The International Soccer League’s modest but successful start in 1960 had made waves in the American soccer community. Its twelve team league – eleven of them imported from overseas, alongside the New York Americans (who weren’t really American at all) – saw Brazil’s Bangu beat Scotland’s Kilmarnock in a final of impressive quality, 25,440 fans attending the game at the Polo Grounds in Harlem, New York City, broadcast on network television.
The question as 1961 began was how the ISL would take the next steps to embed itself into American sporting culture, and spread from its sole base so far in New York. The ISL’s impresario, Bill Cox, said the league had made a small profit in 1960, despite spending a fortune bringing over teams from Europe and South America. The ISL was ready to expand its horizons.
The Future of American Soccer?
Cox also faced the challenge of working with the existing soccer infrastructure. Could he find a way to develop the league for the long-term benefit of American soccer? Or would he have to take on the entrenched forces head-on, and beat them dollar for dollar? The American Soccer League – the country’s existing, established national league, albeit one of lower quality than the ISL – had long been making its money by arranging exhibition tours with high-profile teams from overseas. This was precisely the market Cox was trying to corner.
Cox had, though, so far kept relations with the ASL warm enough. A few of the New York Americans’ own ethnic players had come from ASL teams, and the ISL had a formal tie to the ASL.
Cox continued his efforts to keep the ASL and the United States Soccer Football Association (the USSFA – later to become the USSF) onside with his venture. In January 1961, he went on a media blitz offering support for the future of American soccer, especially the Olympic team, struggling on an international level.
“In every year from now to the next Olympics in 1964, our league is willing to help with clinics, travel expenses for amateur players and other expenditures to a modest degree,” Cox said in widely quoted remarks. “The International Soccer League is prepared to contribute money, ideas and personnel toward the development of improved amateur players. In its first season, the league has stimulated interest in this sport on the secondary school level.”
His efforts bore fruit, at least for his own league in the short-term. In the summer of 1961, the American Soccer League only scheduled one international exhibition game during the ISL season. And the USSFA would soon play a key role in ensuring the league could continue without FIFA sanction.
Crucially, the league also took its first step to expansion outside of the New York metropolitan area. Concordia Club of Montreal would play at the 25,000 capacity McGill University Stadium in the 1961 season, Cox revealed. Indeed, Cox’s aim was to make Montreal a second base for the league, with the initial plans stating that seven games would be played there, along with the first-leg of the two-legged final, scheduled for August 3rd.
Concordia were backed by Joe Slyomovics who was, according to the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, a “millionaire Czech immigrant.”
Concordia also played in one of Canada’s two small-time professional soccer leagues, the National League, containing six teams from Toronto along with Concordia of Montreal.
The ISL saw an opportunity for soccer to establish itself in Canada as baseball had declined in popularity, the attendance numbers for the Montreal Royals in International League baseball having collapsed. The Star-Phoenix confidently asserted in January 1961 that “Pro soccer, making a second bid for a Canadian foothold, has recorded uneven progress, but the roots are apparently firm and the future bright. The game still has a long way to go but already it has supplanted baseball as one of Canada’s Big Three in team sports, joining hockey and football.”
Slyomovics announced that Concordia would only retain half-a-dozen of its players from 1960, including left back Hector Lopez, left half Tommy Barrett, inside forward Hector Daderio, two goalkeepers and fullback George Savage.
Like New York, the Canadians would look to stock most of their roster with quality international players, especially from the Britsh Isles. Cox stated that because of the ISL’s success in 1960, foreign teams were far more confident in loaning out their top players.
“All doubt has vanished now,” Cox said confidently. “We are being offered not the reserve players we had to take last year but the foremost ones. This means our New York team should be the equal of the foreign invaders, and that Concordia also will be well stocked with the best foreign performers as [well as] its own Canadian stars.”
