Below is an excerpt from Hal Phillips’ new book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories and the Making of Soccer in America. More stories can be found at

Young men and women in 2022 are strongly encouraged by their coaches and parents to specialize in a single sporting discipline. This practice was nearly unheard of during the 1970s, when the United States first set about creating soccer natives en masse, and the three-sport athletic ideal still held cultural primacy. In that sense, back then, despite new youth soccer programs popping up on a weekly basis, soccer didn’t threaten other sports the way that it might in the 21st Century, when playing academy or premier-club soccer 10 months out of 12 might mean dumping rival activities altogether.

Even so, throughout the Seventies and well into the 1980s, soccer was perceived as a double disruptor of the domestic status quo. It was widely seen as a foreign sport, not an American one. Yet it also infringed upon this traditional three-sport dominion. Not surprisingly, its rapid growth across suburban America did prompt significant, open dissent from the organizers of and participants in better-established youth sports, as soccer began to pull kids and resources its way.

This pushback, this “appeal to history,” is something Andrei Markovits and Stephen Hellerman discuss in their 2001 book, Soccer and American Exceptionalism. They also call this dynamic “contestation.” It’s a universal phenomenon, they make clear, one not particular to the U.S. However, during the Seventies, in America, even 10-year-old kids couldn’t miss it. Growing up in Wellesley, Mass., I participated in organized and pickup versions of basketball, baseball, hockey, football, golf, volleyball, and track and field. No one in the culture at large gave two shits about these choices. But a whole host of guys, big and small (and they were all guys), sure seemed mighty put off that I played soccer.

The socioeconomic context of the game’s growth during the 1970s remains critical to our understanding of soccer mainstreaming in America: Suburbs, where the Youth Soccer Revolution took the strongest hold, still tend to be more conservative and affluent than urban areas. There exists more disposable household income in the suburbs, too, and more competition for that money when it comes to recreational choices. There are only so many kids in any one town. The more boys and girls opt for soccer, the fewer opt for football and field hockey.

This zero-sum reality naturally did not sit well with the adults who organized and coached those more “traditional” sports. In the Seventies, these folks found themselves competing not merely for warm bodies, but also for access to local playing fields and funding, be it public or participant-raised.

One of Markovits and Hellerman’s theses goes like this: All established sports prolifically utilize a constant appeal to history to discredit their potential rivals. During the 1970s, it sounded like this: “Why don’t you play an American sport?”

I recognize this scene-setting may sound a bit paranoid, or possibly grandiose, but the verbal battle for hearts and minds during this period was genuine and acute. This much was made very clear to my teammates and me, all of us born in 1964: Soccer wasn’t just un-American. It was the very embodiment of a “pussy sport.” We heard this slander, directly and more obliquely, over and over again. It came mainly from American football players but also from their coaches, many of whom were our gym teachers, too.

The evidence for this deliberately provocative, faux macho, verifiably misogynistic label? Well, wasn’t it obvious? Here was a sport played in shorts and knee socks. Here was a game with only a modicum of physical contact — or so they thought. Here was a sport played by smaller guys who couldn’t succeed at American football. Here was a sport played by girls as well! Here was a sport that embraced the 0-0 draw — all draws!!

It all sounds a bit ridiculous today, especially in light of soccer’s continued mainstreaming today, and its thoroughly robust place in today’s youth sports tableau. What’s more, many of these caustic assertions were issued four decades ago by kids wearing jean shorts. In retrospect, it’s hard to take them seriously.

Nevertheless, this cultural resentment of soccer and its less-than-manly, less-than-American qualities — this threat to America’s precious bodily fluids, as Stanley Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, might have put it — was unmistakable.

“I used to get teased all the time about playing soccer,” recalls Marcelo Balboa (b. 1967), a product of the Youth Soccer Revolution and eventually a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team at Italia ’90. “‘Why don’t you play an American sport?’ That’s what they said! Man, how do you answer that, as a kid? This was still a country that barely knew what soccer was.”

Balboa, who grew up in Southern California, could be talking about almost every gym teacher at my junior high school back east: male, conservative, schooled mainly in the arts of football, basketball and baseball, a bit doughy, and often corseted into a pair of those stretchy coaching shorts purveyed at the time by Russell Athletic. I was big for my age. I could run. These guys could not understand why I wasn’t playing football and said so, publicly and repeatedly. They mostly appealed to history, in the way Balboa describes. They didn’t deploy the pejorative vernacular. That was left mainly to my peers.

“They called us pussies and shit like that,” my teammate Tom Wadlington says. “I remember that football players themselves were the most aggressive about that sort of thing. They were threatened, I guess? Maybe they’d heard it from their coaches? I remember that sort of thing starting early but lasting through high school.”

During the 1970s, the choice to play and stay with soccer almost necessarily required, then engendered, a certain level of self-possession and iconoclasm, even a measure of rebellion. For boys especially, those traits are what allowed children born in the Sixties and raised in the 1970s — whom I collectively call Generation Zero — to choose soccer and stay with it, in the face of so many negative headwinds.

