The United Soccer Association starring the Cleveland Stokers, Washington Whips and Los Angeles Wolves.
1967 was a strange, tumultuous year in the United States. Cultural and political upheaval and generational realignments were galvanizing the nation in this most strange, troubled and tumultuous of decades. The underground newspaper the San Francisco Oracle labeled the summer of 1967 the “Summer of Love” to describe the warm and fuzzy psychotropic cultural explosion happening in California, even though, paradoxically, ugly race riots were taking place simultaneously in large urban cities like Detroit and Newark. Something else strange and tumultuous happened that summer as American sports entrepreneurial heavyweights Jack Kent Cooke, Lamar Hunt and others were making one of the initial attempts to introduce and import (literally) soccer into a roiling, reeling America with the United Soccer Association, aka USA, (subtlety will likely never be considered an American strength).
The United Soccer Association was a FIFA sanctioned league that literally imported entire English Scottish, Italian and South American sides into the United States to play a summer schedule in the league’s inaugural 1967 campaign; some of the notable sides chosen for this undertaking were: English First Division sides Stoke City FC, the Wolverhampton Wanderers (just seven years removed from an FA Cup triumph), Scottish heavies Aberdeen F.C. , C.A Cerro of Uruguay and the Brazilian side Bangu to name just a handful.
According to the American Soccer History Archives “Year in Soccer 1967,” each team was “paid about $250,000” to import their franchise and “then assigned to each city based upon, primarily, that particular city’s ethnic makeup.” This premise is interesting in a thousand different ways. It seems the plan was to import solid, serviceable foreign talent into the USA to entice and, hopefully, hook skeptical, often, cranky American spectators on the beautiful game before substituting, by sleight of hand, inferior, in most cases, home grown, “Americanized” talent for subsequent seasons. But the stated ethnic component to the USA’s plan is as fascinating as it was threadbare and poorly conceived. For instance, what ethnic reason dictated Wolverhampton’s lycanthropic midlands transformation into the Los Angeles Wolves? Or the bewildering psychedelic (in keeping with the times) logic that landed C.A. Cerro in New York, which had virtually no Uruguayan presence. Other ethnic maneuvers made some semblance of sense as the Serie A’s Cagliari Calcio were imported to Chicago in hopes of connecting with the Windy City’s sizeable Italian-American population and, of course, Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers side were virtually guaranteed a warm welcome in Boston (in actuality, though, the Boston Rovers only drew an average attendance of 4,171, a league low).
Crossing from clumsy ethnic connections into more explicitly class-based ones, the Stoke City Potters absorption into an industrial, blue-collar rust belt city like Cleveland, Ohio is an overt acknowledgement of working class identity and consciousness seldom, if ever, made in major American team sports, but which once was a core tenet of association football’s identity as the working class sport. It was a reference to the existence of the Cleveland Stokers while reading about the history of the Stoke City Potters that brought this entire league experiment to my attention.
I grew up in the rust belt and the thought of the Cleveland Stokers running onto the pitch of the old Municipal Stadium, tenderly known in some quarters as “the Mistake by the Lake, with England 1966 hero/legend Gordon Banks in the net seems too fantastic and outrageous to believe, a colorful scene so callously edited out of the grainy sepia toned American sports narrative of the time. Vernon Stouffer, owner of Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, owned the Stokers and besides the not inconsiderable fact that he managed to import one of the world’s oldest club sides, he scored a undeniable coup and instant credibility for the USA by bringing in Gordon Banks, who after winning the World Cup, transferred to Stoke City from Leicester just in time to be shipped to the shores of Lake Erie.
The United Soccer Association started off strong with huge opening night crowds of 34, 965 in Houston, 21, 871 in Yankee Stadium and 16, 431 in Dallas, according to the American Soccer Archives; impressive numbers all. No opening night drew less than 7,400 people. A great start, but as is often the case the novelty wore off and the crowds thinned, but the league ultimately averaged a respectable 7,890 in attendance for the season. The Houston Stars, Brazil’s Bangu Atletico Clube in disguise, led the league with an eye-catching 19,802 average attendance. Ultimately, the Cleveland Stokers lost the Eastern Division title to the Washington Whips by one point. The Whips faced Western Division champion Los Angles Wolves for the USA title.
American Soccer Archives reports that the venue of the one and only United Soccer Association Championship match was decided by a coin-flip, which the Wolves won. The match in front of 17, 824 in Los Angeles Memorial Stadium on July 15th, 1967 is described by American Soccer Archives as being “one of the most exciting in U.S. Soccer History,” as the Wolves won the title 6-5 on an unfortunate own goal by Whips defender Ally Shewan after 36 minutes of extra time. In a match Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post referred to as being a “soccer game filled with incredible drama,” the Whips battled valiantly into extra time with 10 men after Jimmy Smith was ejected and the sides exchanged 4 goals during a frantic, frenzied 3 minute stretch in the 2nd half alone before each notching a goal in extra time. Whips goaltender Bobby Clark actually told the Post after the match that “the World Cup final between England and Germany was not quite as good as this one.”
Paging through the newspapers of the time you are rewarded a dazzling array of headlines that make you question your equilibrium and wonder repeatedly if these are indeed American newspapers you are looking at; headlines such as “Britain’s Leading Goalie Face Whips on Wednesday,” “Stokers Register 4-1 Soccer victory” and “Wolves Coach Applauds 4-1 Win: ‘Soccer at Its Best, Crowd Pleaser” from the June 13th Washington Post, June 18th New York Times and June 19th Los Angeles Times, respectively.
L.A. Times reporter Shav Glick did consistently interesting work covering the Los Angeles Wolves, often breaking the USA’s exceedingly tenuous “fourth wall” by quoting Wolves manager Ronnie Allen as he referred to “the Wolverhampton boys” playing “British Football at its best.” The owners and managers of the USA were attempting a fascinating, bizarre balancing act as they seemed to only selectively acknowledge the true identity of the imported teams once the season was underway and it’s really interesting to see how some reporters dealt with these shifting identities.
Maybe there never was a back-up plan for the USA’s survival after the imported teams went home in the fall of 1967 because the United Soccer Association merged with the rival, “rogue” in FIFA’s estimation, National Professional Soccer League to form the North American Soccer League (NASL). The side by side formation of these leagues was a tangled, acrimonious mess of egos and acronyms and sadly the Stokers, Whips and Wolves each would fold after the NASL’s 1968 season.
But the Stokers would not fall quietly through the cracks of history as this July 12th 1968 Los Angeles Times headline would loudly attest: “Near Riot Follows Santos First Loss.” That headline hovered over a recap of the hollowed-out, decidedly non-Stoke City FC version of the Cleveland Stokers shocking 2-1 defeat of Pele’s Santos side, which “almost became Cleveland’s first soccer riot” after the officials negated a Santos equalizer with an offside call near the end of the match. There were an amazing 16,205 supporters on hand to witness this astonishing result! After reading that, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Potters had planted a seed during their breezy summer sojourn in the USA that may yet one day bloom.
Maybe this era is beginning to stir steadily from the depths. I’ve noticed that somebody here in my adopted hometown of Washington DC has started a Facebook page to commemorate the Washington Whips.
American Soccer History Archives “The Year in Soccer 1967” (the American Soccer Archives credit Zander Hollander’s book The Encyclopedia of American Soccer as a “major source” for their 1967 review, so by extension I’d like to acknowledge the work as well. It is sadly out of print.)