On the tarmac in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, October 1989 (Jon van Woerden photo)

Baseball has its Knickerbockers and the 19th century National League, while basketball traces its roots back to Dr. John Naismith and his peach baskets. With Generation Zero, the new sociological/sports history from author Hal Phillips, American soccer finally has a Creation story of its own — a modern one, befitting the extraordinary growth the game has undergone since 1970, after a full century in the wilderness.

Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America(Dickinson-Moses Press, 2022) is now available for purchase, via Amazon.com. Official launch date: July 19, 2022. 

The timing could not be more felicitous: With World Cup 2022 set to kick off Nov. 21 in Qatar, with Major League Soccer newly partnered up with Apple TV and preparing to welcome its 29th and 30th franchises, with the 2026 men’s World Cup to be contested in the United States, Mexico and Canada, American soccer is poised to assume an even bigger place in the sporting and cultural mainstream.

“I’m old enough to remember when U.S. soccer was something of a global punch-line, a sporting oxymoron akin to Jamaican bobsledding,” says Phillips (b. 1964). “No professional league post-1984, no Americans playing overseas, no World Cup qualifications since 1950. Americans born prior to 1985 grew up in a famously soccer-indifferent country. Well, we all live in a completely different country today, thanks to Generation Zero — the elite players and fans born in the mid-1960s and raised on soccer during the 1970s.”

Generation Zero profiles this epic transformation, starting with the Youth Soccer Revolution of the 1970s, and concluding with the U.S. Men’s National Team’s dramatic, watershed qualification for World Cup 1990, in Italy.

“That achievement flipped the switch,” explains the Maine-based author, a veteran journalist and media executive. “Conventional wisdom assigns American soccer progress largely to a single event, World Cup ’94. But history shows the tipping point arrived five years earlier. Even then, the famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World — Paul Caligiuri’s goal that qualified the U.S. for Italia ’90 — was the culmination of a 20-year evolution.

“Those youth leagues that spread like wildfire across suburbia during the Nixon Era — they were the bellwether. American boys and girls had never before grown up with soccer, as they did with baseball or football, for example. Very quickly, starting circa 1970, millions of young boys and girls were exposed to the game. Those kids are 50somethings today and they still love soccer. In fact, their support for U.S. national teams, men’s and women’s, starting in 1990, proved critical: Their attendance and viewing habits made a success of World Cup USA, in 1994, then Major League Soccer starting in 1996.”

Generation Zero is Phillips’ narrative shorthand for Generation X, the cohort of Americans (b. 1961-1981) that produced both ends of the game’s formative equation in the U.S.: a national team good enough to break through and an audience that would care, the country’s first legitimate soccer fan base. What’s more, Phillips asserts that everything associated with the fulsome 21st-century futbol culture Americans enjoy today was enabled by the 1990 U.S. Men’s National Team and its victory in Port of Spain.

Yet that pivotal moment was indeed two decades in the making, and Generation Zero details that evolution as no book ever has: from the default reign of largely clueless Soccer Dads during the Youth Soccer Revolution, to the critical launch of the Olympic Development Program (1978); from the Carter-era heyday of the North American Soccer League to its sad demise in 1984 — just as future members of the 1990 USMNT were poised to make their professional careers therein.

The 1980s did indeed foist upon Generation Zero one futbol indignity after another. First-division, outdoor soccer would not be replaced for 12 long years. Matches on TV? Only the indoor variety could be found there — late at night, on content-starved cable outlets, right after competitive lumberjacking. When the U.S. failed to qualify for World Cup 1986, a new low was established. However, that failure moved the U.S. Soccer Federation to drop the entire senior national team program in the lap of Generation Zero, half of whom were still in college — none of whom had anywhere to play top-class club soccer.

“World Cup participation was the key,” Phillips argues. “And here’s where the GZ narrative connects: Every member of that 1989 USMNT played youth soccer during the 1970s. In the hundred years prior, outside a few urban enclaves, soccer had never been a game boys and girls played — not as kids, not in such numbers. More than any other factor, this youth movement changed the sporting culture by enabling the development of American soccer natives, some of whom, enough of whom, grew up to develop World Cup-worthy talent.”

Phillips’ lively, historical narrative was built upon primary sources: his in-depth interviews with a dozen 1990 USMNTers, with their skipper Bob Gansler, with dozens more coaches, players and contemporary media observers. The GZ index stretches to 25 pages. The book also features rare imagery from Jon van Woerden, the official 1989-90 national team photographer, in addition to candid, behind-the-scenes snaps supplied by players themselves.

Sprinkled amid all this documentation are elements of memoir, as the author is exactly the same age as his primary subjects. In fact, Phillips competed against them during youth tournaments, at college, in the semi-pro, urban/ethnic leagues that topped the American soccer pyramid during the post-apocalyptic mid-Eighties.

“The personal couldn’t be avoided. The reporting here is exhaustive, but Bruce Murray didbillet in my house — back in 1976,” Phillips says. “I also wanted to paint a nuanced portrait of these two decades that produced such a cultural sea change. The Seventies were so rich, so eclectic, so detached from convention: I don’t think soccer would have gained such a cultural toe-hold, for example, had that decade been more effectively tied to American traditions and uniformly held ideals of community, and sport.”

As for the Eighties, well, there the author defers to three-time World Cupper Marcelo Balboa, who explains, “We wanted to leave something behind, a legacy — and I think it was the mullet. We tore it up on the mullet front.”

Celebrating in Port of Spain, November 1989, minutes after changing the U.S. sporting landscape forever (Jon van Woerden photo)