Fortunately, as with the preceding decade, the Seventies proved exceedingly countercultural, a time when the “other” was derided and accommodated by turn. Flower children weren’t meeting armed troops with posies, but millions did mass in the streets to challenge the draft, to build a modern environmental movement (“Give a hoot, don’t pollute!”), to support an equal rights amendment. Citizens were grappling for the first time publicly with the idea of legal protections for aboriginal Americans, gay men and women, Hispanics and other increasingly segmented people of color. In 1973, Mad magazine, the voice of weird and transgressive American youth, reached its peak circulation of 2.8 million. During the Seventies — an era that also brought Americans the scatalogical irreverence of The National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live — something as new and solemn as identity politics could gather popular steam alongside something as new and frivolous as disco, or platform shoes. Indeed, in a decade more tied to cultural traditions, soccer may never have gained such an important, lasting toehold.

The 1990 U.S. Men’s National Team, at the Berlin Wall, just prior to Italia ‘90. Each member of this squad was born in the Sixties and raised as a soccer native during the 1970s.

Youthful soccer pioneers of the mid-Seventies answered reactionary attacks on our respective manhoods, incipient though they were, in myriad ways. There were physical confrontations. There was gym class, in addition to various other sporting arenas where we could demonstrate the actual athleticism of soccer players. What’s more, the fact that charismatic, celebrity figures like Pelé, Eusébio, George Best and other international stars were flocking to the North American Soccer League (NASL) certainly helped legitimize the act of playing this world game.

But no figure during the 1970s did more to quell the debate than one of American soccer’s truly unsung heroes, Kyle Rote, Jr.

In a different time and place, Rote would have been a great story for his on-field prowess alone. Somewhat forgotten today, Rote was the NASL’s first American-born “skill player” of consequence. Most of the league’s quota-filling, U.S.-born players were grunts: goalies (like Shep Messing), wing- backs (Bennie Brewster), or fit, hardworking, under-skilled midfielders like the Cosmos’ young phenom, Ricky Davis. By contrast, Rote — the son of New York Football Giants star Kyle Rote — was a striker, and a prolific one. In 1973, his rookie season with the Dallas Tornado, he led the NASL in scoring.

While Rote was a legit-if-one-dimensional offensive sensation, it would take a trashy bit of mass-market, sports-entertainment programming to convey his obvious physical gifts, and those of all soccer players, to the wider culture.

Superstars first burst into the American sporting consciousness during the winter of 1973, when ABC collected prominent athletes to compete in a sort of nontraditional, made-for-TV decathlon. Its popularity would trigger an avalanche of even schlockier competitions: Battle of the Network Stars (hosted by none other than Howard Cosell), for example, and Team Superstars, which pitted World Series champions and Super Bowl champions in competitions like outrigger canoe races, tug of war on the beach, and obstacle courses. NASL champions? Not invited.

It was the original Superstars, however, that unleashed this particular torrent. The idea had been hatched by figure-skating commentator and former Olympian Dick Button, of all people. The show grew into a phenomenon that captured the imagination of adolescent boys from coast to coast. Fittingly, the inaugural competition was claimed by a former Olympian: pole-vaulter Bob Seagren, who would later cross over into acting by playing Billy Crystal’s gay lover on the quite-racy-for-its-time sitcom Soap.

We soccer players paid particular attention starting in 1974, when Kyle Rote Jr. struck a blow for alleged pussies in knee socks everywhere by winning the first of his three Superstars “titles” in four years. Put that in your contestation pipes and smoke it, futbol naysayers.

“Yeah, that was big for me,” reports Soccer America editor Mike Woitalla (b. 1964). “When I was playing in the Seventies, soccer was still considered a foreign sport. I can’t really overstate that, or how happy the Superstars thing made me, made all of us — because we were playing when people didn’t really know what soccer was. It was not a sport certainly that got a lot of respect. To have him win the Superstars was just a huge affirmation.

“I can remember Kyle Rote from the Tornado games I went to, as well. So I looked up to him in the way other kids latched onto Americans in NASL. But yeah, the Superstars thing was huge. Kyle Rote was already famous in Dallas because of his father. He wasn’t a great player, but Ron Newman [Rote’s British-born Tornado teammate] was brilliant. He figured out that if he hit him a good cross, Rote could score on headers.”

It’s hard to pin down the actual popularity of anything on television in the pre-cable Seventies, a period featuring just three network channels and a bunch of UHF stations showing reruns of Fifties sitcoms alongside even more archaic content like Little Rascals, The Three Stooges, Felix the Cat and The Bowery Boys. The paucity of viewing options resulted in massive Nielsen ratings that stemmed from having literally nothing else to watch.

Bearing in mind the suspect nature of the era’s television-entertainment universe, perhaps it is less surprising that Superstars resonated so hugely with our pre-pubescent demographic. God help us, but my friends and I would have watched it religiously even if Kyle Rote Jr. had not won three out of four. As it happens, however, he did. This proved conclusively and for all time what superb all-around athletes soccer players truly are, and how recognizably American soccer players could be.

