Americans have developed a soft spot for expertly produced, soccer-centric docuseries and “Welcome to Wrexham,” in particular, has engendered a specific appreciation for futbol clubs older than dirt. As a sporting culture, we have traditionally struggled to give a fig about this concept. The Chicago Bears, for example, don’t make a big deal about having been established in 1920; as Red Sox fan, I know Fenway Park dates to 1912, but the club itself? Not sure, and I’m not interested enough to Google it.

Maybe it’s the slick-TV packaging, but viewers do seem taken by the idea that Ryan & Rob’s excellent new venture, English League 2 club Wrexham AFC, was first formed in 1864, contemporaneous with the Battle of Chancellorsville. Even the Red Dragons’ foil from Season II, Notts County F.C., has operated without interruption, in the same place, by a verifiable chain of ownership since 1862, effectively pre-dating the Football Association itself.

If you’ve ever wondered about the oldest professional soccer clubs here in the United States, prepare to swallow hard. That honor goes to the indoor Milwaukee Wave, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2024. Or maybe it’s the Baltimore Blast, est. 1980? We’ll sort that “controversy” in a moment. But if you’re like me, it is a bit deflating that 1) indoor clubs boast more actual heritage in America’s peculiar soccer culture; and 2) 1980 just doesn’t feel so very long ago.

The critical term in this admittedly arcane discussion is professional, because that modifier disqualifies hundreds of quite venerable outdoor clubs that have been around for a hundred years or more. They all played, and many continue to play, in regional, semi-professional circuits like the Cosmopolitan League, in metropolitan New York, or the San Francisco Soccer Football League, where urban/ethnic clubs have competed at a very high level — but never a verifiably professional level — since 1946. Bavarian United, the Glendale, Wisconsin-based club where former USMNT coach Bob Gansler first cut his teeth, as a player and coach, dates back to 1929. Today it fields everything but a pro team, meaning all manner of men’s and women’s sides in a variety of youth, semi-professional and “pre-professional” leagues, including USL League Two.

When considering the longevity of professional clubs, the other critical modifier/caveat is “continually operational.” The Wave competes today in the Major Arena Soccer League. Since 1984, its players have jumped back and forth over the boards in six different indoor leagues, including three separate iterations of the primary MASL forebear, the Major Indoor Soccer League, which launched in 1978. To its credit, through all of that turbulence, the Milwaukee club never threw in the sponge.

The same cannot be said of generally more revered North American Soccer League franchises, which folded (and moved cities and changed ownership and rebranded) with remarkable frequency. Not one carried on after the league folded in 1984, though a few (Cosmos, Sockers) jumped to MISL when NASL entered its death throes. Not one NASL club participated in each of the league’s 17 seasons, though the Dallas Tornado came closest (1967-81).

The lifespan of each and every Major League Soccer franchise also remains perfectly irrelevant to this discussion. Its Original Eight were created from whole cloth in 1996. So don’t even talk to me about the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders who merely, if cannily, revived their specific NASL team names after 30 years in footballing Valhalla.


Jimmy Banks of The Milwaukee Wave (center) tangles with a pair of Fort Wayne Flames during a 1989 AISA match.

If you’ve ever wondered why the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams occupy such an outsized place in the American soccer tableau, these dynamics help explain why. When outdoor soccer finally mainstreamed itself circa 1989-90 (the story told in my 2022 book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America), there weren’t any professional clubs, indoor or outdoor, that engaged fans outside their immediate geographic areas. The national teams entered the public consciousness at this time and naturally filled that void.

Prior to 1996, it was slim pickin’s on the league front, too. We’ve touched on the two largest indoor circuits extant at that time. Out of doors, the American Professional Soccer League had formed in 1988, as the A-League. Eventually, once FIFA conferred “first division” status on the still-pending MLS, the APSL was obliged to cast its lot with a network of regional leagues that would evolve into today’s United Soccer League. Accordingly, if you’re wondering which outdoor clubs challenge on the longevity front, the USL is necessarily where we need to look.

But first, let’s pay homage and parse the historical arguments on the first two clubs in our “Most Venerated” ranking, both of which played and continue to play indoors.

