Interview with James Brown, vice president of S.A.S,H., the Society for American Soccer History about the history of the US national soccer team.
James Brown, you are vice president of S.A.S.H., the Society for American Soccer History. What exactly is S.A.S.H. and what is its field of activity? The Society for American Soccer History (S.A.S.H) was founded in 1993 by American soccer historian Sam T.N. Foulds, and historians and journalists, Roger Allaway & Colin Jose. Since 2016, S.A.S.H has renewed efforts to promote, facilitate, and disseminate research into the rich history of soccer in the United States. The Society boasts many different types of profiles, all of whom are passionate about diving into history and highlighting or enriching stories or key figures and clarifying misnomers in US soccer. We are renowned academics, journalists, authors, fans, or just public historians, like me. Each person covers a key area of our history to represent the need based on current events like an upcoming World Cup, anniversary (ex. 100th anniversary in Sept. 2021 of the first official league), or MLS team inaugurations, or maybe personal family request about a relative who played in the past, like father & son Pennsylvania players, Robert Craddock Jr. and Sr (both of whom are inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame). Because of my research on both players, they will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2022 and the grandson of Craddock, Jr will be able to give his grandmother (in her 90’s) a book of clippings, photos and analysis of their careers. We work closely with the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas (a Dallas suburb) to address questions that come in from all over the world. We also consult on ways to have influential soccer players from the past be considered for future Hall of Fame inductions by way of the Veteran’s and Voting Committees. We often get together on Zoom for our “First Friday” sessions on a monthly basis to discuss different themes like books they have written, or members give presentations about players, eras in soccer history, or influences from other countries. Sometimes, outside football historical societies contact S.A.S.H to find more information on players, like from Belfast, to complete their player profiles and the time certain players spent over in the US, like playing days of the 1920s for Mickey Hamill, for example. As vice president, one of my main goals is to develop partnerships with historical societies throughout the world to share a country’s history with others, because a lot of historical groups know everything about their history, but don’t often easily share that info. Because of the spread of football throughout the world from the late 1880s to 1910s of British (mainly Scottish industrial immigrants to the Americas), there are major cross-over influences and that created the essential football DNA of many countries, if you will, and therefore the need for collaborations.
Since when has soccer been played in the USA and how has soccer developed there? The United States rivals any of the origin nations as having the oldest and first Cup championships with established Laws of the game incorporating in 1863. Football, in the passing and constructive form in America, surfaced in 1884 with the publication of the Laws of the Game, and then in 1884 with first AFA final (Challenge Cup) in East Newark, where Clark O.N.T. (a Newark, New Jersey team formed by the Clark Thread Company) and New York FC faced off. The game was highly influenced by Scottish, Irish & English immigrants settling on the East Coast and worked in the textile or steel industries dotting up and down the Northeastern region landscape from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, etc. O.N.T. would win 3 straight titles between 1885 and 1887, then again from 1895 to 1897. Therefore, Clark O.N.T. is considered one of the first dynasty teams. Owners of these major companies recognized the interest in football and over time, would create their own teams and stadiums and often their teams were composed of their own immigrant employees. The 1920s saw the game grow tremendously, and because of the popularity and huge gate receipts, scouts were sent over to the UK to lure players overs with the promise of job security, very good pay, and competitive play. Some players dropped everything, from one day to the next, to come over, since most players in the UK earned a small amount for their play, and amateurism v professionalism was a source of conflict in the UK. Soccer grew in the 1920s when most of (today’s) major sports, like football (NFL) or baseball were still being played mostly on a collegiate level and gaining steam in the Pro arenas. Basketball, hockey, golf and tennis were in the distance for the moment.
Since when does the USA have a national soccer team and how did it come into being? On the national team or international competition level, the US was always present in one form or another. The first U.S. national soccer team was assembled in 1885, when they played Canada in the first international match, Canada beat the US 1–0 in Newark, New Jersey. (The US and Canada played every year from 1885 – 1887). Then no international matches until 1916. On the international competition level, at the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Games, America was represented by teams from St. Louis by schools: Christian Brothers (Silver medal) and St. Rose (Bronze medal). The next international match came in 1916 when the US toured in Sweden. After WWI, the United States Army built Pershing Stadium in the southeastern section of Paris (12 district) near the Château of Vincennes. This is where the Allied Forces assembled post WWI Allies to compete in the Inter-Allied Games. The US Armed Forces assembled a team to compete. No matter how competitive the competitions were, the US has always accepted the challenge and willingness to compete against the best, and that would pay off later.
