During my research of domestic football in the United States for my last post [see here] I stumbled across the short-lived United Soccer Association. It was a professional league that lasted just one season before merging with the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), itself a one-season wonder, to form the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The United Soccer Association (USA) was truly unique as rather than building franchises from the ground up, or building upon existing semi-professional clubs, it imported European and South American clubs which were then designated a major city and given American franchise names. In short, to explain this post’s “click tease” headline, Shamrock Rovers were one of 12 such clubs. Given the city’s prevalent Irish heritage, Rovers were based in Boston as the Boston Rovers.
As it usually does, even today, there is nothing like a World Cup to rekindle American interest and intrigue in “soccer”. The 1966 World Cup was particularly effective in doing so given that it was being held in England, the first English-speaking nation to host the tournament, and the English won it in dramatic (and highly controversial) fashion. This lent it greater significance in American eyes than previous editions. As Alastair Reid remarked in the September 10 issue of The New Yorker:
It’s unusual, when you think that this event is both the most universal and the most thrilling I’ve ever written about – it makes the Olympic Games look trivial by comparison. Why on earth haven’t the Americans taken to football? [cit. 1]
Given the renewed interest in the beautiful game, there was an opening for the creation of a professional domestic league. The USA league was the brainchild of a group of sports entrepreneurs, led by, among others, Lamar Hunt, after whom the United States’ oldest ongoing competition, the U.S. Open Cup, is named.
A consortium known as the North American Soccer League (not to be confused with the subsequent NASL) was established with the intention of forming a professional football league in the United States. The consortium got the official green light from FIFA and the United States Soccer Federation. The previously mentioned NPSL emerged at the same time as a rival and so, to avoid confusion, Hunt and co. renamed the NASL the United Soccer Association.
The USA was set to launch in 1968 but the NPSL was ahead of the game. With a TV contract with CBS secured, the NPSL was ready to launch a year earlier, in ’67, despite being branded by FIFA as an unofficial rogue league. Not wanting to lose ground to its rival, the USA fast-tracked its launch. As it had no players of its own, the USA took the decision to import entire teams from Europe and South America as a stopgap, at a cost of around $250,000 to each host franchise. It was not to be a long-term scenario, the imported sides would simply act as the franchises for the inaugural season only, so as to give the franchises a year to build up their own squads for the following season.
The 12 imported clubs, and the franchises they were designated, are as follows:
- Shamrock Rovers – Boston Rovers
- Aberdeen – Washington Whips
- ADO Den Haag – San Francisco Golden Gate Gales
- Bangu AC (Brazil) – Houston Stars
- C.A. Cerro (Uruguay) – New York Skyliners
- Cagliari – Chicago Mustangs
- Dundee United – Dallas Tornado
- Glentoran – Detroit Cougars
- Hibernian – Toronto City
- Stoke City – Cleveland Stokers
- Sunderland – Vancouver Royal Canadians
- Wolverhampton Wanderers – Los Angeles Wolves
Although certain clubs were designated a particular city based upon a sizeable ethnic heritage there, such as Shamrock Rovers being based in Boston or Italian side Cagliari in Chicago, others were completely random. New York has never been known for having a particularly strong Uruguayan heritage. The strength of the clubs was also watered down given that some of the bigger European and South American clubs were either unavailable or simply not interested in spending their summer off playing in America.
The 12 teams were divided into two sub-leagues, an eastern division and a western division as is the fashion in other American sports. As such Shamrock Rovers found themselves in the eastern division alongside Stoke (Cleveland), Glentoran (Detroit), C.A. Cerro (New York), Hibernian (Toronto) and Aberdeen (Washington).
The USA launched on 28 May 1967. The Miami News wrote the following day that the opening weekend’s itinerary of six games drew a total of 87,631 fans. The largest attendance was for the clash between Houston (Bangu AC) and Los Angeles (Wolves) at the Astrodome in Houston, where 34,965 witnessed a 1-1 draw. The second-highest was 21,871 for the game between New York (C.A. Cerro) and Toronto (Hibernian), another 1-1 draw. [cit. 2]
Shamrock Rovers added to this string of 1-1 results. Rovers’ first game saw them host Belfast side Glentoran (as the Detroit Cougars) at the Manning Bowl in Lynn, 10 miles north of downtown Boston. Although Rovers took the lead, the Detroit Cougars equalised late on in the game and were controversially done out of a win. A last-minute winner from them was disallowed by the linesman, who it emerged after the game was a Boston native.
None of the other four games, including Rovers vs. Detroit, drew a crowd larger than 10,000. This would become a trend as subsequent attendances dropped in numbers. Overall the league finished with an average of just under 7,900 attendees per game. Shamrock Rovers would bring up the rear in this regard, averaging just 4,171.
Despite this dip in attendances and the lack of European powerhouses, the league did have a couple of household names. The Cleveland Stokers (Stoke) had a certain Gordon Banks in goals, just a year after winning the World Cup with England. Roberto Boninsegna (Chicago/Cagliari) finished as the league’s top scorer with 10 goals despite only playing nine games. After his sojourn in America, Boninsegna joined Inter Milan and went on to become a club legend, scoring 171 goals for the Nerazzurri in a seven-year career at the Giuseppe Meazza. Club legend Frank O’Neill was Rovers’ most prolific player in the league, scoring three goals and providing four assists in 12 appearances.
Alas, Rovers were out of their depth. Playing 12 games, they managed only two wins and three draws, losing their seven other games. With only seven points, not only did they finish bottom of the eastern division, they also recorded the lowest number of points for both divisions. Rovers’ record read: P12/W2/D3/L7/GF 12/GA 26/GD -14/7 pts.
On the whole, though both divisions were quite competitive. Washington and Los Angeles progressed as divisional champions having each only won five games, drawn five and lost twice. In the western division, an additional win for Cleveland (14 pts.) or Toronto (13) would have seen them represent the west coast in the final, while the same applied to San Francisco (13) and Chicago (13) in the east.
Although it did not match the record-high attendance for the opening game, the USA final proved to be a high-scoring spectacle for the 17,842 fans that made the trip to LA’s Memorial Coliseum on 14 July. The right to “host” the final and therefore be the home side for the final was decided by the rather vulgar act of a coin toss.
With Wolves leading 4-3 in the dying minutes of the game, Aberdeen equalised in the 89th minute to force the game to extra-time. With another three goals in the additional half-hour, it was Wolves who prevailed and were crowned the inaugural (and only ever) USA champions for 1967. Remarkably the highlights of the game are up on YouTube in all their scratchy VHS-quality glory, tracking lines and all.
Five months after the final, the USA merged with its rival organisation the NPSL to form the North American Soccer League (NASL), the league which would become world-renowned less than a decade later for its array of aging European and South American superstars like Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. As a result of the merger, a few of the USA’s franchises were disbanded to avoid certain cities having two teams. Shamrock Rover’s Boston outfit were retained, but relaunched as the Boston Beacons. However the Beacons only lasted one season, as did a number of other USA franchises, before folding. After the NASL’s inaugural season Dallas Tornado were the only USA member not to fold. They won the championship in ’71 and continued to participate in the league until 1981.
The concept of importing teams did not disappear with the USA. During the 1969 NASL season, Wolves returned to America in the guise of the Kansas City Spurs and were once again crowned national champions. Fellow English sides West Ham and Aston Villa joined them, also masquerading as American franchises for a few months, as did Scottish side Kilmarnock.
Short-lived it may have been but for three months in the summer of 1967, Shamrock Rovers were Boston, and the Manning Bowl in Lynn, MA was Milltown as a result of one of American soccer’s more curious concepts (and that’s saying something).