- Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes by David Wangerin
Distant Corners, as the title suggests, explores a range of episodes and figures from all over the American soccer map—the American tours of the British amateur sides Pilgrims and Corinthians in the early 1900s; the failure of leagues to take advantage of a resulting, but nascent, popularity; the dogged, but seemingly doomed, efforts of St. Louis’ Tom Cahill to expand the game’s footprint in the U.S. through the first half of the twentieth century; the moderate success of coach Bill Jeffrey in building a program at Penn State University, beginning in the 1920s; the failure of professional soccer in the late 1960s, as evidenced by the California Clippers; and the flame-out of the North American Soccer League in the early 1980s. Like soccer’s corner kick, these episodes seemed scoring chances for the game in the U.S.—opportunities for the sport to solidify itself as an important part of American sporting culture. But they were not great chances—rather, they were “distant” ones. At the end of each chapter, Wangerin muses a question implied in the subtitle: does the episode illustrate a “missed opportunity” or a “lost cause”? More often than not, he concludes the latter: the barriers to soccer success in the U.S. have typically been numerous and stubborn.
Wangerin writes, “For me—and for many others, I suspect—the history of soccer in America is more a story of what didn’t happen than what did” (p. ix). If the book has an organizational backbone, it is this—why soccer has failed to carve out a larger and more permanent space in the American cultural landscape. The author gradually assembles a set of barriers to soccer’s success—some recurring, some historically specific. The most prominent impediments included the challenges of playing in the winter (American soccer would not shift to summer play until the 1970s); the failure to develop strong youth programs (and thus native players); a simultaneous reliance on expensive imported, “foreign” talent; inter-league warfare and self-interested leadership; a superficial commitment from entrepreneurs unfamiliar with the game; the tension between international standards of play and Americanized rules; and the constant challenge of poorly conditioned and unreliable playing fields. The book’s primary value resides in the historical illustration of these barriers. Wangerin is an able storyteller and has clearly done a great deal of investigative leg-work; he has a talent for digging up evocative primary sources, particularly newspaper articles, and weaving them effectively into the narrative.
Beyond these strengths, Distant Corners is a bit of a “missed opportunity” itself. Its potential impact is undermined by a certain degree of blinkered claustrophobia. The historical contextualization is thin; there are too few moments when, for example, he connects anxieties about “American” virtues to broader social attitudes concerning immigrant culture. This is something Wangerin did more effectively in his previous work, Soccer in a Football World (2006), which regularly locates soccer history within American sports history; in doing so, it anchors the narrative, orients the reader, and broadens the possible [End Page 576] audience. In effect, Distant Corners reads like a series of extended footnotes to his previous work.
I craved not only a stronger sense of historical context but also a more vibrant scholarly one. Formally, Distant Corners lacks a bibliography or citatory notes—perhaps to make it seem less scholarly to attract a more general readership—but the result is that the curious reader, academic or not, struggles to see beyond the closed world of these stories. Wangerin rarely engages other secondary work: most notable is his avoidance of Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism (2001), by Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman. Those authors theorize reasons that soccer has not taken hold in the United States—the game was “crowded out” of the marketplace by professional baseball and college football, it was marked as “un-American” (a major problem in...