Stoke City, Wolves, Sunderland and the Birth of US Pro Soccer

In the summer of 1967, a handful of English Football League clubs headed to the US and adopted unfamiliar alter egos to play in the inaugural season of the United Soccer Association Championship

10th July 2020 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ

What do most professional footballers do on their summer holidays? Well, unless there’s a major international tournament on, they normally take a well-deserved break. Thanks to Instagram, we know that Liverpool’s Mo Salah likes to fish for mahi-mahi and United’s Anthony Martial loves the wonders of ancient Egypt, while former Azzurri il maestro Andrea Pirlo prefers to kick back in Capri (which, let’s be honest, is exactly where we all imagined Pirlo would take his vacations). Of course, these are high-level (and highly paid) athletes, so there is still an expectation to train in the off-season. Some Premier League stars have even been known to take fitness coaches on holiday with them.

Back in the mid-60s, things were a little different. Actually, things were a lot different. Many players were prodigious drinkers, and few gave much thought to diet, nutrition or fitness. But there were still some similarities. Just like the lucrative pre-season tours that the biggest clubs indulge in today, clubs frequently went abroad to make a bit of extra money. And so it happened that in 1967, a handful of football league clubs spent a summer as soccer’s standard bearers in the good ol’ US of A.

Stoke City, Wolves, Sunderland AFC and the Birth of US Soccer  | Cleveland Stokers
Photo Credit : Unknown | Members of the Stoke City team training in the city’s stadium in their adopted home of Cleveland, Ohio.

The 1966 World Cup, hosted in England, was the first to be televised in the USA. The football fever that swept the nation also sparked plenty of interest stateside, and several American sports tycoons started plotting to set up a professional soccer league in their country. The result was the nascent North American Soccer League (NASL). A host of cities across the United States and Canada were awarded franchise teams, and plans were afoot to kick off the new league for the 1968/69 season.

But there was a problem. A rival league, the National Professional Soccer League, had also been set up. It had big ideas and major backing – including a novel scoring system. To ‘encourage attacking play’, the league would award 6 points for a win, 3 for a draw, 0 for a loss and 1 bonus point for each of the first three goals scored. The national TV network CBS liked the sound of this and backed the NPSL, despite it being branded an ‘outlaw league’ by FIFA.

Not wanting to be gazumped by this rival upstart, the NASL decided to fast track its launch. But how would they get their teams up and running in time? Without any domestic players to call on, the league looked to Europe and South America. For the inaugural season they decided to import existing teams wholesale and rebrand them to represent the twelve US cities. The league chiefs duly convened a panel of experts – which included commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme and Spurs striker Jimmy Greaves – to find suitable sides. The result was a motley collection of clubs drawn from England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Brazil, Uruguay and Holland.

One of the first clubs to be proposed was Stoke City, then a mid-table team in the English Football League’s First Division (albeit also a side with World Cup winning ‘keeper Gordon Banks and former Arsenal forward George Eastham in the starting eleven). They agreed to be part of this grand experiment and became the ‘Cleveland Stokers’. The team got to keep their traditional red and white striped jerseys but got a fetching new club badge.

First division strugglers Sunderland also got involved, representing Canada and adopting the completely new name ‘Vancouver Royal Canadians’ (we guess the city wasn’t so enthralled with the notion of the ‘Vancouver Mackems’ or the ‘Vancouver Rokerites’). Second Division side Wolves – fresh from a promotion-winning season – also joined in the fun, becoming the ‘Los Angeles Wolves’.

Stoke City, Wolves, Sunderland AFC and the Birth of US Soccer | LA Wolves vs San Fran Golden Gate Gales
Photo Credit : Unknown | LA Wolves prepare to kick off against the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales in one of the key matches of the United Soccer Association Championship Western Division, summer 1967.

Dublin-based club Shamrock Rovers became the ‘Boston Rovers’, sticking to the famous emerald green. Belfast’s Glentoran became the ‘Detroit Cougars’. Aberdeen were to be the ‘Washington Whips’, Dundee United ‘Dallas Tornado’ and Hibs simply ‘Toronto City’.

That made up the British and Irish contingent. Teams also came from Europe and South America too – Uruguayan side Cerro bagged a ticket as the ‘New York Skyliners’, Italians Cagliari became the ‘Chicago Mustangs’ and Brazil’s Bangu became the ‘Houston Stars’ (though now playing in the fourth tier of Brazilian football, back in the mid-60s Bangu regularly vied for the state championship with giants Flamengo). Rounding out the dozen were ADO Den Haag from Holland, who drew the short straw when it came to a new moniker, if not when it came to their adopted city. They got to spend the summer in San Francisco, but unfortunately also picked up the name of ‘Golden Gate Gales’.

The new league – renamed the United Soccer Association Championship – kicked off in late May 1967. The championship would last for seven weeks, with the teams split into Eastern and Western Divisions. All twelve teams would play each other once and one of their local rivals twice, with the top teams in each division meeting each other in a title-deciding final.

Stoke City, Wolves, Sunderland AFC and the Birth of US Soccer | Detroit Cougars v Houston Stars
Photo Credit : Unknown | The match between the Detroit Cougars (Northern Ireland’s Glentoran) and the Houston Stars (Brazil’s Bangu) was an ill-tempered affair that ended in a mass brawl. The game was abandoned in the 73rd minute when armed police officers entered the pitch.

Sunderland and Stoke only had a fortnight between their final games of the domestic season and the opening games of their US adventure – not much time to prepare. But on the pitch, they took the games seriously, and almost every match was surprisingly competitive. In fact, a few games – particularly those involving the Uruguayans and Italians – flared up, leading to more than one controversial incident. Off the pitch, the visiting players also made the most of their American vacation. Wolves’ players in particular lived the LA high life and were often pictured out and about with Hollywood A-listers. But even the rather less flashy Glentoran squad spent an evening with ol’ blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, while they were visiting New York.

The final standings made for interesting reading. In the Eastern Division, the Cleveland Stokers were just pipped to top spot by the Washington Whips (the tough-tackling Scottish top-flight side Aberdeen). In the Western Division, despite their Beverley Hills carousing, LA Wolves topped the table. The final took place on 14 July in Wolves’ adopted home city and was played in the iconic LA Coliseum. The Whips put in an excellent performance, but the game ended in a 6-5 extra time victory for Wolves. Remarkably, footage of the game still exists.

And so, the great American adventure ended. The United Soccer Association Championship proved to be short-lived – in December 1967 it merged with the National Professional Soccer League to form the North American Soccer League, taking back the original name. From then on it lasted until 1984, and would attract some of the game’s biggest stars, including Pele, George Best and Johan Cruyff.

Today, the USA’s first professional soccer teams have been largely forgotten – except by one company. Ebbets Field Flannels’ authentic retro caps and jerseys celebrate long-lost teams from American sporting history. Alongside great and not-so-great teams from baseball, football and hockey, they also fittingly remember the fledgling days of US pro soccer.

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