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Book Review: Soccer in a Football World

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Pele and the New York Cosmos: the "height of American soccer"?
Pele and the New York Cosmos: the "height of American soccer"?

After reading Soccer Men, a compelling look at the personalities associated with the sport, I was positive that the next book in line (Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America's Forgotten Game by David Wangerin) would be different, maybe not in a positive way. I was even more certain after a flip through its pages revealed a wealth of dates and names. Sure, the book would be informative and educational, but would it be engaging? Would I read it in one sitting? Skepticism reigned. I only read the first chapter before setting it down to take a break, confirming my initial opinion, but after that I discovered that I was very, very wrong.

Most literature on the sport, particularly in the United States, looks forward. What can be changed? What can be improved? What players should be recruited and what training methods implemented? Blogs are written, debates launched. In this book, Wangerin's focus is not the future, for once, but the past. The book is a very comprehensive look at the history of soccer in the United States, both at a league level and an international level. It examines soccer's initial failure to establish itself as the dominant sport in the States and all the forces behind its relative lack of success up until now.

The book is almost dauntingly comprehensive at first, in fact. It begins with a slew of dates and numbers, detailing how Harvard is to blame for preferring the "handling game" (rugby) and its brash, athletic ways to the "kicking game" (soccer) and how the other universities followed suit. It meanders its way through the 1800s and the early 1900s, back when it was still the "Challenge Cup" and the ASL, and St. Louis was the hotbed of US soccer. While this is all interesting, it's somewhat difficult to connect with on a narrative level.

Once the book approached the 100 page mark, however, I found myself growing more invested in the ups and downs of the US national team. The book vividly conveys the frustrations associated with the amateur level of its players, the lack of a full-time manager, and all of its starts and stops. At one point, I found myself actually saying "Really? Are you serious?" out loud at my book when the US team faced another stumbling block. I felt legitimate sympathy for their situation, emerging from the discombobulation of the NPSL/NASL and mishandling by the USSFA to face the dominant Italy or Brazil time and again. While Soccer in a Football World reads like and is non-fiction, it is also an engaging story where the US is a protagonist in an action-packed storyline. You can't help but root for them because they're the underdogs.

Perhaps it's because I'm already a fan of the sport and would love to see more of its success in this country. Perhaps it's because the story is just that engaging; the story of the rebellious step-child of the sporting world, enraptured by a few sports that the rest of the world doesn't care about, and not caring about a sport that most of the world enjoys.

Whatever the case, I loved that the book brought to life the 1950 win over England, the rise and fall of the Cosmos, the nation's absolute infatuation with Pele and international soccer and ambivalence towards local teams, and the successes and failings at the various World Cups. Nothing has been left out. It even covers how the women's game can be considered more successful than the men's on a certain level, especially with recognition and the star status of Mia Hamm after the 1999 World Cup. The MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League), a rare topic, is also discussed in regards to its brief and stolen limelight. At one point, thanks to the book, I must have spent 15 minutes trying to explain the old NASL rules (added extra time, no aggregate scores in second round playoffs, Shootouts, Mini-games) to my friend while she said things like "No, you're lying. This can't be an actual thing that happened." This book appealed to the completionist in me.

That being said, there are a few editing errors here and there ("baled" rather than "bailed") and the style of writing might be too factual for some, though the ironic humor sprinkled throughout did cause a chuckle from time to time. The biggest criticism I have, however, is that the author is quite derisive of American fans who support a team elsewhere. He calls them "elitists" who prefer to buy replica jerseys and follow a sport on television and the internet rather than in flesh. This is antithetical to his entire book's message; that people in the US should not look down on US soccer, that it's irritating when other people criticism the sport you love with "oh, it's so slow and boring". Why would he alienate a portion of his reader base with his own criticism?

It's made all the more strange by his biography, which states that while he was born in Chicago and grew up in Wisconsin, he moved to England to become closer to Aston Villa. In fact, Wangerin is primarily a British sportswriter. Perhaps he wrote these statements to establish trust with the reader? Perhaps he didn't actually mean to seem so critical? Whatever the case, it still seems rather odd that for someone who is so supportive of promoting soccer in the US, he isn't taking a more active role with his eloquence and knowledge. This is only a relatively minor quibble, though.

On a personal note, as someone who is self-confessedly more familiar with the European leagues than the MLS at the moment, I was the perfect guinea pig for this book. I came away reeling slightly from the sheer amount of knowledge presented in it, but also with no little admiration and pride. Everything is given a sheen of context. The USMNT's recent World Cup is no small feat considering past struggles, and I can now look to the upcoming friendly against Italy with a sense of historical background. The importance of the MLS to the development of soccer in the US is clearer than ever. The book even put everything I experienced at Chicago Soccer Heritage Night (last year at one of the Chicago Riot games) into context, which I appreciate.

In my opinion, this book is fantastic, but it's definitely for those who are accustomed to reading non-fiction. This is the book to read if you want a well-researched and vivid journey through US soccer history, but not the book to read if dates and facts sound daunting. It's a solid history book, but also one that is steeped with patriotism and leaves you wanting the underdog to win; that underdog being "soccer in the United States".

"They have loaned us their treasure and we have enhanced it. We turned out not to be heathens at all, but respectable curators instead ... it turns out we were the perfect country to host the World Cup. Name the ethnic group, and it's here on our shores, somewhere. No team went unsupported or unloved." (Bob Ryan from the Boston Globe after the 1994 World Cup, p 263)

Quote from Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin, 2006, Temple University Press.