The Many Versions of the Soccer Wars
Readers may have noticed that a recent lawsuit brought by the USL against the UPSL for breach of trademark brought many soccer commentators to bemoan the return of new “soccer wars”. Why would a beef between leagues result in such an immediate and specific response? The simple answer is that a turf battle between soccer organizations helped doom the Golden Age of U.S. soccer. And, it is not hyperbole to say that the implications of that original “soccer war” continues to resonate until today. Sadly, top-level soccer in the U.S. seems unable to break a regular cycle of internecine wars. In order to give some background, in this article of Kicking Back we present a survey-style history course on American “soccer wars”.
1924-25: An Opening Skirmish
Following the 1923-24 season, the American Soccer League was on the ascendent. The league was stable and pulling in a good deal of fans. The league’s owners decided it was time to grow the eight-team league. They added three new clubs in New England (Boston, New Bedford and Providence) and brought in Fleisher Yarn, a top-notch Philadelphia amateur club.
The added clubs meant more games and the league pushed the schedule from 28 to 44 games. League owners began negotiations with the U.S. Football Association concerning their clubs’ ability to play in the National Challenge Cup (now called the U.S. Open Cup). ASL owners claimed that the additional league games would make it difficult for the clubs to schedule National Challenge Cup games during the season. But, a more practical reason for the disagreement was that the USFA made most of its annual income from the cup by taking a relatively high percentage of the gate receipts. And, after the association took its cut, the pro clubs found it not worth the loss of money when playing in front of smaller audiences when they had to play smaller clubs in the early rounds.
A month before the league season started the ASL voted to withdraw from the NCC. The country’s other major pro league, the four-team St. Louis Soccer League, also voted to withdraw. These moves led to Bethlehem’s local newspaper, The Globe, to announce “Looks Like A Soccer War” in its August 11, 1924 edition.
The leagues hoped to hold a replacement tournament but their different schedules made the idea impractical. Instead, the ASL held a league cup in the spring with the winner, Boston S.C., playing the American Pro Soccer Championship against the winners of the St. Louis league, the Ben Millers. Boston took the three-game series two games to one.
The USFA blinked first and, at their May 1925 annual meeting, they decided to lower their percentage of the NCC gate receipts by over half. This made the competition more palatable for the pro clubs and both pro leagues re-joined the cup in the next year.
1928-29: The Soccer War
Even though a truce was called after the 1924-25 season, the ASL and USFA continued sniping at each other as each regularly threatened to sever relations with the other. In the summer of 1928, the ASL voted Nat Agar as its delegate to the USFA’s annual meeting. Agar was empowered by the league to get the USFA to agree to keep the National Challenge Cup from disrupting the ASL schedule or the league would again withdraw its clubs. Agar, manager-owner of the Brooklyn Wanderers and long-time major domo of New York soccer, was a prime mover in pushing the ASL to flex its muscles. Another such owner was Charles Stoneham who owned baseball’s New York Giants as well as the ASL’s New York Nationals. Stoneham wanted the ASL to become the preeminent U.S. soccer organization. Stoneham’s Nationals won the 1928 NCC. After that victory, he pledged that his club would never play in another USFA tournament, and he called for other major league pro baseball owners to form or acquire ASL clubs to grow the league.
Stoneham’s biggest idea was a push to have the ASL’s champions to be named the champions of the East. In addition, he recommended that a new western league of baseball-owned clubs be created, whose champions would be named champions of the West. Under this plan, the eastern and western ASL champions would meet for the national soccer championship. At this point, the NCC was the preeminent soccer competition in the US and, via that tournament, the two finalists were considered the champions of the east and west with the winner considered the national champions. Stoneham’s proposal would shake up the power structure of U.S. soccer in a major way including greatly weakening the position of the USFA.
Agar came back from the July USFA meeting without a compromise and, in mid-September 1928, two weeks into the ASL season, the league voted to withdraw from the NCC. While the league owners voted to withdraw from the cup, three clubs decided to reject the boycott. Bethlehem Steel F.C., New York Giants S.C. and Newark F.C. ignored the league edict and registered for the tournament. These clubs saw financial benefits from playing in the cup and also rejected the Stoneham plan, in part because the league he wanted to create was a closed franchise model that would cap the number of clubs allowed to take part in his proposed national championship.
