GFOP: Bob Bradley, Swansea City, and Soccer’s Past and Future

First the loss of the colonies, and now an American manager in the Premier League. It might as well be the end of the Empire.

The big news for American soccer fans, of course, is the appointment of Bob Bradley, a New Jersey native, as manager of Swansea City AFC, a professional club currently standing 17th in the 20-team Premier League. That’s the top division of British football (for any non-soccer fans still reading this piece: Scottish teams play in their own, Scottish leagues, but top Welsh teams, such as Swansea, play in the Premiership, alongside teams based in England, rather than in the Welsh Football League), and arguably the top flight of club soccer worldwide – certainly the case from the perspective of revenue, expense, and television attention, and likely the case from the perspective of top-to-bottom quality of play. Bradley is the first American, in short, to reach the absolute top echelon of club soccer as a coach.

I’m intrigued with the story not merely because I’m a long-time (nearly 50 years and counting) soccer fan, player, coach, referee, etc. and not merely because I come to the topic as an American. I’m intrigued with the story because Bradley is only slightly older than I am, and because his point of entry, like mine, was the suburbanization of a game that had been, to that point (the late 1960s, early 1970s), a mostly urban, mostly working class, mostly immigrant and ethnic community phenomenon. To this American soccer fan, his success is the momentary apotheosis of a distinctly American soccer story, which in its most optimistic version heralds the realization of an American version of the universal, historic soccer dream, which is to say, the local version of the world’s most popular form of cultural expression as the material embodiment of a community’s social and cultural potential. Postwar America taught that you could literally become anyone and anything that you wished, and Bob Bradley, a child of the New York/New Jersey suburbs has made that dream come true.

I call it soccer because that’s what it is and has always been. “Soccer” is a long-standing and well-accepted shortening of “Association football,” the name given the sport in the 1860s to associate the round-ball game with the English Football Association (the “Association” in the name) from the game played with a pointed-ball, “Rugby football.” The latter was occasionally shortened to “rugger” and “Association football” to “soccer,” even in Britain. Modern naming conventions and the affection (or is it affectation?) for “football” have been associated with the founding of professional leagues in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s that claimed “soccer” in their titles (the original North American Soccer League (NASL), the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), and the United Soccer Association (USA)). British resistance to this American appropriation of “their” sport (accompanied by not a few British players and businessmen among the participants in the US ventures) led to their reclaiming “football” as the de facto, appropriate term. Let the Americans have their invented “soccer,” the history goes; the real thing is British “football.” Modern American soccer fans, many of them too young to have witnessed this progression in its original form, have often adopted the term “football” enthusiastically as part of their desire to participate fully – as players, supporters, or merely witnesses — in the “authentic” game.

“Authenticity,” as historians and sociologists know, is a delicate thing.

US soccer has a very long and distinguished history in mostly urban settings among Italian, German, Irish, Greek, and Mexican communities; the myth-making US National Team win over England at the 1950 World Cup was a victory for men drawn casually from those communities around the US (including Pittsburgh, today better known for football played with a pointed ball). The early- and mid-century US version of soccer was a derived version of the game as it grew in the late 1800s and early 1900s in England (in the industrial North) and Scotland and in urban settings in Europe and South America.

But the turn in the US away from cities as engines of economic development, driven after World War II by cheap credit and the birth of the Baby Boom generation, aimed the spotlight on American suburbs as hubs of civic and recreational energy as well as political life. America’s imagined future lay amidst neatly trimmed lawns and, in Los Angeles, in particular, in the suburbanization of what in a different era would have developed into an urban center.

