historical -the pride and appreciation of these roots is anything but dead in the lower leagues. One pattern visible in the lower leagues of the Midwest is the connection between Croatian-Americans and soccer clubs, as shown by the presence of UPSL clubs like the Croatian Eagles- otherwise known by the Croatian translation of its name, Hrvatski Orlovi -and RWB Adria.

First founded in 1917 under a local rotary club, the Croatian Eagles became independent in 1922 and have been active ever since. The Croatian presence in the Midwest can often be traced to conflicts in Central Europe in relation to the First and Second World Wars. The Eagles are rightfully proud to be the product of those that survived and found a way out of conflict. "Croatians emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian empire due to the unrest which eventually started WWI in 1914. The creation of their soccer club would allow them to foster and preserve their heritage away from home… The club’s home is the Croatian Park which was acquired by the small Croatian community in the late ‘50s.”

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Speaking with the Croatian Eagles, the club made it clear that it has always been a priority to find a happy medium where its roots could be celebrated while still welcoming people of all backgrounds. “Our club is mostly comprised of non-Croatians though our board and their kids who are members of the club have Croatian roots… Our club has a rich history and as such we work hard to continue what was started 96 years ago. We believe that soccer is for everyone and not just the wealthy.” Even with its roots and name being specifically Croatian, there is a sort of diversity throughout the club’s legacy. Looking at a newspaper clipping which features the entire first squad of the Croatian Eagles in 1922, one can find representation from across Europe on the Eagles roster. “You will notice name with German and Hungarian last names not only Croatian. The Croatian community was also involved in the founding of a local German soccer club as well.”

Based in the lower league hotbed of Milwaukee, the Croatian Eagles consider themselves positively inspired by the city and its working class values. “Milwaukee is a smaller and mostly blue collar town whose traits are hard work and enjoying the simple things in life. Our club shares those traits and we are for everyone and we will educate all skill levels equally and hope that our influence will help guide the kids to something bigger and better.”

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The story continues in Chicago where RWB Adria finds itself one of the key clubs in the Midwest’s portion of the UPSL. The club brings modern skill and organization to the league, along with decade upon decade of rich history. RWB Adria also plays in the local Chicago league, titled the National Soccer League, where it has played for nearly one hundred years dating back to before its current iteration.

Originally intended to be named “Croatia Chicago,” the club was forced to avoid what was, at the time, considered an overly ethnic name. Inspired by the globally admired Adriatic shore and sea, the club would instead go by Adria. By 1976 the naming convention of Red White Blue- the three colors of the Croatian and US flags -had become popular and the club finally reached its permanent name of RWB Adria.

The club, rooted in the emigration of Croatians from the then communist nation of Yugoslavia, has always functioned as a proud column of the Croatian community in Chicago. General Manager Ante Loncar explained that in many ways the club represented one of a few ways these Croatian immigrants could show the city and the country that they existed. “Soccer and the club were our way of advertising our homeland that we never actually had… we showed that we are a people. We are alive.”

Both clubs highlighted in this piece had impactful runs in the USPL’s 2018 spring season. The Croatian Eagles finished 4th in the Midwest - North Division with a 4-1-5 record, while RWB Adria placed first in the Midwest - Central Division with a 7-1-2 record. The success, however, did not stop at the local pitch for Croatian and Croatian-American soccer, perhaps coming most notably with the success of the national team in the 2018 World Cup. The national team, clad in its classic red and white checkered kits, went on to make the world cup final for the first time in its nation’s history and, though France came out as champions, would become one of the great stories from the latest iteration of the tournament.

Clubs like Hrvatski Orlovi were plenty aware of the national team’s success and how it invigorated Croatians and lovers of the game around the world. “The World Cup inspired many people even outside the Croatian or soccer world. We have seen Croatian clubs receive additional exposure due to the direct success of the Croatian National team. ‘Neopisivo’ the experience was indescribable.”

 2016 RWB Adria Squad

2016 RWB Adria Squad

Loncar added that the World Cup run was a powerful experience for him and soccer lovers around Chicago, “When you see your country playing in a World Cup final… it’s just amazing.. what I loved best was the Americans that came… because of course you want the underdog to win.” Loncar also added that the World Cup run and the growing presence of Croatians on the roster sheets for major European clubs like Juventus, Real Madrid, Inter, Liverpool, and Barcelona has helped “Put less pressure on us,” as Americans often no longer need clubs like Adria or Hrvatski Orlovi to educate them about the basic facts when it comes to Croatia.

You may be asking yourself, “Okay I just learned about a couple interesting clubs with some common threads, but why does that actually matter?”

There is a common narrative in the way some Americans think about the beautiful game, a narrative that suggests that the game is relatively new to the nation and represents a risky and cloudy new path. What the stories of the Croatian Eagles and RWB Adria show us is that this sport is not new to this country. Both clubs included in this piece are older than the Super Bowl, the championship game of what most perceive as an older and more rooted sport in the US, first played in 1967, and two or three times the age of most who claim this idea of newness. They also vastly outdate any professional soccer league currently active in the country right now. The other lesson is that this path is not untouched or unknown. It is a path that has been paved by the ambitions and passions of countless immigrants to this country from Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Learning to appreciate and acknowledge the work done by clubs like Adria and Hrvatski Orlovi is not just important for the average person’s perception of the Croatian-American experience, it is key to one’s understanding of the nature of soccer in this country, one that dates back long before the acronyms we now use to section the world’s game.

- Dominic Bisogno

Editor’s Note: This piece was edited to reflect that Yugoslavia was a communist nation, not a Soviet nation.

Lola Vaughn