Among soccer fans in the United States there's long been a running joke about the game being communist. The punch line gets louder every World Cup when writers and pundits line up to theorize about why Americans will never accept “football” as a mainstream sport: soccer's position as the global game conflicts with ideas of American exceptionalism; it's the game of choice in countries where socialism is practiced; and, of course, its popularity among the liberal elites who care more about the world than America. Even the way the game is played is suspect; all those 0-0 draws are indicative of a collaborative communist style, and the joy of playing soccer by unskilled children does not foster a competitive spirit.
To most of us the right-wing reasoning of soccer being connected to communism seems laughable, but the history of American soccer is intertwined with the history of the Communist Party in the US, but just not the way most Americans would think.
While association football had been played in the country since the nineteenth century, soccer really took off in the 1920s. Before World War I, soccer has been slowly growing in popularity alongside other nascent American sports, but the end of the war ushered in an unparalleled era of prosperity for the US. New industrial methods and technological innovations provided the working and middle classes with new found leisure time, and money to enjoy it. And spectator sports were what many Americans wanted: baseball, football, boxing, and soccer.
Previously, stateside soccer had functioned only as loose amalgamation of regional associations, ethnic clubs, and factory worker teams. In 1921, the American Soccer League (ASL) was founded as the first serious attempt to draw these disparate groups into a professional alliance. The inaugural year fielded just eight clubs and proved less than successful with two of its teams withdrawing before the end of the season. But an infusion of new owners and clubs quickly transformed the league into a viable business prospect. By the middle of the decade, the ASL was comprised of disparate teams that ran the gamut of what was then American soccer: Bethlehem Steel F.C., Brooklyn Wanderers, Fall River Marksmen, J&P Coats, Boston Wonder Workers and Philadelphia FC.
The quality of the play improved dramatically with many of the teams following the same template as today: higher wages to foreign players. With American business thriving, players from the top teams in Europe were recruited with an unbeatable offer: a salary while on the field and a factory job when off. Some European players didn't even need to book passage to New York, they just didn't bother boarding the ship back after one of their American tours. When the all-Jewish Hakoah Vienna club traveled to the US in 1926 to promote the Zionist cause, eight of their players (including the legendary Bela Guttmann) stayed in New York; when they returned in 1927, four more jumped ship.
For the players of Vienna, the prospect of playing in a country not dominated by anti-Semitism was the main draw. But the large crowds they attracted (a record-setting 46,000 at the Polo Grounds) made other teams take notice, so by the following year, international teams were lining up to do the American circuit: Real Madrid, the Glasgow Rangers, the Maccabees from Palestine, Uruguay's Nacional, and the Kerry All-Ireland Kickers all visited. The enthusiasm surrounding these teams combined with the growing popularity of the soccer league indicated that the game had indeed “arrived” according to a 1927 New York Times opinion piece.
Soccer was becoming big business in the US, and the owners behind the league knew that the key to mainstream success was the continued Americanization of the sport. The feeling among many of the ASL owners was that the thing holding soccer back from acceptance was its utter foreignness. Americans had always tinkered with imported sports to suit their own tastes and practicalities (the origins of baseball are rooted in cricket and rounders; football was an ever changing game of rugby), but it was the adoption of these home-grown sports that was part of the process of becoming American. As the Times editorialized:
“In time a seat at a soccer game may even represent a certain amount of social distinction. The import trade is responsible for all of this. For many years in this country soccer was played under cover, so to speak....Around New York City, for instance, the game was played in public parks by scantily clad athletes who shouted strange cries in a bewildering variety of accents....But the uplift movement carried soccer within the boundaries of civilization in due time.”
English and Scottish immigrants did bring association football with them when settling in the textile mill towns of New England, and later team names (Fall River, New Bedford, Patterson) reflected these origins. But the British had not yet finished exporting their “beautiful game” to all corners of the world. By the time of mass immigration to the US, it was Southern Europeans, Scandinavians, and Eastern Slovaks and Jews who were packing the new favorite past time. For the Hungarians, Czechs, and Russians, soccer was coupled with an enduring tradition of sports clubs and socialist politics. Once arriving on American shores, these new immigrants formed soccer clubs to socialize and organized recreational teams at factories. Many of the industry-sponsored ASL teams were simply outgrowths of these ad hoc immigrant teams. Corporations had recognized that successful soccer teams were terrific PR and kept the labor agitators at bay. For the Communist Party, these workers were primed to be radicalized.
The same year that the soccer league was launched, the Communist Party USA was merged from the various factions of the country's leftist labor organizations. The Party's goal was to establish roots inside the American working class. A tough proposition for a political organization whose membership was overwhelmingly foreign-born (less than ten percent spoke English as their first language). Said in another way, in order to be successful, the Communists had to Americanize themselves to attract native workers. One of their weapons was to cultivate a sports movement in the country. Back in Europe, Socialists and Communists had successfully developed mass participatory sporting events where attendance was in the hundreds of thousands. In an attempt to emulate this, the Party planned to use the network of immigrant sports clubs which emphasized soccer. So in 1927, the Labor Sports Union (LSU) was founded to “to encourage athletic activities by workers and win them away from the bosses who utilize the Amateur Athletic Union and similar bodies to spread anti-union propaganda.” In New York, the LSU chapter inaugurated a Metropolitan Workers Soccer League which grew to 28 teams within months. This action coincided with the Party's own move to the city where its official organ, The Daily Worker, quickly established itself as one of the most influential newspapers of the Left.
