FEATURES INTERVIEWS

DIVING THROUGH THE HISTORY OF SOCCER IN THE UNITED STATES: WE TALK TO TOM SCHOLES ON HIS NEW BOOK

We speak to Tom Scholes on his new book on soccer in the United States, looking at its history, Major League Soccer, the national team and more.

There isn’t much out there that takes a dive into the history of soccer in the United States of America, but Tom Scholes is changing that. On 29 July 2019, his book, “Stateside Soccer: The Definitive History of Soccer in the United States” was released in the United Kingdom as he looks to shed light on the game in a country that’s often maligned for their lack of culture towards the sport.

It is often mistaken that the sport was only a recent import to the United States – more specifically, since they were given the rights to host the World Cup in 1994 – but it goes well beyond that. Scholes, having featured on many publications such as Soccer360, These Football Times, AroundMLS and more, looks to educate on how far the game goes across the Atlantic.

We spoke to him on his latest venture, why he chose to write a book about the topic and why soccer in the United States appeals to him so much. Scholes cites a different, perhaps more vibrant atmosphere as his reason for getting hooked to the US game as one of his primary reasons for having so much interest in Major League Soccer: “It’s a curious one [his interest in MLS], because I haven’t actually been a fan or a follower for very long – maybe two to two and a half years – but once I got hooked I couldn’t stay away and I’m not entirely sure why.”

“Maybe it’s because the fans seem to have more fun at games, or some games, than we see in the Premier League where it’s considered a ‘tourist league’ so Anfield, Old Trafford, and the Emirates have seemingly lost their spark but you watch Atlanta United, LAFC, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, you see passion and you see a proper community spirit. I think that played a huge part”, he continued.

On his latest book, he merely states that it’s a dive through history, as the name suggests. Scholes aimed at educating the reader on how rich soccer is in the United States and aims at altering the traditional view that Europeans carry that football isn’t as prominent across the Atlantic.

“To cut a long story short, the book takes you more or less through every key period of the history of the sport in the US. It takes you from the American Soccer League in the post-First World War America, before diving into the North American Soccer League, the United States Men’s National Team, the United States Women’s National Team and now modern-day Major League Soccer. I’m not going to give too much away, because otherwise, no one would read the book!”, he says.

Living in the United Kingdom, it’s rare to see someone carrying such a massive interest in the game across the pond, especially seeing as matches may kick-off at unconventional times or the teams and players may not pique the interest as much as other European leagues may, but Scholes has a huge affinity towards US soccer.

In recent years, Scholes has also been a massive supporter of the Save The Crew movement – the campaign set out by fans of MLS side Columbus Crew to keep their team in their city, rather than the proposed relocation to Austin, Texas. Speaking about it all, Scholes was deeply touched by the fans’ devotion to their club.

“Being from Milton Keynes, the idea of moving a team miles away from a strong fanbase hit closer to home than I think I realised it would. I spoke to many people involved in the Save The Crew movement, I learned about how much the Crew meant to these people and how much it meant to the community and quite frankly, I felt like it was a disgrace that someone could consider moving them.”

He continues: “The more I wrote about them, the more I understood what the STC movement was all about, the more I was drawn in. I can still remember where I was when I found out and I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear thinking about all the hard work that was put into the movement and after all that work, those guys in Columbus did what they set out to do. They saved the Crew.”

Over the course of writing his 352-page book, Scholes found many interesting tidbits and facts about soccer in the United States and as with writing any piece, he discovered plenty stories that would catch the readers’ eyes. Contrary to what many believe, there is a lot of colour and archives in US soccer, as Scholes explains.

“I found out that the first Englishman to play in a World Cup played for the United States and actually played for Tranmere Rovers. Everything before the North American Soccer League was incredibly interesting because it was like a different world and full of vivid history. Learning about the cultural and behind the scenes aspects of early soccer leagues such as the American Soccer League and what went behind the formation and running of these leagues most successful clubs was incredibly interesting.”

US soccer is often disregarded in a way by those living in the United Kingdom and Europe, seeing as the quality of football and the overall format and competitiveness of their leagues are much more attractive. Scholes, through his book, aims at informing people on how different and unique Major League Soccer, or anything in the United States can be.

Speaking about the impact he hopes to create from his book, he said he wanted to share more information: “The main impact is just to inform people about the history of the game in the US. I’m not trying to force anyone to love US soccer, I’m not trying to force anyone to watch it, I’m just looking to give people a good idea about history and about how soccer in the US isn’t a recent thing and it isn’t a fad. It has history, a rich one at that, and it’s something we can look at and learn from.”

The book itself goes way back, all the way to the days of the American Civil War to the World Wars, the North American Soccer League eras to the modern day of Major League Soccer and a more popular national team for both men and women. All of that, obviously, requires tonnes of research, fact-checking and proof-reading: something Scholes most certainly enjoyed. He tells us about the process of it all.

TOM SCHOLES’ BOOK FOCUSES ON SOCCER IN THE UNITED STATES

“It was just a case of finding old records of the American Soccer League, or newspaper clippings and historical literature talking about sport prior to The Great Depression and it was tough but fun to find all of the right articles. You had to see which newspapers covered soccer at those times, which ones dedicated reasonably length articles to the sport and what the stories were, then fact-checking the stories with other sources that came out further down the line.

He continues: “With the NASL it was slightly easier simply because there were more articles, more magazine pieces on certain teams and players, radio and television interviews to reach from. The media took it more seriously and it became culturally relevant and much easier to collect news and quotes from.”

The United States men’s national team is going through a period of transition. Having failed to qualify for the World Cup last summer in Russia and having recently lost the CONCACAF Gold Cup final to Mexico, there doesn’t seem to be a clear direction at the helm. Having followed them for a few years, Scholes had a few thoughts on the current state of soccer and the future of the game in the United States.

“It’s a long process for the USMNT. They aren’t expected to win the World Cup, they aren’t expected to be world-beaters, they’re expected to grow and they’re essentially back to square one. They’ve got a good core to build around, but that core isn’t capable of being at the top of their game. But that’s the point of Gregg Berhalter’s appointment, to help this team grow. I know anything can happen in this game, but they aren’t going to go far anytime soon, but once everyone realises this then the better it’ll be for the core to grow. If there is an expectation to win every tournament that the USMNT enter, then it’ll be seen as a failure, but it needs to grow.”

As for Major League Soccer itself, he had some thoughts on the current model. Over the last decade, we’ve seen massive stars like David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and most recently Zlatan Ibrahimović grace the competition with their presence, but they aren’t doing the league all the good in the world, according to Scholes.

“Those older, more popular names do have their upside. Look at Zlatan Ibrahimović. Yes, he may spout some rubbish from time to time, but he brings attention to the league, he gets people to care about the league and at this point in time that’s what MLS feeds on. That being said, older players are not sustainable, you cannot build a league purely on nostalgic hype.”

He also believes clubs like Atlanta United and LAFC, two sides that were only born recently are getting it right in their methods, seeing as they tend to focus on developing younger talent rather than feeding off the hype of the older ones. “Atlanta United and LAFC’s plans are working perfectly. They pick up good South American players, give them a good amount of game time in a more accessible league and sell them on for profit, just like Miguel Almirón.”

“If MLS can produce more players like Almirón – who get sold to huge European leagues and make a good impression – then MLS gets more credit. The likes of Diego Rossi and Ezequiel Barco, they’ll be the next ones to make the jump and thus more teams will go to MLS to find the South American stars that they missed out on. It’s the way the league should run, and it looks like it’s going to work in the future”, he says.

For the future itself, there are a few names Scholes has his eyes on that can shape what’s to come for the men’s national team: “Four names come to mind. Zack Steffen, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic. Those are the core four for the USMNT, but throw in players like Josh Sargent, Paxton Pomykal and the USA have a bright future. Claudio Reyna’s son Gio Reyna is looking good in the Borussia Dortmund youth system and could be one to check out for the future, as well as new Newcastle signing Kyle Scott. All very good players, they just need game time to shine.”

Tom Scholes’ first book looks at it all from soccer in the United States. From the highs of hosting the men’s World Cup to roping in a superstar like David Beckham to Major League Soccer to the women becoming four-time world champions and more – it has got it all. The book has already released in the United Kingdom but will be on sale across the Atlantic on 1 October 2019.

TOM'S BOOK CAN BE PURCHASED HERE

BY KARAN TEJWANI