In occasion of US Soccer’s centennial celebration this year, US Soccer Players will highlight a noteworthy event in American soccer history. In the first installment, we look at the USA’s 3-0 win over Belgium in its first-ever World Cup game in 1930 and its third-place finish at the tournament.
By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 28, 2013) US Soccer Players – By the time the 1930 World Cup kicked off, the United States Soccer Federation (known at the time as the United States of America Football Association) was only 17 years old. Competitive soccer on an international level was still in its infancy. It was, however, an important time for the game. FIFA had finally decided to stage an international tournament for nations and put forth Uruguay, the 1928 Olympic gold medal champions, as hosts.
The decision to hold the competition in South America meant that most European nations, fearing a long and costly journey, boycotted the inaugural World Cup. Only four European teams – France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia – agreed to participate. The US team traveled to Montevideo on the SS Munargo. The ship departed from Hoboken, NJ, and the players used their time on the boat to train. Once the tournament was underway, the Americans had earned the nickname “the shop-putters” because of their size.
The USA’s performance in 1930 surprised many mostly because of the team’s poor showing at the 1928 Olympic Games, which until the creation of the World Cup had been considered the globe’s premier soccer tournament. To put into perspective how poorly the United States had performed, it had been trounced 11-2 by Argentina in the first round at Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium.
“I think the Americans did take some people by surprise,” said Roger Allaway, a soccer historian. “Of course, the biggest factor in the United States' success in that World Cup may have been the fact that so many strong European teams weren't there. I’d guess that England, Scotland, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia all might have been capable of reaching the final if they had been there.”
Like the importance placed on Major League Soccer in strengthening the US National Team in the modern era, the 1930 World Cup side benefitted from the American Soccer League. Founded in 1921, that league operated until its demise in 1933 and was the first national pro league in this country even though it operated primarily in the Northeast. Until then, leagues had operated on a regional basis. Despite the creation of the ASL (a merger of the National Association Football League and Southern New England Soccer League) there was a high level of soccer being played in the St. Louis Soccer League and National Challenge Cup (the original name of the US Open Cup) levels.
“The strength of the ASL did contribute very much. The ASL was one of the best leagues in the world in the 1920s," said Allaway. “The American players were used to facing quality opposition. Perhaps equally important is the fact that the ASL back then was a fall-to-spring league. ASL players were quite accustomed to the sort of damp, chilly conditions that they faced in that World Cup. Another is that the American team leaders put the players through a rigorous conditioning program on shipboard during the trip to Uruguay, and the United States was one of the fittest teams there.”
The USA’s strong performance in Uruguay was determined by several factors. As Allaway points out, the small number of teams, the lack of England's participation and the ASL's strength all enabled the Americans to put on a strong showing. The USA finished third, to this day its best finish ever at a World Cup. The Americans did feature six British-born players, although all of them had moved to the United States as teenagers and only one, George Moorhouse, had played professionally in Britain.
“The biggest misconception is the idea that the American team was built around a group of British ringers,” said Allaway. “Numerous writers over the years have repeated the myth about six British ex-pros on the US team. The fact is that there were six players who that team who had been born in Britain (five in Scotland and one in England), but four of those came to America as children or teenagers years before, and only one of the six had ever played a professional minute in British. That was George Moorhouse, who played two games for Tranmere Rovers in the English third division in 1922. The writers who have repeated this myth don't seem to have realized that being born in a place and being a professional soccer player in that place are not the same thing.”
The Americans were coached by Irish-born Jack Coll, who had moved to the United States in 1922. In all three games, the USA featured the same lineup: Goalkeeper Jimmy Douglas (NY Nationals), right back Alexander Wood (Detroit Holley Carburetor), left back Bart McGee (NY Nationals), center back Raphael Tracey (St. Louis Ben Millers), left halfback Andy Auld (Providence Gold Bugs), inside left and captain Tom Florie (New Bedford Whalers), center forward Bert Patenaude (Fall River Marksmen), inside right Billy Gonsalves (Fall River Marksmen), and outside right James Brown (NY Giants). All but Moorhouse and Tracey hailed from the American Soccer League.
In the opener against Belgium on July 13, the Americans cruised to a 3-0 win before 18,000 fans at Parque Central Stadium in Montevideo. Goals from McGhee, Florie and Patenaude sunk Belgium. Born in Scotland, McGhee moved to Philadelphia at age 13 to live with his father, a former Scottish forward who had played with Hibernian and Celtic. Patenaude scored the game’s final goal. He would go on to score a hat trick -- the first in World Cup history -- in the following game four days later against Paraguay in what resulted in another 3-0 victory.
On July 26 at the Estadio Centenario, Argentina proved too strong for the Americans. Subs were not allowed at the time so the United States was forced to play with 10 men after Tracy broke his leg in the first half. Down 1-0 at halftime, Argentina scored five goals in the second half to win the game 6-1. It would take another 72 years before the USA would put together a similarly strong performance at a World Cup.
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