The rumour mill began to spin. Saskatchewan’s Leader-Post reported that Concordia had offered Leicester City’s Welsh international forward Ken Leek – who had been in Wales’ 1958 World Cup squad as an eighteen-year-old – £50 a week to join them. Leek, only 20, had requested a transfer after being dropped for Leicester’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the 1961 FA Cup final. The speculation was spot-on, as Leek soon signed on loan with Montreal (during the ISL season, Leicester would transfer Leek permanently to Newcastle United).
The wages being offered by the ISL were, by 1961 standards for British professionals, enormous. In 1960, the maximum wage in the Football League stood restricted at £20. Led by Jimmy Hill, England’s professionals were agitating hard for the maximum wage restriction to be abolished. In January 1961, the Football League capitulated and the maximum wage was abolished.
The New York Americans stocked their roster with talent that their player-coach, Welshman Alf Sherwood, described in glowing terms: “We had only six chaps from England on the team last season,” he explained. “all young and not with a great deal of experience. This time we not only have more English players, but more formidable, well-known performers as well. Every man in this group has been playing top-level soccer for eight or ten years.”
The imports included Ken McPherson, a prolific scorer for Newport County and Scottish centre-forward John McCole of Leeds United.
But the ISL’s growing stature and appeal to leading players had begun to cause international irritation. Cox received a blow in January when the West German league became the first to bar its clubs from entering the ISL. Bayern Munich would not return for a second season, though the league would eventually lift its ban, allowing Karlsruhe to represent West Germany in the 1961 ISL season, replacing Eintracht Frankfurt, who had originally been scheduled to play.
As the winter of 1961 moved on, Cox soon began announcing the final line-up of teams to the league, now to be enlarged to 15 teams from 12 in 1960. Everton were the marquee English representative, a real coup for Cox, the Liverpudlians having made a considerable splash with their transfer spending in the previous 12 months (they would eventually finish fifth in the First Division, shortly before the ISL began play). Also from the British Isles came Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers, League of Ireland champions in 1959.
Along with Montreal representing Canada and Karlsruhe of West Germany, six other nations would make their debuts in the ISL with Turkey’s Besiktas, Romania’s Dinamo Bucharest, Czechoslovakia’s Dukla Prague, France’s Monaco, Israel’s Petah Tikvah and Spain’s Espanyol all scheduled to take part.
Returning were champions Bangu of Brazil, along with the defeated finalists, Scotland’s Kilmarnock. Yugoslavia’s Red Star Belgrade also made their second appearance as did Rapid Vienna of Austria (the latter would hope to improve on their 1960 performance, where they had lost all four of their games).
The ISL divided the 15 teams into two sections of play once again, with the winner of each section to play in the final. Montreal competed in both sections.
Field of Dreams
Yet before the season even started, the ISL’s long-term plans received a considerable blow. The City of New York had taken over the ISL’s main venue, the dilapidated Polo Grounds in Manhattan, and in March 1961 confirmed its plans to demolish the stadium and build a public housing project on the land. The City did confirm that the 1961 sports’ schedule would go on as planned, but the future suddenly looked less clear for the ISL beyond that.
The Polo Grounds were a mess. The ISL’s attendance in 1960 – averaging well over 10,000 at the Manhattan stadium – did not look so bad when the brand new professional American football team in the city, the Titans of New York, only drew around 15,000 fans for their debut season in the autumn of 1960, also played at the Polo Grounds.
The owner of the Titans, Harry Wismer, later recalled the poor conditions, worsened for his team by the ISL’s games in the summer of 1960.
“From our clean, sunny, New Hampshire camp we were scheduled to make our league debut in the shabby, desolate Polo Grounds, which had been deteriorating steadily since the New York baseball Giants moved to San Francisco for the 1958 season. A soccer league had played on the “pitch,” but that merely aggravated conditions for football. The stands and seats were encrusted with grime. There was not enough parking space. The neighborhood was not good. In brief, this was the worst possible place to attract paying customers.”The Polo Grounds, April 1963