For the amateur soccer player, the Metropolitan Workers Soccer League offered a Marxist alternative to the ASL. The teams came from the same tangled American landscape of ethnic clubs and workers groups but without the “uplift” of backing businessmen: Red Sparks of I.W.O., Norwegian Turn Society, Hinsdale Workers, Dauntless F.C., and the Armenians were just some of the teams. The teams were usually comprised of trade unionists and leftist party members; Dauntless was an “all negro” team when African-Americans were prohibited from playing in many professional associations. When the rest of the ASL played for the National Challenge Cup, the Workers League competed for the Tom Mooney Cup (named for a labor activist who was famously wrongfully imprisoned). The Party was clear about its intention that its participatory league would counteract the capitalist spectator sports designed to make workers passive. If religion was the opium of the masses, then American sports were crack.
While the LSU's other sporting efforts were frequently disappointing, soccer continued to be the most popular of their activities, and the Metropolitan Workers Soccer League in New York flourished. Membership expanded to 45 teams in four divisions, and its championship games attracted crowds of more than 5,000. The large number of participants forced the Party to consider issuing LSU cards to “make it difficult for the bosses organization USFA [Unites States Football Association] to send its agents into the ranks of the LSU.” The League even produced its own English language publication Sport and Play.
But for all it's popularity, the Party lacked an understanding of how to promote the league beyond its insular immigrant audience. The non-partisan press did not cover the Metropolitan Workers, and the Daily Worker published a sports section only on Saturdays. Without daily coverage, the Worker could not cover the most meaningful part of sports: the results. The Worker published the league's schedule, but their weekly sports commentary was nothing more than party propaganda. Again and again, baseball, boxing, football were all “used to distract workers from their miserable conditions,” or “doping workers to forget the class struggle,” or “with the aid of hundreds of sportswriters, rivet the attention of millions of workers upon themselves rather than upon unemployment.” The constant analysis of professional sports as centers of corruption and exploitation belied the appeal of watching sports in the first place.
In 1929 when the stock market crashed, the ASL was struck a blow. The infighting between the ASL and other soccer organizations had left the sport vulnerable just as American industry collapsed and unemployment exploded. Teams shuffled and folded, but nothing could stop the precipitous decline in gate receipts. By 1933, the league was defunct.
The Metropolitan Workers League remained robust. How could it not? Playing and watching in the Communist league was free at a time when workers had no money; the league was frequently promoted as an activity for the unemployed. But the working class began to resent the Party's heavy-handed rhetoric about class-struggle. Many activities sponsored by the Party's coffers came with compulsory political lectures, and the Communist leaders recognized their increasing failure in using sports to reach the masses. The Party finally made a paradigmatic shift after the 1935 Seventh World Congress of the International Comintern where the party officially sanctioned a Popular Front against the rising forces of Fascism. American communists were directed to align themselves with the democratic traditions within their country and less with socialist objectives. For The Daily Worker, this meant starting a sports page in 1936 that mimicked other mainstream newspapers.
Lester Rodney was one of the first writers hired for the job after writing a letter complaining to The Worker about their sports writing. In the debates leading to the first issue, Rodney explained:
“I we were ever gonna be a paper beyond our narrow confines...we'd have to begin acting as if were already there. That meant we had to move into the sports arena that most Americans are in. One of our volunteer writers, Joe Smith, argued bitterly that we should concentrate on soccer, a scene he knew well. That's where Party people are, he said...They're big soccer fans. I made the counterargument. I wasn't against following soccer...but in my mind those were secondary. I really wouldn't have been interested in being the sports editor if Joe's position had prevailed.”
The plan was set, and The Daily Worker launched a sports section that was virtually indistinguishable from every other newspaper, and became the hallmarks of the modern sports page: clever headlines, play by play coverage, game predictions cartoons, athlete gossip, even reader contests. It was so popular, that it was converted into a daily feature based on a reader's poll. And Baseball ruled. The sports writers still covered soccer, but it was relegated to the side, bland articles about games, listings of schedules, and perfunctory analysis of the soccer league's reorganization. By the end of 1936, the Metropolitan Workers Soccer League was quietly renamed the Manhattan Soccer League to avoid confusion with another league. The new officers “emphatically declared that the adoption of the new name would not change the working class character of the league or its activities,” but the organization did begin incorporating new teams and engaging in inter-league play before slowly dissolving in the run-up to World War II.
The Metropolitan Workers Soccer League represented the Communist Party's best chance to gain a foothold in the US through soccer. With the collapse of the markets and the hobbling of professional sports leagues, a true leftist mass sports movement seemed possible. But the Communists proved incapable of finding a way in to American sports culture: they never understood the appeal of the big leagues. Indeed, the identification of immigrant Americans with athletes who succeeded beyond their class and ethnicity had became a hallmark of Depression-era sports. Once FDR's New Deal put the nation back to work by building recreational facilities as part of his public works program, the Party's efforts at organizing sports leagues seemed inadequate to the cause. The Comintern's Popular Front policies simply permitted many communists to indulge in their own American sports passions: professional baseball, boxing, and football.
If the communists were incapable of smuggling class-struggle politics through soccer during the darkest days of capitalism, it seems unlikely that a multi-billion dollar sports enterprise such as the World Cup would do the trick.