It wasn't so long ago there really weren't that many decent soccer books. But a lot has changed over the last decade or so—and one of those changes has been an onslaught of great soccer reading. I'll highlight some of my favorites here and if I do my job...encourage you to spend some money on people who are spending their time writing about our game.
Giving the Ball Away
Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes (Temple University Press, 2011), by David Wangerin.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, my two greatest passions were soccer and the Beatles. Because I was in junior high, and I thought that my tastes defined me, I defended soccer and the Beatles against their many attackers...in suburban Portland, Oregon...in the 1980s. I once had the misfortune of being “caught” on the school bus with a “Wings Greatest Hits” cassette, which led to an argument with a small army of Van Halen fans over the relative quality of each band (which I think I lost) . Defending the Beatles got easier; the years have proven anyone who disputes their primacy nothing but an oddball crank, like a flat-earther or moon-landing disbeliever. But with soccer, especially in the ’80s, it did not get better. It got worse.
In 1982, the Portland Timbers, who only a few short years before had been one of the North American Soccer League’s model organizations, expired. Two years later, the whole league died, rendering American pro soccer just another failed sports experiment, like “Battle of the Network Stars” or…the many other attempts at making pro soccer work in America. Once in a while, the U.S. national team turned up on TV, but even to teenage eyes they were an embarrassment, further removed from genuine international football than a so-so Beatles tribute band was from the real thing. Trying to convince anyone that soccer had any kind of future in the United States was as futile in the mid-’80s as campaigning against Reagan.
David Wangerin’s book, Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes (Temple University Press, 2011), has nothing to say about the Beatles (or Wings), but it’s a fascinating ride through a century of speculative efforts at landing the world’s game on these shores. The book opens with a quote that could almost have come from any year within America’s sporting history: “…just when it appears that the game was booming, petty quarrels...,” etc., etc. It’s from 1904. 19-0-f***ing-4.
Wangerin, who died in 2012 at just 50 years of age, enumerates a few of those boom times: An English team’s tour that drew solid crowds and newspaper attention in the early 1900s; the primal years of what is now known as the U.S. Open Cup, which occasioned numerous five-figure attendances (a sell-out crowd of 5,000 attended a 1914 neutral-site semifinal in Pawtucket; “According to the Providence Sunday Journal, long before the hour set for play every car bound for the park was crowded, a number of specials being used during the rush hour to accommodate the gathering”; during the ’20s, “10,000 was not uncommon for finals”); the development of the American Soccer League in the ’20s and ’30s; a mid-century effort at promoting college soccer to prominence, including the establishment of a New Year’s Day “soccer bowl” at the Cardinals’ Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis in 1950, the first of which drew 4,600 to see Penn State play San Francisco—not a bad crowd considering cold weather and that average major-league baseball crowd that year was around 10,000); and, of course, the desperate efforts of the late-1960s and ’70s at creating a permanent national North American professional league.
While I’ve read numerous obituaries of the NASL, Wangerin’s tale has side roads I had not travelled before:
• In 1946, the owners of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of offering their stadiums as venues for a pro soccer league. Incredibly, according to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1946, “operators of soccer franchises in various cities, instead of lending all the support possible, upped the sale price of their franchises or demanded to be cut in one the operations in the big ball parks,” causing the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey to pull out, and leading pro soccer’s greatest advocate at the time, one Tom Cahill, to lament that “I’ve known, everyone in soccer has known, that until there are adequate stadium facilities, the game will never be a financial success.”
• In 1950, the college game replaced throw-ins with kick-ins. In the late ’40s, the New England Intercollegiate League authorized one-handed, baseball-style throw-ins. In 1952, the Midwestern Conference did away with offsides all together (in 1953 they changed back). From 1925 to 1972, NCAA soccer was played in four twenty-two-minute quarters.
• In 1967, the California Clippers, Oakland’s entry in the brand-new National Professional Soccer League (which would merge with the United Soccer Association the next year to become the NASL), endeavored to establish a world-class club (with a uniquely American blend of Yugoslavs and Costa Ricans) in a world-class stadium, only to be thwarted—not by football’s Oakland Raiders or baseball’s Oakland Athletics, with whom they shared the once-impressive Coliseum and whose fans they stood to cannibalize—but by the United States Soccer Football Association, which forbade the team from playing exhibitions against foreign teams due to a dispute between the new leagues and had matches threatened with cancellation “if unaffiliated junior teams took part in preliminary or halftime games.” “For an entire month,” Wangerin goes on, “the team...was prevented from playing on Sundays because sanctioned amateur matches had been scheduled nearby.”