Marcelo Balboa (left) and Paul Caligiuri (20) close down Italian midfielder Nicola Alberti at World Cup 1990. According to Balboa, raised a soccer native during the Youth Soccer Revolution of the 1970s, “I used to get teased all the time about playing soccer. ‘Why don’t you play an American sport?’ That’s what they said! Man, how do you answer that, as a kid?”
(Photo Credit: Jon van Woerden)

Soccer changed the status quo at U.S. high schools during the early 1980s, just as the game, the Youth Soccer Revolution and Title IX together had changed the sports equation a decade before. In both cases, Generation Zero stood astride the transformation. Its sheer numbers in many ways created the tipping point. According to Markovits and Hellerman, 115,811 boys registered to play in soccer programs at American high schools in 1976-77. Complemented by 11,534 registered girls, the total came to 127,345. By 1980-81 — just five years later, but exactly when children of the Seventies started arriving in U.S. high schools — the combined total had climbed to 190,495. By 1990, the figure had grown to 523,223.

According to Markovits and Hellerman, Perhaps the most significant of all the data for the game’s immense growth . . . pertains to the number of registered soccer coaches in the country: In 1941 there were the 10 who founded the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. By 1960 their number had increased to 400; in 1980, it was 2,300, and by 1997 it had ballooned to 14,650.

Not all coaches join national associations, so those figures were likely to be much higher… Not that the coaching standard during the first Reagan Administration was very high.

“High school soccer? A total wasteland,” future USMNT striker Bruce Murray (b. 1966) opines. “The coach at my high school would only play seniors. I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, right? I’m banging in goals for Montgomery United and we’re winning national championships. And you’re playing this guy ahead of me?’ Look, I was young and hotheaded. This was my first experience with a ‘political’ situation and I didn’t handle it great. But I did quit. I was get- ting great coaching from John Kerr Sr.”

Like Murray, my cohort of showed up at Wellesley Senior High School in 1979 and couldn’t quite believe the varsity was led by “Physical” Phil Davis, an ornery, soccer-ignorant, 65-year-old gym teacher. Davis hailed from another era — another planet. When he took over the brand-new Wellesley High soccer program, in 1969, he had never played the game in his life. Assisting Davis and serving as junior varsity coach: a younger, more reasonable fellow named Peter Loiter, who’d come to the Wellesley schools in 1969, directly from Springfield College, a place well known for turning out qualified coaches of all stripes.

“I student-taught in Wellesley and I’m there, the first day, and Bud Hines, the athletic director, comes to me and says, ‘We need a JV soccer coach.’ I had never played soccer,” Loiter recalls, “but Hines could not have cared less about soccer. He was a hockey and football guy. He thought soccer was for little pantywaists and such. This was 1969. So, he said to me, ‘I’ll pay you 450 bucks.’ So I said, ‘I’m in!’

“At the very beginning I took this soccer coaching course because, you know, I didn’t know anything. When I first started with the JVs, I had a book in my hand. My first soccer practice ever! It was actually a wonderful book written by this guy who’d been an English national team coach.” Loiter is referring to Charles Hughes, author of Soccer Tactics and Teamwork and The Football Association Book of Soccer Tactics and Skills.

“So, none of us knew anything. The kid who took our penalty shots that first year hit them with his toe. He was a junior, a really good athlete — he may have been the hockey captain — and every one of his PKs were side panel! I wasn’t going to try and change him because I didn’t have the skill set to even try and change him. At that time, most of the high schools in our league didn’t have enough actual soccer players to have decent varsity teams throughout. Not even close. Well, thanks to the Ray Copelands of the world [founder of the Wellesley United Soccer Club in the early 1970s], Wellesley did. Soon enough, Wellesley had hundreds of kids who had started playing soccer when they were little kids.”

After my year with Loiter on the JV, Davis retired and Loiter graduated to the varsity — alongside myself and all of my club teammates born in the mid-1960s and raised on the game starting in the early 1970s. This group hadn’t just played soccer before: We were legit soccer natives. Along with three luminaries from the class ahead of ours, we won a state championship my junior year. The Wellesley High girls won it all the following year. As it had done at the club level all through the Seventies, the Wellesley chapter of Generation Zero cemented our suburban high school as a state soccer power.

“We made the transition in your era. We went from having kids who wanted to play but just weren’t there yet, to your group,” Loiter says. “You really were soccer players when you showed up in high school. Today, of course, they’re at a higher level still. Of all the eras I was there, though, I think your group played well into adulthood more than any other. I just think it was a group that really loved the game. It actually became part of the fabric of who you guys were. I think it’s part of what made the team good and made the game advance so greatly in those years.”

Our collective experience in Wellesley proved a microcosm of what was transpiring at high schools all across the country. By 1982, soccer had started to matter because, by that time, suburban schools especially were overflowing with youth soccer revolutionaries. With every passing year, it mattered more. We in Generation Zero weren’t just the tipping point. We were the tip of the spear.