On September 27, the ASL suspended the three clubs from the league and fined each $1,000 for entering the NCC. On October 2, the USFA suspended the league. The grandfather of all soccer wars had begun in earnest.
On October 8, the three former-ASL clubs and five other eastern clubs quickly formed a new professional soccer league, the Eastern Soccer League, with the sanction of the USFA. The ASL felt the effects almost immediately. Due to the suspension, the ASL was operating as an “outlaw league” outside the sanctioning of the USFA and FIFA. Any player who played in such a league could also find themselves banned from signing contracts with sanctioned leagues domestic as well as international. As such, many foreign players decided to leave their ASL clubs rather than risk such a ban.
Stoneham’s New York Nationals were the hardest hit. On October 12, ten Nationals players quit the team before a match against the Wanderers due to the USFA’s suspension of the ASL. Most of these were former SC Hakoah Vienna players who joined the league after that club’s 1926 tour of the U.S. The Nationals played an impromptu exhibition with the Wanderers but had to cancel their next two games while they signed new players. In addition, a month later, the club moved from the Polo Grounds to the much smaller Innisfail Park in the Bronx.
While most of the non-ASL clubs were semi-pro outfits, one, the Hakoah All-Stars, was a new club made up primarily of the former ASL Hakoah Vienna players. The first game of the new ESL was held on October 13 between the New York Giants and Bethlehem Steel.
The ESL included several teams from the Southern New York State Football Association. The SNYSFA saw the ESL as an encroachment on its territory and the Association’s president, Dr. G.R. Manning, resigned in protest. Nat Agar ascended to the SNYSFA’s presidency and withdrew the organization from the USFA.
The two pro leagues battled for fans during the fall. On December 23, the clubs from the ASL and the SNYSFA formed the American Soccer Association with the intention to challenge the authority of the USFA. In the spring, following the ASL regular season, the ASA held a cup for all the clubs in the ASL and the SNYSFA. As a counter, the USFA formed a new New York State Football Association and all the ESL teams entered a cup competition of the newly organized NYSFA.
Both pro leagues completed their 1928-29 seasons and moved forward with 1929-30 seasons. The ASL launched relatively early in mid-August in hopes of getting ahead of their rival. But the soccer war and the late-summer recession severely strained the finances of all clubs involved. As the soccer season began, it became glaringly obvious something needed to be done and the parties began formal negotiations.
On October 22, most of the ASL clubs were reinstated by the USFA. While the ESL continued play, the ASL suspended operations as the parties worked toward forming a new league. Two days later, in the middle of these negotiations, the “Black Thursday” stock market crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. “Black Monday” struck on October 29 and the Atlantic Coast Soccer League officially formed in the immediate aftermath. The first games of the merged league were played on November 9.
1932: Everyone for Themselves
The 1931 American Soccer League (the ACSL was reorganized and renamed in the summer of 1930) season was the last one that it could be recognized as a true, stable major professional league. At the end of the ASL spring 1931 season, Nat Agar’s Brooklyn Wanderers’ sat in second place behind the New York Giants. Agar protested the championship results due to the Giants having one more game scheduled than Brooklyn. The protest was disallowed. Agar hosted a friendly at Ebbets Field against Glasgow Celtic for the next weekend. The USFA suspended Agar due to some issue with this game and he was forced to sell his interests in the Wanderers.
Numerous franchise moves and foldings over a short amount ended with most of the old guard of owners out of the league by late 1932. The loss of stable finances and leadership led to a chaotic situation for professional soccer. As touched on in an earlier Kicking Back, the remaining New York contingent of ASL clubs withdrew from the league before the spring season began in an attempt to form a new, but ultimately doomed, competitor to the league.
And there were even more battles during that year. After the tumultuous spring season, the USFA began plans to take control of pro soccer in the U.S. by directly promoting and organizing regional leagues. The governing body relied on the National Challenge Cup for income but the funds received were not enough and it was looking to the pro game for new funding sources. The state associations balked at the notion of the USFA circumventing their jurisdictions with rumblings that clubs could leave the USFA and operate as independents. The ASL responded to the USFA’s plan by electing the still-suspended Nat Agar as their new president.
Rather than embark on another protracted battle, the two sides decided on peace. The USFA reinstated Agar and the ASL agreed to allow its teams to enter the NCC. A few weeks later, Agar settled with the newly-formed National Soccer League by reinstating the New York Americans and entering a second New York club into the ASL.
1933: The End of the Golden Age
While the USFA and the ASL had an agreement, this understanding was not welcome at the state level. ASL secretary Sam Fletcher, former Providence F.C. player and owner, moved to organize a separate New England Division of the ASL. He was unable to field enough New England teams, and the ASL moved forward with only its four-team Metropolitan Division for the spring 1933 season.
During that summer, Fletcher met with strong opposition from the New England state associations who disapproved of the ASL’s move to form a separate pro league that would not allow its clubs to take part in non-USFA cup competitions. With the fall season still not settled and hoping to stave off the ASL’s influence, the state associations attempted to form their own professional league but were not able to come to an agreement. Included reorganized ASL franchises in Boston, Fall River and Pawtucket, Fletcher managed to form a nine-team New England Division in time to start the 1933 fall season.
With the New England Division finally a reality, the USFA and ASL had aggregated control of the professional game on the East Coast. One more step solidified that control. On October 16, 1933 Nat Agar retired as president of the ASL and the organization reorganized. The two divisions, Metropolitan and New England, would operate as separate leagues under the umbrella ASL organization which was controlled by a three-man board. Even though the two divisions were the competitive leagues, it was American Soccer League, Inc. that formally held the affiliation with the USFA and given the sole right of interstate professional competition.
The original Soccer War badly destabilized US soccer governance at the national and league level. In addition, the Great Depression massively impeded the financial capacity of soccer owners. These two factors led to the scope of the American Soccer League eroding through the early 1930s. And, as the reach of the ASL narrowed, any hopes of a national soccer system forming during the mid-20th century also expired in part due to the continuing power struggle and lack of cohesion between the USFA and the state associations.
1966-67: The Silver Age
While the rest of the world embraced the modern game, the lack of direction in the U.S. doomed the sport to decline and obscurity in all but a few pockets of the country. Two major factors changed that. First, the 1960s was a period of change and expansion in the North American major sports league landscape. During the decade the American Football League and American Basketball Association were formed as competitors to the established National Football League and National Basketball Association. Also, the National Hockey League began a rapid period of expansion. Second, within that context, the 1966 FIFA World Cup held in England ratcheted up interest in the game to a new level in large part because the event was broadcast live on color television for the first time.
In the spring before that World Cup, FIFA met in New York City. Three North American groups were represented with an interest in forming a major league. The World Cup, held in July, was a massive success.
That summer one group named themselves the North American Soccer League and planned to begin play in 1968. The other two groups merged to become the National Professional Soccer League. For the most part, the ownership of these new teams were made up primarily of groups who already owned teams in the other major league sports.
In August, the NASL received sanctioning from the U.S. Soccer Football Association. Merger talks occurred over the next month with the NASL planning to have all-star and European teams playing in each city in 1967 and a full league to start in 1968. The NPSL ruled out the merger, moved forward with plans for a 1967 season as a 12-team “outlaw league”, and landed a $1 million television deal with CBS.
Later in 1966, FIFA attempted to mediate a merger between the newly-organized leagues but failed to come to an agreement. In late December, FIFA officially sanctioned the NASL as the only U.S. major soccer league. Football associations in various countries warned that their players would be suspended if they signed with the non-sanctioned NPSL.
Wanting to avoid a failure, in February 1967, FIFA stated that players who signed with the NPSL would not be banned for life. In addition the organization urged the USSFA to immediately sanction the NPSL. While most domestic clubs, FIFA and other European clubs wanted the merger, the major stumbling blocks were the NPSL’s low television contract and the NASL’s exclusive 10-year sanctioning.
Because of a lack of a true professional game in the U.S., both leagues needed to look abroad for players. The NPSL opened their season on April 16 with 10 teams made up of mostly foreign players. A month and a half later, the 12-team United Soccer Association (renamed from the NASL that March) opened their “mini-league” with full imported foreign teams playing under contract to the domestic clubs. Merger talks continued to be held during the season.
The USA ended their “mini-league” on July 14 when the Los Angeles Wolves (represented by the Wolverhampton Wanderers) defeated the Washington Whips (represented by Aberdeen F.C.) 6-5 on an own-goal in sudden death overtime to win the 1967 Final before 17,842 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The NPSL completed their season on September 9 when the Oakland Clippers won the second-leg of the final against the Baltimore Bays 4-1 before 9,037 at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum taking the championship with a 4-2 aggregate.
