Jeff Cunningham and Archie Stark played in two very different eras, but as Kevin Alexander argues, there was one common feature of both their careers. Goals.
On July 6th 2011, Jeff Cunningham scored a winner for Columbus Crew against Vancouver Whitecaps. It was a goal that drew him level with Jaime Moreno as the all-time MLS Leading Goalscorer. With the regular season at the halfway stage, it’s not unthinkable that Cunningham will go on to break the record.
And yet, he would still be trailing the all-time American Soccer Leading Goalscorer.
Archibald “Archie” Stark, over the course of a 22 year, war-interrupted, career from the 1910’s till the late 1930’s scored a staggering 253 goals in 293 top-flight league matches - a record that’s unlikely to ever be beaten.
Stark, like Cunningham, was an immigrant to the States. Stark’s family had swapped life by the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland for one on the banks of the Hudson in New Jersey, whilst Cunningham’s family had moved to Florida from his Jamaican childhood home. Both had made the move early in life - Archie Stark at 13, and Cunningham a year older.
Like many immigrants to America, he brought a love of football. There were many “ethnic clubs” and by the time he was still only 14, Stark had made his debut for the local side, Kearny Scots - a side, unsurprisingly, set up by members of the large expatriate Scots community.
By the time he was 18, Stark had already made a name for himself in US soccer as one of the best outside-rights in the country, firing The Scots to an American Cup triumph in 1915. They were only denied a consecutive triumph the following year by the legendary Bethlehem Steel.
It was as a Bethlehem Steel player that Stark would truly write his name in the history books. He’d signed for the club that could be considered the Manchester United or Chelsea of early US soccer in 1924.
Bethlehem were bankrolled by members with deep pockets who sought to sign only the very best players, including Stark. Stark had already had 3 years in the American Soccer League - a new top flight formed in 1921 by team owners in an attempt to establish a more stable and profitable business model - with New York FC, but that club had gone out of business under a mountain of debt.
Bethlehem’s prestige was such that it extended beyond the borders of their home country. The club had toured extensively over the years, and Stark himself had played as a guest on one such tour in 1919 when the King of Sweden, Gustav V, had watched the visitors defeat Stockholm Tigers 1-0.
Moved from his right-wing position to a centre-forward role, Stark quickly set the league alight. In his first season with the Steel he scored a staggering 67 times in 44 matches - a single season scoring record that still stands. During the season he scored five goals in a match on three occasions.
He then carried that form onto the International arena, scoring five goals in a 6-1 victory for USA against Canada in 1925.
Though born in Scotland, Stark had never represented his “home” country though he had played for and against a touring “All-Scots” side that had visited the States in 1921.
The very foundations of the United States National Team were built on immigrants like Stark, which would make perfect sense. America, as many have said over the years, is a land of immigrants, one which celebrates it’s diversity, and many of these late 19th and early 20th Century immigrants brought with them a passion for football.
Many of the first clubs and associations in America were started by immigrants, their numbers supplemented over time by companies eager to promote themselves by starting “work’s teams” or sponsoring local sides - Bethlehem Steel being one prime example.
Over time the make-up changed so that many more American-born players, often second and third generation immigrants, took up soccer. Still, by the time of the first ever World Cup in 1930 six UK born players represented the US in Uruguay.
Archie Stark would’ve made it seven had he gone. He had been chosen but turned down the opportunity as he was setting up a new business at the time. This domestic need was all the more pressing as Bethlehem Steel had just gone out of the game, crippled by the effects of the Great Depression and infighting within the corridors of power of US soccer. Stark had scored 232 goals in 205 appearances for them and won many trophies.
Though no-one at the time truly knew how huge the World Cup would eventually be - some sources in America actually reported it as the US South American tour - looking back on Stark’s career, it’s hard not to see his lack of World Cup involvement as an opportunity for global stardom sadly missed.
In the twilight of his career, Stark proved he still had the old magic when at the age of 36, little more than a year older than Cunningham is today, he tied for top scorer in the ASL with 22 goals.
Though records pre-1921 are poor, just in the years 1921-34, Stark scored well in excess of 300 goals in all competitions, a record that sees him comfortably in the Worldwide Top 50 Goalscorers of All-Time.
As Cunningham looks set to crown himself the new MLS All-Time Top Scorer, it would be well to remember that without early trailblazers like Archie Stark, it’s questionable whether Cunningham would’ve ever had the chance to set such a record.
Cunningham, like Archie Stark, has played for his adopted country, too. Despite being capped for his native Jamaica in a friendly, he has represented the US on 14 occasions. He has also been fortunate to play in a more stable league than Stark ever did - Stark, essentially a part-time player, played in age of great uncertainty both on and off the pitch where it was not unusual for teams to be founded, achieve some success and disappear, all within a few years.
Today, the United States is a country that is coming to, if not love the game on a grand scale, at least appreciate and support it. It is thanks, in no small part, to those early, legendary figures that the game had any foothold at all by the time the MLS was set up in the 1990’s.
The continued attraction of the United States as a new home for those in foreign lands leaves the door open for others to follow in Stark and Cunningham’s footsteps in becoming the next great “American” player.