The U.S.’s surprising run in the Confederations Cup is hardly the first time they have surpassed all expectations on the world stage. Their 1950 victory over England is the best-known; but in many ways, their surprising run to third place at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay remains the most impressive achievement in the team’s history, and the biggest lost opportunity to grow the game domestically.
Ironically, the mere existence of the World Cup was in part down to America’s relative lack of interest in soccer — Fifa, aware that the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 would not feature Association Football and in dispute with the IOC over the status of amateur players in the tournament decided to organise their own world championship for the first time in 1930. All members of Fifa, including the United States, were invited to take part without qualification for the tournament to be held in Uruguay. The distant travel was too much for some European nations, but 13 countries did participate in the inaugural World Cup.
It has become part of world football folklore that the U.S.’s team was one stocked with ex-pat professionals from Britain, but this was not so. Though many were of Anglo-origin — as would be expected in a nation with a huge Anglo-immigrant population playing a British sport — only one of the U.S. players, George Moorhouse, had played professionally in Britain. Moorhouse made two appearances for Third Division Tranmere in the early 1920s, but most of his experience had come in the American Soccer League, and it was that league that provided the bedrock for America’s strong team.
The U.S.’s performance in 1930 surprised the world in part because of their disastrous showing at the 1928 Olympic Games, which until the advent of the World Cup two years later was the world’s premier soccer tournament. The United States had been humiliated 11-2 by Argentina in the first round, though the truth was the American selection policy had adhered far more rigidly to the IOC’s strict rules on amateur participation than most other nations, leaving them considerably handicapped.
In contrast, the 1930 American team was strong and athletic, drawn from the ranks of the American Soccer League’s high-quality teams, which had begun attracting professionals from abroad with its relatively high wages and standard of play. The U.S. were drawn in group four for the World Cup with Paraguay and Belgium.
Their opening match was against Belgium, and the U.S. brushed aside the Europeans 3-0, with two goals from left-winger Bart McGhee, including the first in U.S. World Cup history. Though born in Scotland, McGhee had moved to the U.S. at the age of thirteen to join his father in Philadelphia, a Scottish international forward for Hibernian and Celtic (indeed, the McGhees remain the only father and son combination to play for different international teams). Fellow forward Bert Patenaude, at 20 a surprising inclusion in the squad, scored the other American goal. According to David Wangerin, “the Belgians were unable to cope with America’s secure defence and incisive passes out to the flanks”, with the U.S. easing up and “wisely saving themselves”, their coach later said.
Patenaude would score three more in the U.S.’s second match against Paraguay, the first hat-trick in the history of the World Cup in another surprisingly comfortable 3-0 U.S. victory (Patenaude’s second goal in the fifteenth minute has been the subject of a long historical debate, as it has been variously also credited as an own goal and to teammate Tom Florie, but in 2006 Fifa ruled the credit went to Patenaude). This victory was all the more impressive as Paraguay had considerable pedigree, runners-up in the previous year’s Copa America and recent victors over Uruguay (who would go on to win the World Cup).
The U.S., then, had taken the opening round by storm, with six goals for and none against. They headed to the semi-finals to take on the Argentinians, who had humiliated them two years earlier at the Olympics. The U.S. coach, Wilfrid R. Cummings, was full of bravado: “We are only interested in the final,” he said. The U.S. arrived at the Centenario Stadium under a military escort, in front of a passionate 71,000-strong crowd.
The first half was tightly-fought, the score 1-0 to Argentina at the break, thanks to a goal from legendary playmaker Luis Monti. The U.S., though, eventually succumbed on a pitch far larger than they were used to (eight yards over regulation length) and with a referee unable to control the game, with centre-half Raphael Tracey lost to injury and (most harmfully) goalkeeper Jimmy Douglas hobbled by an ankle injury.
In the second half the U.S. lost their head and their nerve, allowing the referee to infuriate them, as this story that Brian Glanville recounts in his history of the event illustrates:
John Langenus was the referee; he never tired of relating the bizarre story of the American trainer. During the second half, he blew his whistle for a foul against America. At this, the team’s medical attendant, who was also an official, rushed onto the field, case of medicaments in hand, to make violent remonstrance. In the course of it, he threw his case to the ground and it burst open, spilling out its contents, among them a bottle of chloroform, which promptly broke. The rising fumes engulfed and tranquilized him; he was assisted, peacefully, from the field.
Scopelli and Stabile struck twice in the first fifteen minutes after the break as the U.S.’s inexperience in big games finally told. From then, it was all over, and the U.S. collapsed to concede three goals in the final ten minutes, to give Argentina a win by the flattering score of 6-1, but it was not the humiliation of 1928. A tough ending to a remarkable run, the U.S. had shown that their team — all but one of whom had learned their trade entirely domestically — could live with the best in the World Cup.
Their third place finish remains unmatched, as soccer suffered a sad collapse domestically in the 1930s, the promise of the American Soccer League’s stars never matched again. The strength of the U.S. performance can be seen in the interest it raised abroad in many of the ASL stars, with several heading to Britain to play for teams including Manchester United, Aberdeen and Celtic. The world had taken notice of American soccer for the first time.
[For more on the U.S. performance in the 1930 World Cup, see Soccer by Brian Glanville and Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin]