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USA 3, Belgium 0! Or, Looking for Hope in the 1930 World Cup

Are you paying attention, Fabian Johnson and Clint Dempsey?

New York Times

Few paid attention to the American team as it traveled to the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, sharing the 18-day sea voyage aboard a ship with the Mexican team. The fifteen-man squad included five ex-Scottish professional players and a naturalized Englishman. They’d been selected from trials and test matches, cobbled together from the dizzying array of clubs, factory teams, and semi-pro leagues that populated early American soccer. Nicknamed the ‘shot-putters,’ the Americans were known for “their strong defense and breakaway attacks,” according to Brian Glanville in The Story of the World Cup. From the start, the Americans seem to have abided by Matthew Doyle’s definition of American soccer: “try hard, run fast.”

A cold rain greeted the Americans upon arrival in Montevideo, but curious Uruguayans gathered on the dock undeterred, eager to see the Americans, one of four seeded teams in the inaugural thirteen-nation tournament. As the Yanks disembarked, the Uruguayans greeted the team with a “rousing reception,” according to one report, and remarked on “the excellent physical conditions of the Americans,” expecting such strength would “prove difficult” for the technical, South American sides to overcome.

The fact that the tournament even took place was a surprise. The nascent Fédération de Football Association (FIFA) had precociously declared that it held the exclusive right to stage a world soccer tournament in 1904 yet struggled to convince anyone that they could do it. Twenty-six years later, FIFA finally had a tournament scheduled, and Uruguay was selected to host in what would become FIFA’s standard operating procedure: the Uruguayans were willing to pay the most for it. Victors in the two previous Olympic games, the Uruguayans vowed to construct a new stadium for the occasion (which, naturally, wasn’t ready at the start of the World Cup) and agreed to pay for the travel and expenses of all the teams who participated.

The thirteen nations competing were divided into three groups of three and one group of four.  The Americans wound up in a group with Belgium and Paraguay, with the group winner advancing to the semifinals.

In their opening match against Belgium, the United States struggled early on a soggy pitch (a wintry mix of rain and snow fell during the match) despite taking the field in rousing fashion to their favored fight song, the Maine “Stein Song.” According to Wilfred Cummings, the team’s general manager, “The first 20 minutes were like hours of anguish.” Luckily for the Americans, their “backs and goalie were unbeatable,” keeping them in game until the Yankee attackers gained composure.

The U.S. struck first. Around the 30-minute mark, William Gonsalves, of the fabled Fall River Marksmen, lashed a shot off the crossbar with the rebound falling directly to the feet of Bart McGhee whose first-time shot found the back of the next. “That was all that was needed,” wrote team manager Cummings.

On the second goal, the Belgians learned a lesson every youth coach spends hours yammering to his or her players about: play to the whistle. Just before the end of the first half, the Belgians, attempting to play an offside trap, thought they’d caught American Tom Florie of the New Bedford Whalers in an offside position. The Belgians raised their arms in protest, Florie kept playing, no call was made, and Florie fired a shot past the helpless Belgian keeper. 2-0 USA.

In the second half, the U.S. scored in Cummings’s estimation “one of the most brilliant plays in the entire tournament.” James Brown galloped down the right wing, drawing the Belgian keeper off his line. Unselfishly, Brown played a “lob over the goalie’s head” to an onrushing Bert Patenaude whose header easily found the empty net. 3-0 USA. Are you reading this, Fabian Johnson and Clint Dempsey?

Defeating Paraguay by the same scoreline and winning the group, the United States suddenly seemed a lock to win the World Cup. The New York Times optimistically published the headline: “U.S. Favorite to Win World Soccer’s Title.” In another article promoting the match, the Times claimed boldly, “The United States team, because of its splendid showing in the tourney, is favored to carry off the world’s championship.” But first the U.S. team would have to defeat Argentina in the semifinals (coincidentally, if the United States defeat Belgium on Tuesday, they could play Argentina in the quarterfinals in Brazil).

New York Times 1930 World Cup headline
The New York Times
Team USA: World Cup Favorites
How the Times covered the big win in 1930.  

Against Argentina, the Americans buckled. After ten minutes, they lost one player to a broken leg. Down 1-0 at the half, their goalkeeper was soon injured, and the Americans finished the match with eight players on the field. During one miserable nine-minute spell in the second half, the Americans conceded three goals, eventually losing 6-1.

Following the loss, the passing American interest in soccer faded. After cheerleading the U.S. team across Uruguay, a New York Times columnist suggested that Americans should take up field hockey instead of soccer because “it’s more natural for an American….to use a stick or implement in his hands than it is to depend on his feet or his head.” Soccer, according to the author, was “pretty much foreign.”

And so it would remain for decades, American soccer fans forced to endure a quadrennial adaptation of Groundhog Day. Every World Cup would bring claims that American soccer has finally moved from niche sport to national pastime only to fade from view as soon as the NFL season kicked off again in the fall.

But something feels different this time around. Record television audiences watched the United States play in the group stage, and American fans have traipsed from the beaches of Recife to the jungles of Manaus to support the team, wowing even skeptical foreign commentators with their ardor for Uncle Sam. As expectations build towards Tuesday’s clash with Belgium, I imagine this must be what it feels like to be a citizen of a truly soccer-mad nation, watching an entire country hold its collective breath for two agonizing hours.

Win or lose against Belgium, that’s probably what historians will recall most about the 2014 World Cup in the United States: the moment when American soccer fans need not worry about their relevance anymore.