What's In a Name?

The history of soccer in the U.S. is inextricably linked with the country’s history of immigration. The game became the world’s sport in the early 20th century at the same time the U.S. was experiencing the peak years of European immigration. These newly-arrived immigrants brought the love of the game with them and they and their children made up the initial wave of players and fans.

In the U.S., the sport was played and watched by working class immigrants. From the beginning, there was a tension between the popularity of the sport and the ethnicity of the sports fans. In the early 20th century, the racial classification of many non-Western European immigrants as white had still not solidified. At this time, those of Irish, Italian and Jewish descent, for example, were still not fully seen as white in many parts of the U.S. population. While hugely popular in the early decades of the 20th century, soccer was seen as an immigrant game and largely never had much reach outside of the large urban areas where those populations lived.

In the early 1930s, while pro leagues were still found in a few areas such as St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles, the east coast-based American Soccer League was generally recognized as the most prominent at the time. After the fall 1933 reorganization of the ASL, the league was structured more like the modern NPSL and UPSL - a central, controlling entity of separate regional leagues. In the ASL’s case, the mid-Atlantic-based, Metropolitan Division, and the New England Division.

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Much of the ASL’s reorganization was caused by the withdrawal of wealthy businessmen and corporate backing from the league. Almost all of the clubs operating in the ASL were teams formed by ethnic, religious, and civic organizations formed by immigrant communities. Metropolitan teams included the First Germans of Newark, Hispano and St. Mary’s Celtic of Brooklyn, Irish-American and Scots-American of Kearny, and German-American of Philadelphia. The New England Division included clubs such as Boston Celts, Portuguese S.C. of Providence, Lusitania Recreation of Cambridge, St. Michael’s of Fall River, Scandinavians and Swedish-Americans of Worcester, and Gremio-Lusitano of Ludlow.

The ethnic tensions of the sport came to a head based on the non-Anglo European group that likely was most fully integrated into whiteness at the time. German immigrants had migrated to the U.S. much earlier than those from most other countries. As such, the German community, even newer immigrants, were much more accepted by the dominant culture. But, world events radically changed that viewpoint.

In the late 1930s, authoritarianism and nationalism were radicalizing many parts of the world. Facism and nazism was on the march in Europe. It was inevitable that conflict would break out and that the U.S. would be pulled into it. In 1939, war officially broke out in Europe after Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1 and, while still not formally involved, the U.S. felt the pull. That year, the ASL’s new season was scheduled to start on September 10.

The prior year, the Metropolitan Division had added two new clubs - Deutscher S.C from Baltimore and Hungarian of Bethlehem - for the 1938-39 season. The former, an amateur team, renamed themselves Baltimore German S.C. after they joined the league.

After the Nazis invaded Poland, the Baltimore Germans, quickly decided to officially change their name. On September 6, the club announce the name had been changed to Baltimore Americans. At the same time, Bethlehem Hungarians moved to Allentown, dropped their ethnic nickname, and simply became Allentown S.C. A week earlier, another league club, Trenton Highlanders, had been taken over by Dover F.C. and became Paterson-Dover S.C.

The September 6, 1939 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted:

“The changing of names has been urged with increasing pressure recently by those demanding the complete Americanization of the sport. While the players and the immediate management are in the vast majority Americans, the clubs were originally sponsored by and had affiliations with hyphenated fraternal and welfare societies.”

The initial wave over, the rest of the Metropolitan clubs, including Philadelphia Germans, held off on removing their ethnic nicknames through the next season. But, that soon changed. Prior to the 1941-42 season, Passon F.C. of Philadelphia (often called Passon Phillies) became the Philadelphia Nationals. In December of 1941, after the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the ASL initiated an official policy to Americanize club names. Scots-Americans changed their names to Kearny Americans and the Philadelphia Germans became Philadelphia Americans. Brooklyn Hispano simply became Brooklyn and the club’s long-time unofficial nickname, the Red Devils, was used more often.

And what of the New England Division? Those clubs never had similar transformations or the chance to do so. After the U.S. entered World War II, most of the New England teams had difficulty fielding squads due to the war duties of the players. The league never completed the 1941-42 season and faded away.

The transformation was complete when the Irish-Americans became Kearny Celtics for the 1942-43 season. During the war, the ASL was a 10-team league and fully half of them had patriotic names with the Philadelphia Nationals joined by four clubs called the Americans: Baltimore; Kearny: New York; and Philadelphia. The trend did ease somewhat in the short-term. Brooklyn quickly returned to the Hispano nickname and the Kearny Americans soon became better known by their unofficial nickname, Kearny Scots.


In the post-war era the nation’s patriotic fervor lessened and soccer became less popular in the mainstream sports landscape. In this environment, the ASL became an even less consequential enterprise and returned back to a league made up of teams with strong ethnic identities. So much so that, by the 1963-64 season, six of the eight clubs had ethnic nicknames. These included Ukrainian Sitch of Newark, New York Hakoah-Americans and Hungarian-American of New Brunswick.

But, as with most things in U.S. soccer, change is the norm. The launch of the fully professional North American Soccer League in the late 1960s brought a wave of Americanization to the game even beyond that of the World War II era. In an attempt to make the league more attractive to advertisers and the mainstream sports audience, the NASL had a formal policy that its clubs, made up almost exclusively of foreign players, should have the traditionally American team names similar to other professional sports. The ASL followed that wave and by 1971 only had one team, the New York Greeks, with an ethnic identity. The league fully purged ethnic nicknames for good when the Greeks became the New York Apollo before the 1973 season.

- Dan Creel

Dan VaughnComment