When record Irish champions Shamrock Rovers host MLS champions LA Galaxy this Saturday, it not only means a return to Tallaght for national icon Robbie Keane. The pre-season fixture has echoes of the summer of ’67, when Rovers took part in a pioneering league in the States. Peter Doyle speaks to Rovers club historian Robert Goggins.
But the visit of the MLS champions to Dublin on Saturday has revived memories of a pioneering Rovers side which helped to pave the way for professional soccer in the US and Canada.
MLS may be celebrating its 20th anniversary when it kicks off again in March – but North America first began to flirt seriously with the beautiful game during the Summer of Love. In 1967, Rovers and 11 other sides from Europe and South America arrived to take part in the fledgling United Soccer Association (USA).
And although the USA league folded after only one season, its brief existence helped lay the foundations for organised soccer across the Atlantic.
Robert Goggins, author of ‘A Chronological History of Shamrock Rovers’, explains: ‘It was an invitational tournament and Rovers were asked to go over.
‘It had been set up after FIFA had asked the soccer authorities in America to organise a professional league after the success of the 1966 World Cup in England.
‘But soccer at that time wasn’t really taken seriously in America, so the significance of the event was fully taken on board at the time.’
Scheduled to kick off in 1968, the USA was caught on the hop without teams or players after CBS agreed to begin televising matches staged by a rival set-up, the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), in 1967.
Not wanting to lose ground in the battle for lucrative TV contracts, the USA fast-tracked its own launch by 12 months with the help of teams imported for the summer from the top leagues in Brazil, Uruguay, Scotland, Holland, Italy and England, as well as Ireland.
With much fanfare and predictable razzmatazz, it was claimed that the ’12 best teams in the world’ had been recruited to represent franchises across the US and Canada in the FIFA-sanctioned competition.
Rovers had just lifted the FAI Cup for the fourth time in the famous six-in-a-row series, but they were struggling in the league when they were controversially offered a hefty $250,000 for eight weeks’ work.
Explaining the invite, Robert says: ‘The club was owned at the time by a family known as the Cunninghams, who had been in control since the 1930s.
‘The Cunninghams had great contacts in the game – Rovers had actually played in the 1961 New York Invitational tournament – so that’s how the USA invite came about.
‘But there were problems with some of the other Irish clubs and Rovers had to pay some of their fee to the FAI as compensation.’
That summer, Rovers were based in Boston, where they took the name of their adopted city. Organisers hoped they would attract the considerable local Irish population to flock to the Manning Bowl in support of the Dublin side as they competed against Aberdeen (Washington Whips), Stoke City (Cleveland Stokers), Hibernian (Toronto City), Glentoran (Detroit Cougars) and Uruguay’s Cerro (New York Skyliners) in the USA Eastern Division.
But the Hoops couldn’t shake off their indifferent league form – they had ended the season at home in seventh place. Despite the best efforts of six-in-row hero Liam Tuohy as player-coach, Rovers finished bottom of their group, with seven points from 12 matches. Robert explains: ‘They were up against full-time professional clubs. Rovers were only a part-time club and they had arrived in Boston after the end of a very long and hard season.’
Meanwhile, in the USA Western Division, the Los Angeles Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers) triumphed over the San Francisco Gales (Den Haag), Chicago Mustangs (Cagliari), Houston Stars (Bangu AC from Brazil), Vancouver Royal Canadians (Sunderland), and Dallas Tornado (Dundee United), to join Eastern winners Aberdeen in the final.
Although the final in Los Angeles’ Memorial Stadium was an 11-goal thriller, which Wolves won 6-5 thanks to a last-gasp winner in the 36th minute of extra time, the USA experiment concluded with poor attendances and scrappy matches. Partly to blame was a failure to attract top teams and star names – the only players of real note on show that summer were Stoke’s Gordon Banks and Roberto Boninsegna of Cagliari.
The next year the USA merged with the NPSL – and the star-studded predecessor of MLS, the North American Soccer League, Pelé, Best and all, was born.
Shamrock Rovers v LA Galaxy, Saturday February 20, 4pm, Tallaght Stadium. Details & ticket information at www.shamrockrovers.ie.