Birth of the original ASL

Posted on January 7, 2013 12:26 am

The founding of the original American Soccer League more than 90 years ago is one of the landmark events in American soccer history, even though the league lasted only 10 years. It gave American soccer a new attitude about how it should be organized. Within its limited region, it helped to create a foundation of grassroots support for soccer. This attitude and this support remained low-profile for many decades after the league’s demise, but the original ASL was a significant precedent.

The formation of the league had been rumored for a while before it was officially announced on May 7, 1921. The first inklings came in late November 1920, when it was reported that Thomas W. Cahill (above), the only secretary the U.S. Football Association had ever had, was planning to resign from that position. When Cahill confirmed this a week later, the Bethlehem Globe said Cahill “intended to devote his time to organizing a national league of professional soccer teams.” This would not be the first time that such an attempt had been made. Attempts in 1894 and 1909 had fallen flat.

The 1921 Spalding Guide (published in the summer of 1921 and edited by Cahill, of course), made it clear that the new league was Cahill’s baby, saying: “The American Soccer League was conceived and organized by Thomas W. Cahill….It has been Cahill’s dream to place soccer on a plane in this country comparable to its place in Scandinavian sporting life and eventually bring the sport to be recognized as the national game of the fall-to-spring months. After many years of direction of the National Challenge Cup competition, or national championships, he concluded that the only means of winning general public interest was through the medium of professional leagues playing regular schedules much as the major leagues of baseball operate.”

Both the 1894 and 1909 attempts, organized by baseball people, had been efforts to put major-league ballparks to use as soccer stadiums in the baseball off-season. They failed, but more modest leagues didn’t, and as the plans for the new pro league took shape in the spring of 1921, it became apparent that the league would be a combination of two of those more modest leagues, the National Association Foot Ball League of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the Southern New England Soccer League of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

When the lineup of teams was announced in May 1921, Bethlehem Steel, the most prominent team in American soccer at that time, was there, but by the time the league began play four months later, it was gone. Poor attendance over the years in Bethlehem had prompted the league to move most of the Bethlehem players to the Philadelphia team (after one season of similarly poor attendance in Philadelphia, the league abandoned the ruse and moved the players back to Bethlehem).

In that first season, the ASL included eight teams: J&P Coats from Rhode Island; Fall River United and Holyoke Falcos from Massachusetts; New York FC and Todd Shipyards from New York; Harrison FC and Jersey City Celtics from New Jersey, and Philadelphia FC from Pennsylvania. Jersey City dropped out after only a few games. Philadelphia, the transparently disguised Bethlehem Steel, easily won the first season’s title.

The Spalding Guide, in its preview of that first season, hoped that it would be only the start: “Unquestionably, if the American League venture meets with marked success, similar leagues would be operated within a year or two in the Middle West, where the sport already has a strong grip, and possibly also on the West Coast, where a high grade of soccer has been played for years under USFA supervision. Eventually, then, would come an annual national title series in which would clash the winners of several sectional big leagues, a series which, it is anticipated, will come in time to be as popular, or nearly so, as the world series of baseball.”

If there is one thing that has been a constant in American soccer for at least a century, it is unrestrained visions of how wonderful the future will be.

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