It may not have been inevitable that suburban soccer got its start outside America’s major cities, notably New York and Los Angeles, but that’s where it began. My soccer career began in the mid-1960s, as the formative American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), founded in 1964 by soccer-loving German ex-pats in Torrance, California (part of the Los Angeles complex), migrated north to Portola Valley and Menlo Park, then sleepy, moderately upscale suburbs of San Francisco and now central to Silicon Valley. Bob Bradley’s soccer career began in a New Jersey suburb of New York, as soccer-supporting families migrated slowly out of older, urban communities nearby. Both West and East, youth soccer in the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s blended middle-class and upper-class children whose families were looking for alternatives to “standard” sports (baseball and American football) and children of immigrant and ethnic families, carrying on established cultural traditions. For them, suburban soccer was often situated on the pathway of social and cultural mobility. I know nothing of Bradley’s teammates on his youth teams. My own teammates included kids from Mexican families, Jamaican families, Dutch families, and French families, many of whom began with modest expectations and ended up with college degrees and diverse professional careers. The soccer field of early 1970s Menlo Park was a true socioeconomic and sociocultural melting pot.

On the field, the quality of play, which at all levels of the American game was mediocre (and some would say, it still is), wasn’t the point. The point was an emerging, distinctive American vision of soccer, which continued to play out (among other places) in Bob Bradley’s playing career. He played college soccer at Princeton. The Ivy colleges (notably Brown, later Yale), starting to seed themselves in the late 1970s with talent drawn from high-level suburban soccer clubs, were emerging as national college soccer powers. The influence of NCAA championship teams filled with imported talent (University of San Francisco, the early powerful clubs at the University of Indiana) and talent recruited primarily from urban communities (St. Louis University) began to wane. I remember watching and being impressed by the powerful Andy Atuegbu, a powerful Nigerian who starred as a forward for USF, but I admired and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Rick Davis, a Californian who (along with Kyle Rote, Jr.) then represented the face and future of American soccer.

Bradley’s investment in the game began, in short, precisely as what has come to be understood as an early 20th century “authentic” form of soccer began its slow decline, particularly in the US, to be succeeded by something less grounded in place-specific, class-specific, and historical narratives. And as he has pursued a coaching career not only in the US but around the world, Bob Bradley has continued to advocate, by implication, for precisely that vision, even beyond the American context. History is no longer destiny, in soccer terms.

Today, to anguished and disappointed British soccer supporters (who suspect that Bradley’s appointment has less to do with his potential and more to do with the American identity of Swansea’s ownership), both in Swansea and elsewhere, what I’ve described mostly as opportunity may be perceived as threat. In a sense, Bradley represents the ‘loss of the colonies’ (as English schoolchildren are sometimes taught to refer to what Americans call the ‘American Revolution’) all over again, the displacement of an English ideal by an American upstart. Though I’m eliding potentially important distinctions between Wales and England, for rhetorical purpose, my claim is that to some supporters of the game in the UK, an American pacing the sideline of a Premiership soccer field signifies rejection of what remains of the core, traditional mythology of the game, both as a cultural form with a direct and specific lineage in English history and with direct and specific lineage as a cultural expression of working class, urban Britain.

The irony, therefore, is precisely that so little of that imagined game still exists even in the UK, that Bradley has been brought up by his boots (note the delicious inappropriateness of that metaphor) in the context of a soccer institution – the Premier League – that so flamboyantly embodies the distancing of modern soccer from its historic roots. Whatever remains of that mythological game of football, the Premier League was organized in the early 1990s to reject it, and the marry the game on the field with the cultural and economic architecture of modern media. The Premier League is unapologetically a game produced by the wealthy for consumption by the better-off; soccer history of any sort matters little, except in service to the global branding of the contemporary product. As a continuing fan of the Premier League game, I’m as guilty of embracing the contradictions in that observation as anyone, but I’m hardly alone. I’m with Bob. Bradley is a perfect modern soccer man for the modern, cash-rich, entertainment-driven game. His struggle to achieve and be recognized for his work and his accomplishments is not a struggle to escape yet dignify a working class upbringing but instead a struggle to establish his bona fides in a culture and an economy in which one’s family and class background are meant to be perfectly irrelevant.

It helps considerably, of course, that everywhere Bradley has coached, he has turned out terrific results, often against daunting odds. I hope that he’s given a proper chance to succeed in his new position.