The International Soccer League, which played in New York and a few other American cities in the early 1960s, was an important step that helped to pave the way toward the start of the NASL and thus the American soccer scene of today.
From 1960 to 1965, the ISL brought in European and South American pro teams to play a brief league season during the European off-season, ending in a championship series late in the summer. The idea was to give American fans a chance to view foreign pro teams in meaningful competition rather than friendlies, although just how meaningful the players really considered these summer games to be is open to question.
The league was run by promoter William Cox, a former major-league baseball team owner and a future NASL team president. It played most of its games in New York and Jersey City, N.J., but also occasionally in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicopee, Mass., particularly in the league's latter seasons. The league was always split into two divisions, one in early summer and one in mid-summer, whose winners then played each other for the title.
In addition to the imported teams, the league included, for several seasons, a team representing the United States, called the New York Americans or the New Yorkers. This was primarily an all-star team of New York's German-American Soccer League, one of the best semipro leagues in the country at the time. This team acquitted itself fairly well against the foreign pros, even reaching the championship final in 1965, although it has to have benefited greatly from the fact that many of the visitors didn't bring all of their first-team players to these off-season games.
Over the league's six-year run, a total of 60 teams played in it, 50 of them from Europe. Among the names familiar to today's fans were Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen from West Germany; Everton, West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers from England; Red Star Belgrade and Hajduk Split from Yugoslavia; Sampdoria from Italy; Sporting Lisbon and Belenenses from Portugal, and Panathinaikos and AEK Athens from Greece. The league operated with between 10 and 16 teams per summer. The outstanding individuals included English World Cup star Bobby Moore of West Ham in 1963 and Brazilian World Cup star Zozimo of Bangu in 1960.
The first championship game drew a crowd of 25,440 to the Polo Grounds in New York on Aug. 6, 1960 to see Bangu beat Kilmarnock of Scotland, 2-0. Champions in subsequent years were Dukla Prague of Czechoslovakia in 1961, American Rio of Brazil in 1962, West Ham United in 1963, Zaglebie Sosnowiec of Poland in 1964 and Polonia Bytom of Poland in 1965.
Definitely the best team to play in the league was Dukla, whose squad included the nucleus of the Czechoslovakian team that reached the final of the 1962 World Cup. After Dukla's victory over Everton in the 1961 final (9-2 in two legs), the league created an event called the American Challenge Cup, in which the holder was challenged by that year's champion. Dukla defeated the new champions to retain the cup in 1962, '63 and '64, but finally lost it to Polonia in 1965.
Cox eventually turned his sights toward a more truly American league, and was one of the leaders of the moves that resulted in the founding of the NASL in 1968. Perhaps that was something he'd had in mind all along.