The Long Journey of Professional Soccer

It’s hard to imagine how the viewing of one soccer match on television led to a lifelong passion and dedication to see professional soccer succeed in the United States, but it did.

The very first international soccer match was played in 1872 and, until England’s first home defeat in 1953 versus Hungary, England was the dominant soccer nation in the world. England was the country that “exported” soccer knowledge throughout the world (including the United States) in the form of soccer managers. England last won a World Cup in 1966 and, from 1970 through the 2008 World Cup qualifiers, won 67.4% of its international games. In fact, England’s winning percentage has never fallen below 62% and never risen above 70%. Winning two-thirds of the time is not too bad in a two-way horse race, but between 1980 and 2001, England had the 10th best overall winning percentage in the world.  This does not translate into winning many tournaments.   

In July, 1966 my father, Lamar Hunt, watched England defeat West Germany in the World Cup Final via an ABC Wide World of Sports live broadcast from Wembley Stadium in London. England’s last great triumph on the pitch became a catalyst for my father’s fascination with soccer and created a strong desire in him to bring the game to America. My father had watched another game in 1958, an overtime NFL game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which also served as a catalyst for his passion to pursue the ownership of an NFL franchise. As you may know, that ultimately led to his establishment of the American Football League (AFL).

What fascinated my father about this epic soccer match was the struggle between two national teams only 20 years removed from the deadly conflicts of World War II, playing each other in the biggest sporting event in the world – the World Cup. Sporting competition with this level of national drama was not happening in the United States. 

It’s important to note that the word “soccer” is not an American term invented in the late 20th century to distinguish the game from the American sport of football. “Soccer” was the most common name for the game in England from the 1890’s until the 1970’s. When the North American Soccer League brought soccer to America in the late 1960’s, Americans quite reasonably adopted the English word for the game. However, the British stopped using the word “soccer” and reverted to the word “football.” In the book “Soccernomics,” Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (a leading soccer writer and a leading sports economist, respectively) note that “indeed, anti-American Europeans often frown on the use of the word (soccer). They consider it a mark of American Imperialism.”

Within six months after England’s World Cup victory in 1966, two different groups of owners pushed to start major soccer leagues in the United States. My father was aligned with the North American Soccer League (NASL) because that league had earned recognition from the United States Soccer Federation as well as FIFA, soccer’s worldwide governing body. There was another organization focused on bringing soccer to the US, the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), which was backed by a group of NFL owners. The NPSL had a TV contract with CBS in place. Since the NASL did not have any players and little ability to find them, a decision was made in the summer of 1967 to import teams from foreign countries so that the league could have an immediate presence and impact. My father contacted the manager of Scotland’s Dundee United soccer club, and an agreement was made that Dundee United would play in the US as the Dallas Tornado.  Also around this time, the NASL changed its name to the United States Soccer Association.

My main memory of those games in the summer of 1967 (as a 10-year-old boy) was hot, sweltering evenings and players who were not equipped to handle the heat.  The players had come from the much cooler climate of the British Isles and were not quite ready for a hot Texas summer.  But for my father, it was just the first step in his lifelong personal mission to bring professional soccer, at the highest level, to American soil.