Wednesday, August 27, 2008

ATH: Billy Gonsalves and American Soccer

From the US National Team Players Association . . .

An American Staying In America

Billy Gonsalves might have been the greatest player to ever step on a field. His contemporaries certainly thought so. As a player, he was attached to some of the biggest names in the early history of American soccer: Fall River, Brooklyn, Newark. He spent his later life in the North Jersey area that would produce so many standout American players.

He was also one of the first American club stars to hear the call of bigger leagues and crowds, opting to stay with the American game on his terms. Two World Cup appearances in '30 and '34 made him known well past the soccer communities of the United States. His play in exhibitions against foreign clubs led prominent soccer people to talk about him as the most talented player they'd ever seen.

Gonsalves wasn't a standout goals per game striker. His style of soccer was more creative than the tactics of his day. He also had what many who saw him consider the best shot from either foot of any professional soccer player.

That Gonsalves himself lived until 1977, and many of those same people could and did make the comparison throughout the North American Soccer League era. At least to those witnesses, Billy Gonsalves never faced serious competition for best in the history of the game.

We have to take them at their word. The soccer world Billy Gonsalves occupied was all but lost past those that were actually there. National Soccer Hall of Fame historian emeritus Colin Jose did the research that revived the American Soccer League in its two iterations, putting it in the context of a major attempt at creating a lasting professional league in the United States in the 1920's and 30's.

Gonsalves' National Team record looks slight by modern standards: six appearances and one goal. Yet his was an era where from 1930 to the end of World War II the United States only played nine games. Gonsalves' caps were all World Cup appearances or games scheduled right after the Cup. In other words, when it counted the most he was there.

For the contemporary American player, Gonsalves remains an object lesson. Gonsalves started young, taking advantage of a new professional structure when he joined the American Soccer League. He was a crucial member of the National Team and part of the first World Cup squad that reached the semifinals. He floated offers from foreign clubs that, if not necessarily offering better pay, certainly offered a bigger stage.

A Billy Gonsalves that became a star in Brazil or Britain isn't as easily forgotten. Instead, he stayed in the United States eventually becoming a coach. His induction into what would become the National Soccer Hall of Fame happened in its first year, 1950. The revival of his era and reputation for the broader soccer community is an ongoing process pushed by the National Soccer Hall of Fame and the work of historians like Jose, his successor Roger Allaway, and David Litterer.

Where the Gonsalves comparison starts to shift is with his championships. In an era where the US Open Cup was taken very seriously, Gonsalves and his clubs dominated that competition. He was part of four American Soccer League championship clubs and lifted the Dewar Trophy as the winner of the US Open Cup eight times.

Any real comparison between the current brand of American professional soccer and its predecessor needs to happen in the one competition they share. In our era, where a club can choose to opt out of the Open Cup or simply field their reserves late in the competition, the Cup remains the only oportunity to make a case for history.

The Open Cup counts for something past potential entry into a new tournament or a feel good story for a club that didn't quite do enough to win the league. It counts for heritage. The one Billy Gonsalves helped create in the 1930's when he was the best in the American or any game.

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