There's a big lie told when it comes to football (don't call it soccer in the company of aficionados) and its roots in the United States. The popular narrative follows thus: in the late 1960s the organisers of the North American Soccer League (NASL) and a number of well-heeled businessmen sought to cash in on the global success of the game by enticing big-name stars from around the world to play in a domestic league that would catapult football in America into the mainstream. The NASL was a roaring success in those nascent years with its clubs, backed by corporate money, capable of luring South American and European luminaries such as Pele and Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller, George Best and Bobby Moore, Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens to jam-packed stadiums around the country.

But by 1977, the league was in trouble, plans were drawn up to add six expansion teams to the existing 18 despite opponents in league circles arguing that there were already too many teams and, rather than saturating the market, the number of clubs should be reduced to 12. The expansionists won out because as Ted Howard, the NASL executive director for 14 years, noted: “We had people applying to pay $2m a franchise. That was the beginning of the decline of NASL as an entity.”

With quality diluted, crowds and profits dropped and the league began to haemorrhage teams. By the 1984 season, it had shut down altogether.

Fast forward four years and FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States bringing to fruition a plan that had been launched in 1982 by then US president, Gene Edwards, who even then could already see the writing was on the wall for the NASL - and something new was needed to hold the attention of supporters.

HeraldScotland: USA fans in QatarUSA fans in Qatar (Image: Getty)

For those who have had only one eye on soccer’s development in the States, the success of that World Cup and the subsequent launch of Major League Soccer lends football in America lends it a fresh-paint quality and the belief that the game’s growth is a recent phenomenon.

The truth is a little more complicated than the perception that the playing of football is a new development in the United States, that it was confined to inner cities and that it was a game played only by immigrants. So deep-rooted is that belief that Ann Coulter, the right-wing political commentator, has previously attempted to suggest that no American who follows soccer has been in the country for more than a generation while John Kerry hid the fact that he played soccer at college during the 2004 presidential campaign against George W. Bush, who was a staunch baseball fan.

David Kilpatrick, Professor of English Literature and Sport Management at New York’s Mercy College, and historian for the New York Cosmos, is one of a number of soccer historians who rail against the idea that football in the United States is a modern phenomenon or somehow a sport that is not inherently American in its make-up. He cites numerous examples that demonstrate the sport was flourishing in the States long before the popular narrative took hold.

All my life, it's been 'soccer is a sport of the future' as if it has no past

“The very first modern football was invented by Charles Goodyear [in 1855] and was sold in his brother-in-law's shop in lower Manhattan,” says Kilpatrick. “By that, I mean, an inflated, vulcanised rubber bladder, which, of course, allows you to kick a ball straight and true. And, you know, there can be no modern football without a modern football.

“Some of the powers that be right now in American soccer like to feel that soccer really arrived here in 1994 because that suits their business interests. But to find out that football was played in midtown Manhattan before the Civil War was really quite shocking. So if it was invented here, and sold in the shops in New York before Lillywhite [founder of the sports retail empire] ever caught a glimpse of it at the Paris Expo that, I think, is kind of earth-shattering. I've been playing soccer all my life. My father taught me how to kick a ball. My father played in the late 50s, in upstate New York. But you know, all my life, it's been 'soccer is a sport of the future' [in America] as if it has no past.”

That past is rich and colourful – and one heavily influenced by Scots.

HeraldScotland: The World Cup final in LA in 1994The World Cup final in LA in 1994 (Image: Getty)

The first meeting of the American Football Association took place in New York at the city's Caledonian Club in 1883, which as the name would suggest had strong Scottish connections. Further evidence of a Scottish influence could be found in some of the names of the clubs who attended the AFA's inaugural meeting. Present there were representatives of the Thistles club, Kearney Rangers and New York Thistles and there is evidence of matches being played around the location of the Empire State building in the 1840s.

In short, Kilpatrick argues that the legacy of the sport has been underplayed by those who seek to undermine it.

“Very few people acknowledge the fact that the United States finished third in the very first World Cup, that the United States Soccer Federation, itself claims 1813 [as its foundation year] but the American Football Association – formed in 1884 – was really the predecessor to it. By 1930, we had one of the biggest, most thriving leagues in the world in the American Soccer League. Loads of Scots were being imported to play on those rosters. The textile industries are quite literally the threads that connect us. I like to call them the tartan threads that connect American soccer to Scottish fitba. The textile mills, from Fall River [Massachusetts] to northern New Jersey, were a real hotbed for some of the best players, the most thriving clubs were there, but then the Great Depression hit and the American Soccer League shut down in the 1930s, then the ASL kind of re-formed, and became a much more ethnically oriented league.

“Soccer was confined to the margins almost by design. I think there was a little bit of self-satisfaction from a lot of leadership, and an awareness that if it got too big, then they lost control of it, so they kept control of it. In order to keep it suppressed football was portrayed as a girls game or as one journalist put it at the height of the New York Cosmos' fame ‘a game for Commie pansies’.

“I feel like that's something we're constantly up against, the idea of the foreignness of the game. That's used as an excuse to marginalise soccer in the news. It's used in terms of the turf wars of getting access to things. It's no excuse. We finished third at the first World Cup. And yeah, there was a strong Scottish influence. Yeah, there was a Scotch Professor as the manager. But there were players that were Americans on that team, that wasn't just a bunch of immigrants. Davy Brown [one of the best players of the era] was from a Scottish family but he was born in the United States.”

We finished third at the first World Cup. And yeah, there was a strong Scottish influence

He uses his own father, who began playing the game in the 1950s, as a counter-argument to the belief that football was somehow un-American or fit certain pre-conceived ideas.

“My father played soccer, he taught me how to play soccer. For a lot of people on the far right you know, it's American football and baseball. And maybe to a lesser degree basketball. Baseball and American football are apple pie. And, you know, soccer is depicted as this foreign thing. And of course, I'm proof positive of that not being the case.”

In short, football – the Scottish version – was all Kilpatrick and his father knew. He tells a story about answering an ad for a team looking for players when he lived in London in the 1990s and being asked to undergo a trial when the person at the other end of the telephone line heard his accent. He promptly scored a hat-trick in the bounce match that followed. When he left Memphis for New York in the 1970s and promptly fought to have a boys' football team installed at his new school he was treated with similar suspicion.

Even today, with the United States, ranked 16th in the world, Kilpatrick says there is an inferiority complex attached to the men's national team on the international stage. As they prepare to take part in their 10th World Cup finals in Qatar, he argues they should really have improved on that third-placed finish almost 100 years ago.

“You know, the first football apparently arrived in Brazil in 1894. That's the same year as I said that we had our first professional league. So I don't want to hear how far we are behind Brazil. That's no excuse. The Germans are newer at it than we are. It's no excuse. We finished third at the first World Cup. And the two biggest goalscorers at the time in the United States – Davy Brown and Archie Stark – actually didn't make the trip to Uruguay. Who knows where we could have finished.”


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