A merger between the leagues was reported to be announced the day before the NPSL final. But, it never materialized when, the day after the final, the NPSL filed an $18 million trust suit in federal court against the USA, USSFA, FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Football Association alleging a conspiracy to drive it out of existence. The suit alleged the groups blacklisted foreign players who signed with the NPSL and that USSFA officials who approved the sanction were given jobs in the USA. The suit also sought to enjoin the USA from fielding teams until the NPSL was recognized.
Merger talks continued between the leagues while the case moved forward. In mid-November a federal judge ordered organized soccer to show cause why it should not be ordered to end its boycott of the NPSL. With the lawsuit pending, the two leagues formally agreed to a merger on December 7 with the new league taking the USA’s old North American Soccer League moniker. The NPSL dropped its suit soon after.
The battle was a costly one for all involved. It was reported that none of the teams in either league made money. The Baltimore Bays, owned by the Baltimore Orioles, lost $400,000 and the NPSL’s Philadelphia Spartans, owned by the Rooney family, lost $500,000 and folded after the merger. The PIttsburgh Phantoms of the NPSL had the worst of it losing $900,000 and also folded.
The 1968 season was similar to the prior one. The league was popular enough to continue but attendance wasn’t large enough to offset the costs and clubs continued to lose money. The league imploded, dropping from 17 teams to five for the 1969 season. But a more conservative approach allowed it to survive through the early 1970s until renewed interest led to a period of rapid expansion in the latter part of that decade.
2009-11: The Soccer Warz
In August 2009, Nike sold its interest in the United Soccer Leagues to NuRock Soccer Holdings instead of a conglomerate of USL First Division owners. These clubs plus a few others broke away from the USL, formed a new North American Soccer League and applied to the USSF for Division II sanctioning.
The USL issued press releases claiming the breakaway clubs may have been in breach of contract and the league could seek litigation to protect its interest. The USSF found that three of the breakaway NASL teams had binding contracts with the USL for 2010, but that left neither league with the minimum number of teams to be sanctioned for that season. In December the USSF stripped sanctioning from the USL First Division and refused to sanction the NASL for 2010. After weeks of negotiation, the USSF announced it would run an interim Division II league for the 2010 season made up of the 12 NASL and USL clubs.
Following that 2010 season, the NASL formally admitted all the breakaway teams and, with enough members, was given provisional Division II sanctioning in November for the 2011 season. The USL ceded the Division II tier to the NASL and reorganized the remaining USL First and Second Division teams into the Division III USL Pro league for the 2011 season.
2015-18: The End of the Modern Era
A new order had been established but one that none involved appeared happy with. The truce between the parties always seemed temporary and the status quo quickly disintegrated.
In September 2015 the NASL accused US soccer of antitrust violations if the USSF went ahead with the adoption of a new set of criteria for professional league sanctioning. The league accused the federation of colluding with Major League Soccer to protect the Division I league’s monopoly. The USSF ignored the NASL and adopted its new Professional League Standards.
During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the Division III USL (rebranded from USL Pro) doubled in size in large part due to a multi-year agreement with the MLS where the MLS Reserve League was integrated into the league. By the 2016 season, the USL had ballooned to 29 teams of which 21 were affiliates or partners of MLS clubs.
In January 2017, the USSF granted USL provisional Division II status for the 2017 season and only granted the NASL provisional sanctioning due to its membership dropping below the newer 12-team minimum. In September, the USSF revoked the NASL’s sanctioning completely for the 2018 season leaving the USL as the only remaining Division II league.
The NASL responded by filing an antitrust suit in federal court seeking to prevent the USSF from revoking the leagues Division II status and to strike down the federation’s Professional League Standards and other divisional rules. The court ruled against the league’s motion and, in February 2018, the appeal court denied an appeal. In the wake of those rulings, the NASL announced a cancellation of their 2018 season with clubs moving to other leagues.
With the demise of the NASL, Major League Soccer and it’s partner, the USL, gained complete control of the U.S. professional league system. As of the publication of this article, there are 74 teams in the three professional divisions with 44 of them owned or affiliated with MLS.
- Dan Creel