Sunderland AFC in the United States & Canada Sunderland AFC’s affair with “Soccer” in the United States was due to start as far back as 1896, when it was mooted that they would become one of the first English teams to undertake an overseas tour. However the tour was cancelled at the last minute. Nevertheless our 1967 venture wasn’t our first taste of “Soccer” in the USA.
In 1955 the club toured North America playing at Ebbets Field, the famous home of The Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball team against an American Soccer League XI and other venues such as Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall Island against Huddersfield Town. All in all they played 9 games; 4 against the aforementioned Yorkshire team.
For the 1967 league, Sunderland were initially to have represented Washington DC. However basing clubs on the basis of where the organizers thought they would attract the biggest crowds, the red and whites were eventually sent to represent the City of Vancouver. Aberdeen, as The Washington Whips went to America’s capital.
Sunderland received the contract to play in the United States in January 1967, and after careful consideration they were duly signed by the club’s Directors. One worry of course was that the English Football League season didn’t finish until 13 May and as the American version was due to kick off in late May, finishing in early to mid July, the close season for the players would be limited.
There was also a further complication. There was a potential showdown with the Scottish FA who were undertaking their own summer goodwill tour of Israel, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Therefore it was of concern to the Americans that our big name players such as Jim Baxter and Neil Martin wouldn’t be able to line up in Vancouver. In the end they both went to Vancouver.
Ian McColl, Sunderland’s Manager at the time stated that “We have received a letter from the Scottish Football Association regarding the availability of players for a close season tour. This tour however clashes with our trip to America and it is most unlikely that we would release players for Scotland” he said. In truth the club’s hands were probably tied by the Americans.
Jimmy Montgomery didn’t travel with the initial party from Sunderland. He stayed behind to receive treatment on an injured back and also took part in an England Under-23 tour, as we shall see. However with results going against the red and whites he would soon join the team in North America. Some of the clubs such as Hibs and Stoke played in their traditional strips. Pictures of Sunderland show us in a first team strip of all red and a change of all white.
Initially the organisers of the 1967 United Soccer Association League expected teams like Valencia, Real Zaragoza and Borussia Dortmund to accept invitations, but in the end they didn’t compete. As a substitute and to give the season a kick start, a series of exhibition matches were arranged for the weeks in the run up to the start of the tournament proper. Red Star Belgrade, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Leeds United, Vasas Budapest, West Ham, Eintracht Frankfurt, Rangers, Valencia and Benfica were some of the glamorous clubs invited to take part.
According to archives, the tournament was receiving very little publicity in the US in the spring of 1967, which may have been due to uncertainty as to which clubs would actually take part. As well as those already confirmed by the end of February, invitations had been issued to: Hibernian, ADO den Haag of the Netherlands, America FC of Mexico, Bangu from Brazil, Bruges of Belgium, Cerro of Uruguay, Glentoran of Northern Ireland, Shamrock Rovers of Eire and Dunfermline Athletic. Dunfermline turned down the invitation and Hibs were beginning to have reservations due to the length of the trip and its possible consequences for the following season. Dunfermline’s decision to stay at home may be said to have paid off when they won the Scottish Cup in 1967-68, beating Hearts 3-1 in the final, disposing of Aberdeen en route. The Pars instead elected to undertake a mini-tour of Egypt during June, but this was hastily called off when Egypt and Israel’s local derby, in the guise of the Seven Day War, broke out on 7 June.
At this stage, Wolverhampton Wanderers had not been included on the list of invited clubs. What the final outcome of the USA season would have been had they not taken part, can only be conjecture. In quick succession, the Football League in England refused permission to Leeds United and Liverpool to take part in the pre-season exhibition matches, although West Ham United traveled to Houston to take on Real Madrid. Their valiant efforts were in vain as they lost 3-2 before a crowd of 33,351 in the world’s first indoor match. The crowd was the second highest ever to watch a live game in the US. Among the other exhibition fixtures that took place, Valencia beat Rangers 1-0 in Toronto. The crowd was 21,940; Valencia scored after only four minutes and then defended for the remaining 86. The game was described as ‘rough and marred by fouls’.
Finally, it should be noted that Sunderland, like the other competitors, were recruited as a Franchise team. The Directors of Sunderland AFC in effect had nothing to do with the league, the competition and carried no authority over it. Instead the teams were owned by American and Canadian businessmen who had paid the United Soccer Association a sizable sum (mooted to be in the region of $250k) per team to operate in the league.