The US team participated in the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. Many countries stayed away from this World Cup for various reasons. How did the participation of the USA come about? After having played in the 1919 Inter-Allied games in Paris and the 1924 & 1928 Olympic Games, it was only natural that the US stand up and accept yet another challenge and invitation to the world’s inaugural FIFA World Championships in Montevideo. The US was one of the first nations to get and accept the invitation early in 1930. Regardless of whether the trip was paid for by the host country, Uruguay, or not – the US would have gone!
Your grandfather, Jim Brown, was a player in the U.S. National Team and as such participated in the 1930 World Cup. What memories do you have on your grandfather? Grandpa Brown was always involved in soccer: as a player; player & coach; coach at the Varsity high school level, or simply as an interested observer during backyard playing days in Scotch ¨Plains, NJ. He always had great stories and wisdom to impart on us. His memories of the 1930 World Cup were very vivid and filled with passion – expressed through the memory of a young lad of 20 years old in 1930. He was always humble when talking about soccer, but he never started talking about ‘the good old days’, and you had to ask. His viewpoints were from a striker’s mindset and was a collective team player. He (and my dad) used to watch my high school games live and then on video cassettes (when they couldn’t be there) and would offer their thoughts. Never criticized. Always constructive and made suggestions and asked questions about situations and possible outcomes. Grandpa always told me father, “When you smell a goal, fire away”. One day, in the backyard of our home in Scotch Plains, NJ USA, all us teenagers were playing soccer and it was rough and tough!! At that stage in life, late 1980s, grandpa was battling with lung problems from smoking and always had a bottle of oxygen with him. He came to the side of field, watching us, and I said, “Hey grandpa, wanna play?” “Of course”, he said! Then he said, “which position should I occupy…forward, midfielder, etc.?” I said jokingly, “GOALPOST!” (Given the fact he couldn’t run at all or really walk for long periods of time, but he could always stick a foot out and trip the opponent!! Looking back on our time together, I wish that I had the same curiosity back then as I do today, and I would have better understood about how the US team functioned, were perceived and their take-aways – from within. I did arrange for him to be interviewed by ABC Sports in 1994 before the World Cup and have that footage.
The USA is considered a comparatively underdeveloped country in terms of soccer. The US team reached the semi-finals at the World Cup in Uruguay, where they were defeated by Argentina. It was the biggest success of a US team at a World Cup, so far. What is the explanation for this success and why has it not been repeated or even surpassed so far? Even though the US team only played 3 trial matches in NY before leaving for Montevideo, they had all played together or against each other in the ASL during the regular season for years, except for a few guys from the Midwest. US coach, Bob Millar, was an experienced player / coach, and had the right instincts, especially enlisting Brooklyn Wanderers’ manager, Jack Coll, as the trainer for the US team. The players selected were the best on the East Coast, except for a few who didn’t make the team because of their immigrant status, injuries, or work obligations. A nearly 3-month voyage away from work was not an easy choice to make during the onset of the Great Depression. They all knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go to South America and compete against some of the greatest nations in the world. All players, except for one, James Gentle (PA), were US professionals, and previous tournaments (Olympics in ’24 and ‘28) required an amateur status. Their physical strength, unity, understanding of the game, creativity and speed allowed this team to go far. Their training consisted mostly of running and calisthenics, and the French press called them the “shot-putters” after Olympic athletes because of their physique and enormous legs. They rarely touched a ball. Admittedly, most of the European powerhouse teams were absent, so that played in their favor, but it doesn’t mean that the 13 teams at the 1930 WC were weak or “bottom of the barrel” teams. It was a battle with every match that came their way. In the US group, were Paraguay (1928 vice champions of the Copa America, and referred to as the “Dark Horse” of the 1930 WC), and Belgium (1920 Olympic champions). Some reasons for the lack of USMNT success in future World Cups stem from a lack of homegrown talent and constant exposure to European or South American competitions or friendlies. The US earned 3rd place at the 1930 WC; knocked out of the single elimination round of the 1934 WC; beat England at the 1950 WC – then the CONCACAF teams were too dominant from 1950s until the late 1980s when we finally qualified for the 1990 WC in Italy and hosted the WC in 1994. From then on, we qualified for every WC until 2018. Other reasons, from a grassroots standpoint is that there are so many popular sports and alternatives growing up – although soccer is ranked 3rd behind baseball and basketball – it has the chance to be exposed on both women’s and men’s levels as options after university. Today, it is increasingly more expensive to play soccer on a club level, and that creates huge social class gaps – leaving behind talent that otherwise would have been detected early on. Soccer academies are popular as springboards to the MSL and even Europe, especially, if they are partnered with an English Premier League (EPL) team. The MLS (Major Soccer League) has a pay-to-play franchise system costing nearly 300 million dollars to get a team into the league. Also, there is no danger within the league, as they don’t believe in promotion and relegation, and therefore, fans, coaches and players don’t have to “sweat bullets” with every point gained or lost during the season, because they won’t risk dropping to a lower league, but also don’t have the joy of getting promoted to the top level. Money is too much of a priority in the MLS. It’s a shame. I always have hope for the US at the World Cup and want them to continually advance every time. The current USMNT has some promising talent, and over time, they will become an extremely solid unit, and their European club experience helps a great deal. More and more US players are being recruited to play overseas, and that can only be a positive element for the US in the long run.
