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When Foreign Teams Americaposed
Once upon a time, there was a US soccer league where every team was actually a foreign team in disguise.
One of the biggest discourses in MLS fandom over the last few years has been “Europosing” in club branding.
In the early days of MLS, the league used the conventional American naming style of [City Name] [Team Name]. Most of these names were controlled by apparel brands (there were four kit manufacturers in MLS’s inaugural season; Nike and Adidas worked with most of the league, but Colorado chose Puma and New England elected to go Reebok), and many of them were not well received. Well before “I’m a Sporting,” there was “What’s a Clash?” and the selection of a mutant bat logo because Mutiny and Mutant share a few letters.
As the 90s wrapped up and people looked at some of the branding decisions of the era as a colossal mistake, MLS moved away from these looks. From the 2000s expansion boom on, you saw either a more traditional European style name or the resurrection of an NASL name. (The exceptions: Chivas USA and the Red Bulls, both of which were for ~brand synergy~ with the mothership, and Montréal Impact, which is a can of worms I’m choosing not to touch right now.) Many people have complained about this, because “it’s boring” or “not American”. I have issues with both of these, but that is beyond the scope of this writeup.
But once upon a time, during a lean era for the sport in this country, the shoe was on the opposite foot. A league was formed where the rosters were genuinely just imported foreign teams, but with an American-style coat of paint on them. Let’s take a look at what this league was, and what became of it.
The 1966 World Cup. The only time football ever “came home.” For a sport that had basically been dormant in this country for over 30 years, its surprisingly solid US TV audience spoke to untapped potential.
Seeing the success of the Cup and the official film, Goal!, several groups of sporting executives scrambled to try and start up a new league in the US. The United States hadn’t had a true domestic top flight since the demise of the 1920s ASL (which fell apart due to political infighting best served for another piece as well as the Depression), but here was a golden opportunity. One of those groups actually got the sanctioning of FIFA and the US Soccer Football Association, as it was known at the time. This group was led by Lakers and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke; the likes of Lamar Hunt (Chiefs), Judge Roy Hofheinz (Astros), and the Madison Square Garden Corporation were also involved. This organization installed Dick Walsh, director of stadium operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers (and a future GM of the California Angels), as commissioner, and was branded the United Soccer Association.
However, there was one slight issue. Another conglomerate, led by former Phillies owner Bill Cox, had not only started up their own league but had landed a TV deal with CBS. This one was unsanctioned as they hadn’t paid the entry fee, and was branded an outlaw league by FIFA and the USSFA. This wasn’t the first time a US league was branded an outlaw league, as the ASL got tagged with it during the Soccer War in the 1920s. Basically, any player that signed there faced sanctions on moving to actual FIFA sanctioned leagues. Still, they had the TV deal, and were able to pull in some big name players, including future NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam, future Kansas City Wizards coach Ron Newman, and former Real Madrid midfielder Juan Santisteban. This league would be dubbed the National Professional Soccer League.
The USA had originally opted to launch in Spring 1968, but when the NPSL announced they were starting in 1967, they couldn’t let themselves be beaten to the punch - especially as both leagues were going to be competing in several markets, namely New York, the Bay Area, Toronto, and Los Angeles. But they couldn’t recruit enough players in time to fill out the rosters.
Plan B: enlist some foreign help.
Foreign teams were invited, mostly from Europe, but with two from South America. These clubs would be rebranded under American names and American ownership and would represent the founding franchises. Most of them came from Britain, and for good reason, as future USSF president Alan Rothenberg recollected to the BBC:
"There were a number of reasons we turned to the UK for the bulk of the teams. Remember it was the World Cup in England that had fired the initial interest. Also, by winning the tournament England was the uppermost soccer power in the world. In addition, it was the close season in England, and their FA was very co-operative in helping us find teams to take part. It was also a time when British things were generally in vogue in the US, and the nexus between America and the UK was stronger then. And [Jack Kent] Cooke as a Canadian was very British in his outlook, very UK-focused, in his Bond Street suits.”
Some of these club-franchise connections were obvious, such as the Cleveland Stokers (Stoke City), Boston Rov(Shamrock Rovers), and Los Angeles Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers). Some, on the other hand, were not: ADO Den Haag, for example, took to the field as the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales, and the Dons of Aberdeen became the Whips of Washington.
The USA only ran a 12 game schedule, and it was very tight, as you’d expect with such a small sample size. In the East, the Whips finished top, holding off the Stokers and Toronto City (the only traditional-named team in the league, and using the roster of Edinburgh-based Hibernians) behind the league’s best defense, anchored by goalkeeper and future college coach Bobby Clark. Out west, the Wolves snuck past the Golden Gate Gales and Chicago Mustangs (Cagliari, of Italy) to take top spot.
The Whips and Wolves met at the LA Coliseum in an absolutely chaotic final that would probably inspire the phenomenon known as MLS After Dark. Wolves talisman David Burnside thought he’d won it for the team when he put them ahead 4-3 in the 82nd minute, completing his hat trick…only for Washington center back Frank Munro to equalize again six minutes later. Derek Dougan put LA in front again with seven minutes to go in extra time, but again it would be Munro, converting his second penalty of the day and completing his hat trick. If you’re counting right, yes, that is a 5-5 Cup Final. There was only one way this could end…with a sudden death own goal by Whips center back Ally Shewan to give the Wolves the title.
The USA had the upper hand after that first season in terms of credibility. The NPSL TV deal had actually caused a problem, as the league came under fire for manufacturing commercial breaks with phantom fouls and faked injuries. The decisive second leg of the final between the Baltimore Bays and Oakland Clippers was also badly outdrawn by the USA’s final (held six weeks earlier); the Wolves/Whips thriller was witnessed by over 17,000, while the Clippers smoked the Bays 4-1 in front of less than 10,000. (That said, the first leg in Baltimore, a 1-1 draw, drew a similar crowd to the Wolves/Whips match.)
However, both leagues were hemorrhaging money fast. So they solved the problem by combining. The two leagues would merge in the 1967-68 offseason to form the original NASL, and only three teams across both leagues became a staple - the USA’s Dallas Tornado (originally the imported Dundee United), and the NPSL’s Atlanta Chiefs and St. Louis Stars. The rest were all gone by the time the 70s boom came around.
This wasn’t the last time teams were imported and dressed up in American sports colors. In 1969, the NASL held a five-team International Cup. The Tornado returned, once again paired up with Dundee United, while Wolves returned in the form of the Kansas City Spurs. The other three teams were the Bays (West Ham), Chiefs (Aston Villa), and Stars (Kilmarnock). KC would win the tournament, but that would be the last of this experiment.
Today, teams from around the world play summer matches in America without the need to play US dress-up, and MLS fans complain when another team is announced with a generic name. But once upon a time, the shoe was on the other foot, and a club that looked like just another American local sports team was actually very foreign.
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