Soccer Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although it is clearly the world’s most popular team sport, soccer has historically been considered a “foreign” or “ethnic” sport in the United States because of its identification with European and Latin American immigrants. The game has grown to be one of the most widely played youth sports in American cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike but continues to be most strongly supported by immigrant communities.

Since its arrival in the United States, soccer has been associated with the immigrant experience. It was among the first games English settlers brought with them to the American colonies. Although the histories of soccer and American football in the United States can be traced to identical beginnings, soccer in the end lost out to its American cousin and was relegated to a game mostly enjoyed by Europeans and other immigrants.SoccerSoccer[cat]ETHNIC ENCLAVES;Soccer[cat]SPORTS;Soccer

The English colonists who settled in the United States brought one of their favorite pastimes with them: football. Historians agree that a form of the game was played in Virginia as early as 1609. Throughout the nineteenth century, scratch teams of British immigrants participated in the sport, along with some high school and college teams. By 1860, more than a dozen colleges located on the Atlantic seaboard had taken up the sport. After the rules of “association football” (from which the word “soccer” is taken) were formalized in Great Britain, Princeton and Rutgers universities played the first official game in the United States under these on November 6, 1869. At the time, it appeared that association football might become a major intercollegiate sport. However, a solely American form of football was then emerging that would soon displace it. This new game, which would become known as American football, evolved out of rugby football, which in turn had evolved from soccer. In contrast to soccer, both rugby and American football permitted players to carry the ball with their hands. American football eventually departed from rugby in allowing forward passes–a feature that would come to characterize the American game during the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, through the last quarter of the nineteenth century, soccer began a sl ow and painful climb to popularity outside the university and professional framework. Through the 1880’s, newly arrived Irish, English, Scottish immigrants;and soccer[soccer]Scottish, and Welsh immigrants;and soccer[soccer]Welsh immigrants helped the game take root in New York, New Jersey, and New England. From there, soccer began moving westward. Soccer associations, mostly made up of immigrants, sprung up in cities such as Cincinnati, OhioCincinnati and St. Louis. In 1883, the Pullman Railroad Car Company of ChicagoChicago;soccer built a soccer field for its immigrant employees–a testament to the popularity of the sport in Chicago and an early example of American business paternalism.

While these developments were unfolding in the United States, the British were planting the seeds of association football throughout Europe, where the game grew rapidly in popularity. As a result, the throngs of European immigrants who changed the face of the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also carried their newfound adoration of soccer to the New World. Ethnic football clubs and leagues such as the German American league, Greek Americans of New York, and Brooklyn Hispano played an essential role in promoting American soccer and socialization among immigrant groups.

Professionalization, “Americanization,” and New Immigrants

By the 1920’s, soccer had become popular enough in the United States to form its first professional league, the American Soccer LeagueAmerican Soccer League (ASL). Industrial corporations behind the organization of this league imported European stars for the entertainment of newly arrived immigrant workers. The pattern of ethnic clubs fielding ASL teams became commonplace over the years among Irish, Scottish immigrants;and soccer[soccer]Scottish, Hispanic, Italian, German, Polish, and Ukrainian immigrants.

As international soccer competitions developed, the United States fielded teams, but these were made up predominantly of immigrants. The U.S. national team that competed in the first World Cup (soccer)World Cup competition in Uruguay in 1930 consisted mainly of naturalized British and Scottish professional players. That was also the case when the United States achieved one of the most important victories in national team history–a win over world power England during the 1950 World Cup competition. After World War II, new immigrants and returning servicemen gave soccer a boost throughout the United States. As displaced persons arrived from Europe, they formed new soccer clubs, some of which sought admission to the ASL. At that time, it seemed that the American game would forever remain the diversion of immigrants.

“The Greatest U.S. Victory”

One of the greatest upsets in international soccer history occurred during the 1950 World Cup competition in Brazil, where the United States defeated powerhouse England, 1-0, in a first-round game. Three important players on that U.S. team and its manager were immigrants. Joe Gaetjens, the center forward who scored the winning goal, shown here being carried off the field after the game, was a Haitian citizen. He was allowed to play for the United States because he had declared his intention to become an American citizen, but he never naturalized. He eventually returned to Haiti, where he was killed–apparently by one of President François Duvalier’s death squads–in 1964. He was inducted in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Three decades after World War II, things began to change. In 1975, the recently formed North American Soccer LeagueNorth American Soccer League (NASL) imported some of the world’s best player–such as Brazilian superstar PeléPelé–to play in the United States. This effort to popularize and legitimize the sport among broader segments of American society paid off. Interest in the game soared. In 1964, the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) had begun in Southern California to foster the sport among suburban children. It and other youth soccer organizations grew slowly. However, by 1978, more than 350,000 American children were registered with these organizations, and 5,800 high schools fielded teams. White, middle-class suburbia provided the most fertile ground for this frenzied growth.

The Americanization of soccer appeared to have begun. NASL even began limiting the numbers of foreigners allowed on its teams, and U.S.-born players and coaches began to move up the professional ranks. NASL eventually folded, but during the 1990’s, the U.S. men’s national soccer team became a fixture in World Cup (soccer)World Cup competitions and a regional powerhouse. The women’s national team–built almost entirely on home-grown talent–did even better. It won the 1991 and 1999 World Cups and several Olympic gold medals. When the United States hosted the men’s World Cup in 1994, the competition set new attendance and revenue records for the event. By the time a new professional soccer league, Major League SoccerMajor League Soccer (MLS), formed in 1996, soccer had grown from an immigrant game into the team sport with the most participation among children throughout the United States.

Despite the growing Americanization of the game, the love affair between soccer and immigrants in the United States never abated. Indeed, as most of the new immigrants entering the country during the twenty-first century are coming from soccer-crazed countries in Latin America, eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, the numbers of immigrant soccer players and fans in the United States are becoming larger than ever. Their numbers are particularly evident at games played by visiting teams from Latin America, at which fans supporting the foreign teams generally outnumber those supporting the American teams.Soccer

Further Reading
  • Allaway, Roger. Rangers, Rovers and Spindles: Soccer, Immigration and Textiles in New England and New Jersey. Haworth, N.J.: St. Johann Press, 2005. History of how British workers in the textile mills popularized soccer in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
  • Goldblatt, David. The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. Up-to-date, comprehensive, and entertaining history of world soccer, with considerable attention given to the game in the United States.
  • Hollander, Zander, ed. The American Encyclopedia of Soccer. New York: Everest House, 1980. Comprehensive reference source that provides an overview of the sport’s history, leagues, tournaments, and collegiate competitions in the United States.
  • Logan, Gabe. “The Rise of Early Chicago Soccer.” In Sports in Chicago, edited by Elliot Gorn. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Attempt to prove that Chicago immigrants embraced not only soccer but also such American sports as football and baseball.
  • Markovits, Andrei, and Steven Hellerman. Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Exploration of how the professionalization of sports such as football and baseball helped to marginalize soccer in the American sports scene.
  • Wangerin, David. Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game. London: WSC Books, 2006. Provides a history of soccer in the United States and explains why this sport has been considered “un-American.”

African immigrants

Asian immigrants

British immigrants

European immigrants

German immigrants

Italian immigrants

Latin American immigrants

Latinos and immigrants

Mexican immigrants


World War II

Categories: History