In 2026, the World Cup will be held in Mexico, Canada, and the USA. How are the preparations for this World Cup going in the U.S. and will the 2026 World Cup lead to a higher status of soccer in your country? Yes, compared to other nations, this is true, but one thing that the US is great at doing is putting on a show! We have the creativity, know-how and desire to be the best; when it comes to being a host of the World Cup, and our history supports that desire. From an Olympic viewpoint, the US showed that they could successfully host the games in the 1980s, and set out to host the World Cup, and knowing that they had the infrastructure already in place given the other major sports like NFL, who have up to 92,000+ capacity seating, were able to submit a bid with a lower price tag. When they were awarded the 1994 World Cup, the major need was a do upgrades and improvements on existing stadiums and showcase venues like the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium (of NY Cosmos fame in the 1970s with Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Alberto Carlos, etc. – where I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the Cosmos play every week, having lived 20 minutes away in the 1970s). In the end, and to date, the 1994 World Cup is the highest grossing FIFA World Cup tournament of all time. In 2026, there will be stadium capacities ranging from 45,000 to 92,000 – US, MEX and CAN combined. There will be a 48-team increase, and 60 games will be played in 16 venues. Mexico has already a great history of hosting the World Cup in 1970 and ’86. It will be the first time for Canada, and the US has combined Men’s and Women’s World Cup hosting experience. In terms of a high appreciation status, the fan base is growing more and more. From a broadcasting perspective, TV subscriptions to watch La Liga, EPL, Bundesliga have skyrocketed, and people love getting up at 7 in the morning to watch a match in Europe. One advantage that the US grass roots system has is that soccer is one of the most popular sports among children and teenagers, given that we have a unique system of playing between middle, high schools and university institutions both public and private – from September to November, and then the club team season starts in the spring until the start of summer. Not forgetting the indoor season – but even with all that playing, our competition and performance on an international level is not where it should be.
When comparing the soccer of the 1920s and 1930s with the highly professional soccer of today, the first thing that jumps out is commercialism. The commercialization of modern soccer is criticized by fan groups worldwide. How did this development come about and what dangers are associated with it? Soccer naturally migrated to a commercial way of life once owners and corporations understood the power of advertising and using players as spokespeople to “spread the word” to as many as possible. Today, it seems as if a player’s worth is based on the number of jerseys the player sells on a club or national team level. Once the World Cup and football came into the household, there was no stopping the potential financial gains, and we see that with foreign investors coming in from all angles, like the Americans and Manchester United or Newcastle and Saudi Arabia. But these clubs need that support because they’d go under, otherwise. The biggest clubs in debt today (as of summer 2021) are Tottenham Hotspur – £1.2 billion; Barcelona – £1 billion; Atletico Madrid – £804 million; Manchester United – £771 million; Inter Milan – £757 million.
How do you envision the further development of soccer? Will the high level of interest in the „beautiful game“, as soccer is also called, increase or rather decrease in the future? I think that the key to future success in soccer worldwide is having former players reinserted into the system as coaches, mentors, pundits, etc. More and more former players are offering their experiences on a Player Care level (mentality, educational and financial perspective) as well. Everyone wants to be the next Messi or CR7, but they don’t necessarily think about their own education, financial wellbeing, and “what will I do when my career ends?” Less than 5% of professional players will be stars or have long careers, and they need to understand what their strengths and weaknesses “off the field” are so they can be better prepared for the future, especially when an average of 20 people (family, friends) directly associated with the player, count on them in one way or another, financially or from a material point of view (houses, cars, etc.).
James Brown Vice President of the Society for American Soccer History (S.A.S.H), co-organizer of the 1930 World Cup Conferences and Events, historical football researcher and lecturer. His grandfather, Jim Brown played on the US Nat’l Team at the 1930 World Cup, Manchester United & Tottenham Hotspurs (1930s). James comes from a long line of football and famous rugbymen.