The World Cup, the British Invasion, the Summer of Love, imported teams – and a bunch of US businessmen looking to make a buck – created a gleaming vision for professional football in 1960s America… only for it to quickly end in tears.
When Geoff Hurst smashed his third goal into the roof of the West German net in 1966, he not only secured the World Cup for England, he helped kick-start a bold plan to introduce the round ball version of football to America.
The venture launched on this day 50 years ago, but was facing an uncertain future just six weeks later.
The mid-1960s was the time of the so-called British Invasion of the US, when UK music, fashion, photography, drama and other creative arts were in huge demand Stateside.
That movement coincided with the emergence of fledgling satellite TV technology, which beamed the football World Cup in England to a captivated television audience on the other side of the Atlantic.
Their positive reaction to the football – a sport most viewers actually knew little about – prompted a group of US businessmen to get together to draw up plans to establish a professional football, or soccer, league in the country.
And in a strange quirk to the tale, the UK also ended up providing a majority of the teams, which were reborn with new exotic American names for the duration of the US season.
So Wolverhampton Wanderers became the LA Wolves, Aberdeen the Washington Whips, Hibs the Toronto City, Sunderland the Vancouver Royal Canadians, Stoke the Cleveland Stokers, Dundee United the Dallas Tornado, and Glentoran the Detroit Cougars.
‘The next big sport’
Alan Rothenberg, the man who would later bring the 1994 World Cup to the US, was there on the inside when the plans were first hatched by that group of sports entrepreneurs.
“The 1966 World Cup in England had been shown on satellite television in the United States, and had been a big success,” he tells me.
“I think it was the first time satellite had been used to broadcast sport to any great extent. So a bunch of entrepreneurs said to themselves, ‘This is the next big sport.’
“There was no element of soccer evangelising. These were hard-nosed entrepreneurs, they knew sports, and they believed soccer was a great financial opportunity.”
Back then Mr Rothenberg was a lawyer for sports entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team and Los Angeles Kings ice hockey team.
Cooke was also building the Los Angeles Forum indoor arena, and had an ownership interest in the Washington Redskins American Football team.
But as often happens with a new business idea, two rival camps of sports entrepreneurs emerged. It meant that a duelling, politically combative pair of leagues came alive at the same time, both seeking control of the marketplace and of the game.
They were the United Soccer Association (USA), headed by Cooke and his allies and sanctioned by the US soccer authorities and global governing body Fifa, and the “outlaw” National Professional Soccer League (NPSL).
“The others did not get officially sanctioned, but decided to go ahead anyway,” Mr Rothenberg recalls. “Also, we, as the official league, did not get a TV deal but somehow the NPSL did with CBS.”
To make matters worse, the original plan of Cooke and his allies – such as Lamar Hunt, who went on to be an original founding investor in Major League Soccer in the 1990s – had been to launch the United Soccer Association league in 1968.
But the NPSL again outflanked its official rival and announced it would kick off its league in 1967.
“The USA league owners said, ‘Jeez, we have got to do something.’ So they turned to international transatlantic relations,” says Rothenberg.
“They went to a whole lot of teams in England, Scotland, Ireland – and elsewhere – and brought them over to play in our league.”
Each of the American soccer franchises, which stretched from New York to San Francisco, was allocated an imported club, and each of the teams were given a new name, and in some cases new playing kit.
The rebranded Aberdeen, Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers (who represented Jack Cooke’s own franchise, the LA Wolves), plus Bangu of Brazil kicked off the league on 27 May 1967, just before the famous “Summer of Love”.
Non-UK clubs in the United Soccer Association league 1967
- Boston Rovers – Shamrock Rovers (Republic of Ireland)
- Chicago Mustangs – Cagliari (Italy)
- Houston Stars – Bangu (Brazil)
- New York Skyliners – Cerro (Uruguay)
- San Francisco Golden Gate Gales – ADO Den Haag (Netherlands)
‘Bond Street suits’
A straight fee for agreeing to take part was paid by the league to each of the imported teams, with each US franchise paying the club’s expenses.
“There were a number of reasons we turned to the UK for the bulk of the teams,” says Rothenberg. “Remember it was the World Cup in England that had fired the initial interest. Also, by winning the tournament England was the uppermost soccer power in the world.
“In addition, it was the close season in England, and their FA was very co-operative in helping us find teams to take part.”
He adds: “It was also a time when British things were generally in vogue in the US, and the nexus between America and the UK was stronger then. And Cooke as a Canadian was very British in his outlook, very UK-focused, in his Bond Street suits.
“I walked into all of that as a 28-year-old. I was a vice president of the league and its general counsel, and I also became more or less general manager of the LA Wolves team too.”
In fact the LA Wolves went on to win the league, beating the Washington Whips (Aberdeen) 6-5 in a thrilling final on 10 July 1967.
“It was an abbreviated season and crowd turnouts across the board were disappointing,” admits Rothenberg.
“The fans who came along really got involved, but most of them were not soccer converts unfortunately. They were people from around the world who already knew the sport and were curious to see if our league would be a success.”
For every gate in five figures there were downsides, and indeed gates of over 10,000 were very rare. When Northern Ireland’s Glentoran (Detroit) hosted the Republic of Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers (Boston) only 684 people turned up.
With hindsight the US just wasn’t ready for two soccer leagues, maybe not even for one in 1967. At the end of the season the two leagues merged as the NASL, and Cooke got out after just one more season.
“After the end of the first season it immediately became clear it had been a financial disaster for both leagues,” says Rothenberg.
“All the owners who had invested money had been optimistic. But it was a great unknown that they were taking on, and ultimately they proved to be too early in trying to introduce soccer.
“It was inevitable that soccer would eventually become part of the US sporting landscape, with the big breakthrough of the 1994 USA World Cup.
“But 1967 provided a kick-start and soccer gained momentum in the 1970s – with the NASL, Pele, the New York Cosmos, and a great explosion in youth football which laid down the roots for future decades.”