• On the same 1977 day that the Cosmos set an American record by drawing 77,961 to Giants Stadium for a quarter-final against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, the Los Angeles Aztecs drew 5,295 to the 90,000+-capacity Coliseum for a playoff against the Dallas Tornado. That season, the Strikers and the St. Louis Stars played in high-school football facilities.
• The photographs in the middle of the book introduce numerous questions of their own: One shows the New York Americans against the St. Louis Shamrocks playing 1937’s Cup final at an obviously packed Starlight Park in the Bronx. Another shows Penn State’s 1934 team en route to their “landmark tour” of Scotland. There’s a photo from the Clippers’ 1968 3-1 win over Manchester City in front from 25,000 in Oakland. And finally, a smiling NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam, standing in front of 1977’s NASL pennants, proclaiming, according to the caption, “There is absolutely no way that [soccer] will not bypass everything else.”
What happened to Starlight Park, and to the Americans and the Shamrocks? What made Penn State’s Scottish tour “landmark” exactly? Why on earth would American soccer’s governing body get in the way of a team from Oakland that could draw a crowd like that and beat Man City, right when those leagues were just trying to get started? Why on earth did Phil Woosnam, may he rest in much-deserved peace, talk like that?
The answer to most of those questions—or at least to the questions they lead to—is the familiar roster of reasons for soccer’s century of American frustration: Mismanagament, ethnic squabbles, other sports in the way, more mismanagement. But the reason Phil Woosnam talked like that was the same reason I tried to convince other kids that Van Halen’s “Jump” was a total joke, a synthesized steaming pile of pop feces compared with anything—seriously, anything—on “Wings Greatest”: He was a true believer, a Man of Faith, and true believers—and people of faith—are usually at least slightly off their rockers. Of course, Woosnam was a highly-paid executive, a former U.S. national team coach and Welsh international…and I was thirteen, but still—over-enthusiasm and blind faith comprise some portion of any decent existence, even if they also usually lead to a lot of trouble.
And without both, we would not have this book. That David Wangerin did such exhaustive research into and writing about something even he describes a series of “missed opportunities and lost causes,” and that he would have found at least one eager reader (and I’m not exactly unusual: my favorite band is the world’s favorite band, and my favorite game is the world’s favorite game), suggests that this century might be a little easier on American soccer than the last one was.
Green Was The Color
The 1975 Portland Timbers: The Birth of Soccer City, USA (The History Press, 2012), by David Orr.
There are two ways of handling a story like this. You could portray Portland, Oregon, 1975, as a kind of sporting Middle Earth, a semi-real frontier town in the mildewy Northwestern corner where odd and mysterious people gathered once upon a time in the name of a mostly sports-related adventure. This Portland is featured in The Battered Bastards Baseball, the 2014 documentary on the ’73-77 Portland Mavericks, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix and I’m jealous that you have it ahead of you. You also get some of that Portland in David Halberstam’s 1981 The Breaks of the Game, about the ’79-80 Trail Blazers, which includes this passage: “But there was something else they loved about Portland and that was the sheer beauty of the place. Many of the blacks had never seen anything like it before—the mountains, the forests, the rivers—they had heard of land like this but it always seemed like something that belonged to white people. Here they had a share of it.”
When I first heard about The 1975 Portland Timbers: The Birth of Soccer City, USA (The History Press, 2012), and saw its cover in the local papers, I expected that version of the tale, packaged in a colorful, McSweeney’s-inspired feast for the eyes, a technicolor, photo-laden plunge into what it was like to be a ’70s Portlander and Timber fan. I fantasized that the book might emit the faint pot smell that wafted down from the high seats under Civic Stadium's north-end roof.
This is not that book.
This is the other way you could take the story: The nerd's way. And while part of me craved the artful, coffee-table-esque testament to a magical time, I am a nerd. Especially for stuff like this. To Michael Orr’s enduring credit, this book is a nerdy, utterly traditional and straightforward account of a team and a season.
I remember that summer. Not well—I was 6—but bits and pieces linger in the mind (I have a singular memory of settling in to watch the Soccer Bowl with my dad and the neighbor from across the street, and suffering my first real dose of sports-fan disappointment). The book fleshes out the details of the season match-by-match, and for that alone I am grateful. Even though the North American Soccer League of that time was still a hodgepodge of teams trying to divine how to make professionalism in America work—Rochester had been drafted up from a lesser league, the Toronto franchise had only recently been rescued by a local Croatian club, St. Louis used almost nothing but native-born Americans, while the Timbers got through the season without playing a single one…and the Cosmos had the most famous player on the planet—Orr brings to life the astounding achievement of a group of wandering Englishmen who had never all been in the same place at the same time until mere days before the first game producing one of the best records in league history.
