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Retracing steps of USA soccer history

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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The idea came about in 1915, to one C.L. Kornerup. He was the honorary president of Sweden’s National Gymnastic and Sporting Association and the vice-president of FIFA, then just a dozen years old. The United States ought to compile a team of its best players and travel to Scandinavia for a series of exhibition games against local clubs and the Swedish and Norwegian national teams, he reckoned.

Thomas Cahill, honorary secretary of the United States Football Association – since renamed the United States Soccer Federation – agreed. The two exchanged a series of cables and soon enough, the first US national team games against Sweden and Norway were arranged for the summer of 1916.

It wasn’t the first time the US was represented in international competition – in the 1880s, the American Football Association had staged a series of games against Canada – but that “American” side was more a New Jersey state than a true national team. Nor, for that matter, was there a worldwide governing body yet to sanction it as an official international game. So this friendly was, in matter of fact and technicality, a first.

It wasn’t exactly an opportune time to stage a game. World War I raged in much of the world, depleting the number of teams that could participate. The United States and Scandinavia were still neutral at the time – and players were in fact urged to act and speak accordingly – and shared a nautical line that would make transportation straightforward and safe.

As the 1916-17 edition of Spalding’s Official “Soccer” Football Guide annual, which was edited by Cahill, mind you, noted, “it was a courageous venture for the Americans to undertake such a trip in war times, with a hurriedly picked team which had had no opportunity whatever to play together, to meet teams that have been able to hold their own with, and even to defeat, the best teams that could be turned out by Great Britain, the mother of the game.”

The USFA had just a few months to put together a team, not a lot of time when mail still went through post offices and telegrams were state of the art. Several players turned down the invitation, probably because the trip would take almost two months. Other places in country, meanwhile, lobbied to have their players included. Yet there remained no time to stage tryouts. So instead, a so-called National and International Games Committee simply picked the team. Fourteen players were selected in all; five from New Jersey; five from Pennsylvania; two from New York City; and one each from Massachusetts and St. Louis. Only a few were American-born. Cahill would act as manager and a trainer would join them.

They set sail July 26 and kept in shape throughout their 13-day passage through “deck walking ... calisthenics, body exercises, rope skipping, boxing and hand tennis.” Upon arrival, the team was treated to the first in a long series of banquets – at many of which they were handed trophies and medals, too, regardless of whether they had just won or lost. Kornerup spoke of his gratitude for the Americans’ having braved the “political cloud that cast its terrible shadow over Europe” and spoke of them as “a ray of welcome sunshine [which] bids us to take new courage.” Then he exalted the games’ sponsor, proof that little has changed in international soccer since. Cahill followed with a tone-deaf and self-serving speech talking up the three-year-old USFA’s achievements. The Swedes responded by seizing Cahill and launching him three times to the ceiling in celebration.

On Aug. 20, after tying Stockholm’s Tigrarna Fotboll Klubben 1-1 and then, oddly enough, playing a baseball game against a local club (Matt Diederichsen, the inside left, went 6-for-6 for the record) the US finally played its first official international against Sweden.

On a misty day, 17,000 fans filled Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium and watched as Konrad Tornqvist put Sweden ahead in the seventh minute, after which Dick Spalding scored the first ever US goal to equalize in the 22nd minute of play. Early in the second half, Charles Ellis and Harry Cooper made it 3-1, after which Tornqvist tallied the 3-2, the final score. Much more detail on the game isn’t available, sadly.

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Following another baseball game, a 3-0 loss to a combination team made up of Djurgardens and A.I.K. players, and a 2-1 win over Orgryte – after which the Americans were randomly attacked, without sustaining major injury, by “ruffians” who had earlier assaulted Manchester City and Glasgow Rangers during their visits – the US tied Norway 1-1 on another Ellis goal in their second-ever international. The next day, they beat the combination team they had lost to in a rematch, 2-1, to conclude their tour with a record of three wins – all considered upsets – two draws, a loss and, of course, a pair of baseball wins.

In a foreboding of what was to come over the next century, the Swedes and Norwegians marveled at the US team’s athleticism or “dashing enterprise and wonderful speed.” It was likewise noted that “in passing and in combination work the Swedish and Norwegian teams were perhaps the masters of the Americans but this advantage was swept aside and overturned by the dash and fire of the American play.”

And yet, the U.S. wouldn’t play another game until the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

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