The Olympic Games have long presented a challenged for the United States men’s national team program, fraught with underwhelming performances and repeated failures to qualify. It could be said that securing a place on the podium would require extreme circumstances. However, at the highly irregular 1904 Olympics, the United States captured both the silver and bronze medals in men’s soccer.
The sport was first contested at the second modern Olympic Summer Games in 1900, with clubs from Great Britain, France, and Belgium. International teams did not participate until 1908, four years after the creation of FIFA. Medals from the first two tournaments are recognized by the International Olympic Committee, but not FIFA. According to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, these early tournaments could be considered “a demonstration of football” instead of an official sanctioned competition.
The 1904 Olympics were originally to be contested in Chicago, but Missouri Governor David Francis and President Theodore Roosevelt moved the games to St. Louis in conjunction with the World’s Fair celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. The events lasted from July 1st through November 23rd, with the soccer tournament closing proceedings in November.
Due to the difficulty in traveling to Middle America and tensions from the Russo-Japanese War, the games featured athletes from 12 nations. A mere eight countries’ representatives resided outside of the United States. American athletes outnumbered their competition by an overwhelming margin, with most internationals traveling from Canada.
This was the first Olympics where medals were awarded. The United States claimed 239 out of 280, although this has continually been disputed due to the citizenship of several athletes, many of whom “competed as individuals” without international teams. In 2012, Norway requested the IOC “change the nationality of two gold medal-winning wrestlers.”
The soccer tournament featured three teams: two local St. Louis representatives (Christian Brothers College and St. Rose Parish) and one from Canada (Galt F.C.). Matches were played at Washington University in St. Louis’ Francis Field. Several other teams initially entered or considered competing, but held out for various reasons. The University of Toronto lost against Galt prior to the tournament and opted not to enter. The Berlin Rangers could not afford the travel costs.
Founded in 1881, Galt was one of the world’s best clubs, dominating Canadian soccer and touring Europe. In 1905, the Ontario-based team drew with barnstorming English club The Pilgrims in a match described as “The Championship of the World.” The club dissolved in 1910 after winning multiple domestic trophies.
Christian Brothers and St. Rose were members of a local amateur league formed by Joseph Lydon (who, in addition to serving as player/coach for CBC, won a bronze at the 1904 Games in boxing). Christian Brothers was a primary, secondary, and collegiate boarding school for boys, but is now a high school. The Cadets dominated the university level, winning 16 consecutive national championships. In sharp contrast to the experienced Canadian side, both American squads featured a haphazard mix of adults, university students, and several teenagers.
Galt dispatched its American opponents on consecutive days, routing Christian Brothers, 7-0, and St. Rose, 4-0. According to Colin Jose of CanadianSoccerHistory.com, the matches were 60 minutes long. After the second contest, the players were presented with their gold medals at Washington University’s Department of Physical Culture by the Mayor of Galt, who was a member of the travel party.
With the silver medal at stake, the two American teams played to a scoreless draw on November 18th through three extra time periods, before a postponement due to darkness. Five days later, Christian Brothers won the rescheduled match by a 2-0 margin. The two sides also played a local league match on November 20th that ended in a tie, and has, on occasion, been mistakenly included in tournament results.
Thus concluded the soccer portion of the 1904 Olympiad. The Americans failed to win the gold despite a two-to-one advantage in participation. Club sides again competed at the 1906 Olympics in Athens, Greece (the “Intercalated Games”) before national teams became involved in 1908. The United States did not participate again until 1924. The program came closest to returning to the podium at the 2000 Sydney Games, with Clive Charles’ squad finishing in fourth place, losing to Chile in the bronze medal match.
The 2020 Olympics are currently scheduled for 2021, but will be referred to as the 2020 Games. Perhaps this provides the necessary level of convolution that enables the U.S. men to win a medal. Until then, St. Louis 1904 remains the lone Olympic glory for a federation that would not come into existence for another nine years.