While the book is filled with anecdotes that illustrate what soccer in 1975 meant to a city like Portland (for three Sundays leading into the season, the Oregonian published columns on soccer’s rules; new center forward Peter Withe earned the nickname the “Mad Header” because local media photographers at an early practice had never seen anyone head a ball before; the team practiced in Central Park before taking on Pele and the Cosmos) its primary business is how the Timbers were assembled and how they won the NASL's Western Conference title—and that’s kind of it. The book delves a little into the lives the players led, mostly living together in an apartment complex called the Tall Firs, and drinking free beer at the Blitz brewery every Friday afternoon near the Stadium, but mostly, The 1975 Portland Timbers explains how this particular team got itself past the more established Sounders, Whitecaps, Earthquakes and Aztecs and into Soccer Bowl ’75.
Orr does depict how bizarre it all must have been for the Englishmen of that first Timbers squad. Vic Crowe, the team’s first coach, decamped from the Rose City to England in March of 1975 to find the men who would take the field on May 2 for the team’s first league game. On March 25, Crowe signed his first two players and sent one of them, Mick Hoban, who had spent time in the NASL in the early ’70s and was then in Aston Villa’s reserve side, to Portland to begin promoting the team that he was 50% of. On April 7, Crowe announced the signing of nine more players from Wolves, Villa and Birmingham City. The Timbers had a team. Most of them, however, wouldn’t arrive in Portland until five days before the season opener at Civic Stadium against Seattle. They had never played together, and they had never played on artificial turf. Willie Anderson thought he was coming over to play for a team called the “Foresters.” (“Pioneers” had won the name-the-team contest, but the new club chose the second-place “Timbers” to avoid confusion with Lewis and Clark College’s nickname.) They lost that first game 1-0, at home in driving rain, the ball sliding and skidding along the synthetic surface and sticking in the mud of the baseball diamond’s exposed sliding pits, to the Sounders. So began a legendary summer.
As the 1975 legend has grown around here, it’s easy to form a romantic picture of full stadiums—like the 31,000 the Timbers drew to Civic Stadium for their first-round overtime win over the Sounders and the sold-out Spartan Stadium in San Jose for the Soccer Bowl—but Orr de-romanticizes what was then a league held together more by optimism and than anything else: In Denver, Portland lost in front of 4,000 on a narrow high-school football field; 2,500 saw them win in Hartford; less than a thousand came to their game in Boston, played in a driving rainstorm that rendered the field nearly unplayable. In St. Louis, the Timbers conceded a goal from a direct free kick after goalkeeper Graham Brown had been ruled to have left the box with the ball, the lines having been obscured by the deep mud. The eastern trip, which included the team’s stop in New York to play the Cosmos, had the Timbers playing four games in nine days.
The book heats up as the post-season arrives. The opening playoff match, against the Sounders, was played in front of 31,523, the largest crowd in NASL playoff history at the time. The Timbers won in overtime. “Fans poured onto the field, carrying decades’ worth of Portland sports frustration with them over the walls.” As fans stood in line to buy tickets to the semi-final against the St. Louis Stars, “Vic Crowe decided on a quick strategy the helped endear his lads to the fan base even more than their success, community appearances and overall goodwill had already fostered. ‘Vic was really smart, and he knew they were lining up out of the stadium selling tickets, so he took us out and we warmed up right around the stadium,’ recalls Willie Anderson. ‘The response was phenomenal, a memory that I will never forget,’ says Graham Brown of that lap. Fans were able to shake hands with and encourage the Portland players as they moved slowly around the stadium in one final act of adherence to the community ethos.” The Timbers won that match, of course, and were off to San Jose for the final against Tampa Bay. The Rowdies won, 2-0, and Orr’s book fizzles from there. His cursory description of that last game is that of a still-disappointed fan, and he settles matters up with a quick overview of the Timbers’ subsequent seven NASL seasons, demise and eventual revival.
While The 1975 Portland Timbers is no Battered Bastards of Baseball or The Breaks of the Game, it isn’t trying to be. Michael Orr is more an efficient holding midfielder than an imaginative, crafty scorer, the kind of player you learn to admire more over the course of time than in one spectacular afternoon. This book is a public service, a thoughtful, detailed recording of one of the most important summers in American soccer history. Any fan of the game in this country with enough curiosity to wonder how we got to MLS 2016 from the NASL of 1975 owes this one a read, even if the book doesn’t smell like weed.