A way to remember Tom Cahill

David Wangerin begins his 2011 history of US soccer, Distant Corners, by standing at the barely marked gravestone of Tom Cahill. Wangerin remarks that while he thought he could find the gravesite by searching one of the many websites featuring “celebrity burials” not a single one of the listed Cahill, one of the most important “founding fathers” of soccer in the US. 

Cahill, a one time coach of the USMNT, the founder of what would become the United States Soccer Federation, and a relentless supporter for the growth of soccer in the US in the early 20th century, is simply not well known. Not by the public in general, and, truth be told, not by over 90% of soccer fans. As if to highlight this point, he’s the sixth “Tom Cahill listed on wikipedia.

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Is there any import, I wonder, to remembering such a father?

I’ve been thinking about this question over the last several weeks, as I have lightly asked soccer friends Cahill related questions. Outside of a friend who had also recently read Wangerin’s book and one guy who asked if Cahill played right back for LAFC, I got blank stares back from everyone else (annoyed blank stares, tho).

Cahill died in 1951, long before most soccer fans were born. He was clearly a giant in the history of the sport, serving multiple roles and serving countless hours in an attempt to make it the “most celebrated” sport (save baseball—he thought was too much of a reach) in the country. And, seriously, accounts of his life and work are impressive.

I sometimes think it’s nerdy to be looking backward and citing odd trivial facts from the history of the sport. And I know it comes off that way because when I get on a run with such stuff, I can just see my friends; eyes roll way back in their heads. 

And yet, I’m beginning to think there is some value in all of us, as fans, to reach back into the history of our clubs, the history of nation’s interest in the sport, in the history of its growth and global transitions.

Here’s the deal, and I don’t want this to come off as a “kids today” type argument: I’m as guilty of almost everything I’m going to point to here. When I look at our discussions on line (elsewhere, too, but especially online) around soccer here in Nashville, I see folks who just take huge amounts for granted and find ways to pick at almost every aspect of the game as it is now, from the lack of promotion-relegation, to awful officiating (although it only seems awful, as far as I can tell, because everyone thinks it always goes against Nashville) to issues with parking, to players one finds awful, to long lines at the nacho stand. And So forth.

And I don’t want to say these aren’t real problems or that we shouldn’t discuss them—we should. Just as “first world problems” are, indeed, problems, the issues we see with the current game—local and global—are, in fact issues. And ones that deserve serious discussion at times and silly banter at others. So, I’m not wanting to poo poo those discussions at all.

What I do wish is that we not only had moments of great, great appreciation for the fact that we are currently living in the golden-est golden age of soccer in the US. An extraordinary women’s national team, a US men’s team bursting with youthful talent, a major professional league with mostly their own stadia, television broadcasts that allow us to watch the global game, an absolutely insanely generative second and third tier soccer leagues (some, such as Louisville, with their own soccer specific stadia). 

Yes, there are issues and problems, but we are living in an age Tom Cahill no doubt thought, after so many decades of start and stop movement and failure, might never get here. 

I guess perspective is what I’m after. We should really appreciate what we have just a tad more. And we should realize that this doesn’t happen on its own. The Tom Cahills of the past worked to help advance that game to where we are now. What can each of us do, silently or publicly, to grow the game. Whether we are talking local, national, or global, there were giants that came before us to set the stage.    

Take a soccer curious friend to a game? Absolutely. Engage in thoughtful speculation about ways to improve it? Right on.

And getting a grasp on the past helps with this, so, yes, pick up a book or two. Read, reflect, enjoy.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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