STEPHEN BRANDT looks at the history of football in the north east corner of the USA and its enduring appeal, despite the many ups and downs of the sport Stateside.
For those who think that soccer in the United States began with the start of the old North American Soccer League, you would be misinformed. The first club team in any country outside England, the Oneida Football Club, started in 1862 predating even the formation of the Scottish game. They were mostly undefeated between 1862 and 1967. And in every league that has existed in the States, there has always been a team in the great city of Boston.
In 1884, there were four football associations in the world, ours being the American Football Association, which created its first National Champions Cup, The America Cup, which was dominated by the New England teams, with victories going to the Fall River Rovers in 1888 and 1889, the Pawtucket Olympics in 1890 and 1894, Fall River East Ends in 1891 and 1892 and the Pawtucket Free Wanderers in 1893.
New England also had an entry into the first professional soccer league in America – American League of Professional Football – in 1894, the gloriously named Boston Beaneaters. However, the premier team of this era was Fall River Rovers, who won three straight US Open Cups (1916-1918). The Open Cup is still being played for today and is the FA Cup of our leagues.
In the American Soccer League (ASL), the leading club in the first Golden Age of Soccer, was the Falls River Marksmen, they won seven league titles, four National Challenge Cups (US Open Cup), and with the exception of years 1926-1928, they never finished below first place in the league rankings. Three of their players were inducted into the US National Soccer Hall of Fame; Alex McNab, Billy Gonslaves and Archie Stark, who played as a guest player during their tour of Europe in 1930, but left after the team fell apart, stranding their players in Budapest.
Falls River wasn’t the only New England based team that dominated the league throughout its existence. The Marksmen also won the Lewis Cup in 1930 as well as the US Open Cup in 1924 and 1930. That made them the first American club to win the Double. The next time that feat was accomplished in the States was by DC United in 1997.
Other teams in the region included Holyoke Falcons, Hartford SC and Springfield SC. The region also held something of a monopoly over the National Amateur Cup with victories by the Fall River Defenders in 1924, Fall River Powers in 1928, and Raffie’s – another Fall River club – in 1930.
The ‘Soccer Wars’ contributed to the collapse of the ASL in 1933 but a second incarnation sprang up in the same year. However, in this version of the league, Cup winners were also fairly rare, with Pawtucket FC winning the US Open cup in 1941 and Fall River Ponta Delgada in 1947. Fall River FC also won the National Amateur Cup in 1941 and 1942. Ponta Delgada dominated at amateur level, winning the National Amateur Cup in 1938, 1939, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950 and 1953.
Fast forward to the latter half of the 20th century and another Boston based club – the Boston Astros. They were coached, owned, financed, and everything other than playing by John Bertos. The Astros built their teams on immigrants and had Brazilians Helio Babrosa and Jose Neto amongst their playing roster. They were a somewhat nomadic club having had four different stadiums, and in 1974-75 shared a ground with the NASL’s Boston Minutemen – Nickerson Field.
The Astros last match ever, shows the lunacy of the lower leagues, or any league in the states for that matter. In 1975, they made it to the ASL title game against the New York Apollos. The incredible thing about this match is that it went into nine different overtime periods. The problem there was a local curfew, the commissioner of the league came out of the stands declared that both teams were champs. The commissioner was former Boston Celtic great, Bob Cousy, a National Basketball Association Hall of Famer.
The next great league in the States existed between 1967 and 1985 – the North American Soccer League (NASL). The league was very volatile because many teams were trying to match the spending power of the New York Cosmos. Many people who knew nothing about the game got into the sport. Consequently many teams folded and eventually, so did the league.
Boston’s presence in the NASL came in the shape of the Boston Minutemen in 1974. They found success right away winning the Northern Division in 1974 and 1975, with John Coyne and Ade Coker among the league’s top scorers. They then plummeted to last place in 1976, thus fans left the team in droves, going from attendances of 9,000 in the glory days to just 2,500. Unsurprisngly, they folded after 1976. That wasn’t the last team in Boston; next came the New England Tea Men who were owned by the Lipton Tea company.
The Tea Men featured Mike Flanagan, who led the league in scoring with 30 goals and 68 points in 28 games and Costa Rican Ringo Cantillo, who came from the ASL. They averaged 12,000 fans, winning the American Conference East. The season was highlighted by a 3-1 away win at New York Cosmos, who had Giorgio Chinaglia, Vladislav Bogecievic and Carlos Alberto, at Giants Stadium before 62,497 fans. That was the top of the mountain for the Tea Men. Flanagan left after that inaugural season. The team became doormats for the next two years. After the 1980 season, the Tea Men moved to Jacksonville. Lack of TV money and significant debt among the teams consigned the NASL to fold in 1984.
The second golden era in the sport began ten years later in 1995 with the creation of the Major League Soccer. Boston were represented by New England Revolution, owned by Robert Kraft (chairman and CEO of the Kraft group). They’ve only won two cups in their existence, the 2007 US Open Cup and the 2008 North America SuperLiga. They have reached the MLS Cup finals in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007 but have missed out on glory at the final hurdle on each occasion. They’ve had some star players turn out for them; Clint Dempsey, Eric Wynalda, Taylor Twellman, Alexi Lalas and Joe-Max Moore.
International friendlies are played at Foxboro (home of the NFL New England Patriots also owned by Robert Kraft). However, the stadium has been under filled, isn’t easy to get to and isn’t really the best for a soccer club. This has led many supporters groups to lobby for a soccer specific stadium near Boston.
Boston fielded the first club in the world outside of England in the 19th century, this devotion to the game shows no signs of diminishing in the 21st century.
Stephen Brandt is the host of Tuesday Vuvuzela, 630pm EST http://www.blogtalkradio.com/vuvuzela