Essay: Portuguese Days of the U.S. Team

The U.S. team at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. (Image from FIFA video)

The U.S. team at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. (Image from FIFA video)

When the United States faces Portugal this Sunday, long gone will be the days when Portuguese immigrants from Fall River, Massachusetts, made up most of the U.S. team. With team members hailing from Oslo to Dallas, the 2014 U.S. team has already surprised some, beating Ghana in their first match at the World Cup.

What fans may not know is that the last time the tournament was held in Brazil, in 1950, an unusual U.S. team staged one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

The draw had decided the U.S. would face England in their second game. The English were 3-1 favorites to win it all. The Americans’ odds were 500-1. The U.S. team had been dubbed a “band of no-hopers” by the Belfast Telegraph.

When the day of the game came, there was only one American journalist in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to witness the moment a U.S. player shot the ball into the English net.

The news arrived via a wire report. The New York Times hesitated to print it. The next morning, their headline read: “U.S. Upsets England in World Soccer Tourney.” Under it, in smaller letters, the newspaper explained: “Souza’s goal beats British eleven, 1-0. Fall River man scores after 39 minutes of soccer game and U.S. protects lead.”

The Fall River man was Ed Souza, a trucker, son of Portuguese immigrants from the islands of the Azores. It turns out, though, that he was not the one to score the goal – a Haitian immigrant, Joe Gaetjens, had done it. Newspapers in England suggested that the U.S. team had arrived “through Ellis Island.”

Eight of the 11 starting players were born in the U.S., but most of them were first-generation Americans, according to “The Game of Their Lives: The Untold Story of the World Cup’s Biggest Upset,” by Geoffrey Douglas. The other three – Gaetjens, McIlvenny, and Maca – were not U.S. citizens.

The reason for such a strong presence of immigrants and first-generation Americans can be found two decades before, when soccer, on the verge of becoming a major sport in the country, started declining.

In the 1920s, soccer had tens of thousands of fans. Two of the greatest players in American history, Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves (son of Portuguese parents, called “the Babe Ruth of American soccer”), were playing and made it to the 1930 World Cup, finishing in third place – still the best-ever finish for the country.

Team owners, though, believed the perception that soccer was too “foreign” was keeping it from going mainstream.

Frank Dell’Apa, a journalist who has been writing about soccer for more than 20 years, explains that “some soccer team owners were unwilling to accept U.S. Soccer Federation rulings and refusing to participate in the U.S. Open Cup.”  They wanted to “Americanize” the sport, introducing substitutions and playoffs to the end of the season. On the other hand, “immigrant communities did not resist the USSF, participating in all open competitions.”

Soccer thrived only in a few hotbeds, like New York and New Jersey, Boston, Fall River, New Bedford and St. Louis, and players from immigrant communities rose to prominence. “In 1948, the U.S. Olympic team was basically ‘Ponta Delgada’ players,” explains Dell’Apa.

“Ponta Delgada,” named after a city in the Azores, was formed by members of the Portuguese community in Fall River. One of their players, Joseph Rego-Costa, captained the U.S. that summer of 1948. The year before, after “Ponta Delgada” had won the National Challenge Cup, the team was selected en masse to represent the U.S. at the North American soccer championship. Only two played the game against England in 1950.

That day, John “Clarkie” Souza and Ed Souza, who were not related, teamed up on the left side of the field, with Ed passing the ball to the forward, who dribbled his way to World Cup All-Star team that year and remained the only American player ever selected to a World Cup All-Star team until Claudio Reyna in 2002.

As Geoffrey Douglas wrote in “The Game of Their Lives,” the U.S. captain at the time, Walter Bahr, son of German immigrants, said the players didn’t feel less American. “John and Eddie Souza… they didn’t think of themselves as Portuguese. They thought of themselves as Americans, from Fall River. I wasn’t German; I was from Philadelphia-Kensington,” he said.

After the American Soccer League collapsed in 1931, recalls Steve Holroyd, a contributor to the “American Soccer History Archives,” soccer became a semi-professional sport until 1967. The norm was for the players to not be professionals. Ed Souza was a trucker and Gaetjens, the man who scored the lonely goal against England, worked as a dishwasher in New York City.

“Everyone who played back then worked another job. Most teams paid about $25-$50 per game, and everyone had a ‘real’ job,” Holroyd says.

Sixty-four years after that evening in Belo Horizonte, it’s a different world for U.S. players. In 1950, playing for the national team paid $100 a week. Today, players who made the squad will receive at least $76,000 each, according to a Sports Illustrated report. Holroyd believes today’s players also have “a greater belief in their ability.”

“The 1950s team knew they were part-timers, going against the world’s best. Today’s team may not think they can win the Cup, but they certainly believe they can get to the second round and beyond,” he says.

The fans are different too – there are more of them every year. In 2007, $103 million worth of soccer balls were sold in the United States, along with $179 million in soccer-related accessories. Just six years later, sales had grown to $123 million in balls and $213 million in accessories, an increase of around 20 percent.

Every movement of every player is being filmed, described, and analyzed by the 18,000 international journalists covering the tournament in Brazil. It’s a long way from the days when Ed and John Souza played their way to the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame and only one American reported on it.

The Souzas didn’t live to see the U.S. team return to Brazil, where they won their first game against Ghana last week. Ed died in 1979, at the age of 58. John died two years ago, at the age of 91, living long enough to witness his team’s “Ponta Delgada” storefront disappear in 1985, its doors closing to reopen as the Patriot Bar & Grille.

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