The resilient Baltimore Blast can reasonably lay claim to the title of “oldest U.S. pro club,” though it did play fast and loose with the pesky “continual operations” proviso back in 1992. The expansion Blast joined MISL in the fall of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was still President of the United States. The franchise folded in 1992 (when MISL folded) only to re-form immediately under new ownership as the Baltimore Spirit, in the National Indoor Soccer League, which, at that moment, with MISL gone, stood as the best indoor league in the land. Six years later, one of the previous Blast owners reacquired the franchise. Because he retained the naming rights, the Blast moniker was reinstated… Is that “continual operations”? I’m not sure. The 1991-92 Blast roster was damned similar to the 1992-93 Spirit roster. What’s more, coach Kenny Cooper remained in charge of both, through 1994. It’s a judgment call, but this much remains clear: The Blast rejoined a revived MISL in 2001. It has proved a modern-indoor juggernaut ever since, claiming nine MISL, MASL and NISL championships since the turn of the century.

In second position, with a compelling shout of its own, is The Wave, which launched in 1984 as a charter member of the American Indoor Soccer Association. This wasn’t some second-tier circuit. During the late 1980s, The Wave employed not one but two USMNTers, George Pastor and Jimmy Banks (who closed his on-field career with Bavarians). AISA ably went toe to toe with MISL all through the 1980s, rebranded as NISL in 1990, before folding in 2000 — because that’s what 20th century American soccer leagues did. Indoor genealogy can be particularly dizzying, but once NISL closed down, MISL was immediately revived in its place. In fact, The Major Arena Soccer League arrived, in 2014, literally the day after MISL played its final match! Fun, totally fitting fact: Keith Tozer, a Milwaukee coach in the 1990s, in the NISL, today serves as MASL commissioner.

The oldest, continually operational outdoor club in U.S. soccer would appear to be the Charlotte Eagles, founded in 1991 by Missionary Athletes International, a religious organization based in North Carolina’s largest city. Today the Eagles compete in USL League Two. If you’re familiar with their history, it’s likely that you live in south/central Carolina — or you’ve read about how the club refuses to sign LGBTQ+ players. Either way, the club history informs our narrative: In 1993, the Eagles joined one of the regional, lower-tier professional leagues that, during the late 1990s, would eventually merge itself, along with the APSL, into the nascent United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL). In 2005, this joint enterprise rebranded as the United Soccer League.

USL is indeed where you find the country’s oldest, continuously operated professional clubs, including Richmond Kickers, on whom we shall bestow an honorable mention, as this primarily outdoor club dates back to 1993. Their maiden campaign was contested in an early incarnation of the USISL. Next season, the Kickers self-relegated to the USISL Premier League, then considered the fourth tier of American professional soccer. A year later, they went and won that league — then claimed the 1995 U.S. Open Cup, the last one contested prior to the MLS era. Today, Richmond’s finest compete in USL League One.


Richmond Kickers celebrate their 1995 U.S. Open Cup.

A lot has been made of Major League Soccer’s decision to de-emphasize its participation in the U.S. Open Cup. After much handwringing, mainly from U.S. soccer media, MLS agreed to enter eight clubs in 2024 — Atlanta United, FC Dallas, LAFC, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City — in addition the defending Open Cup champion Houston Dynamo.

Having trawled through the U.S. soccer archives to research this essay, I’m not convinced MLS needs to participate in this competition, at all.

There’s clearly nothing in the tournament for Major League Soccer clubs, just as there’s nothing much in the F.A. Cup for English Premier and Championship sides, not anymore. Yes, the F.A. Cup has a long and glorious history, most of it forged in an era that predates both television and English club forays in Europe. Premier League outfits have slowly but surely weened off their F.A. Cup commitments the last two decades, rarely sending anything but reserve sides to the first five rounds of competition. In many cases, even second-tier Championship clubs follow suit, deeming the competition a squad-draining impediment to their prevailing goals: the league table and participation in promotion playoffs.

The U.S. Open Cup is often branded as “our” F.A. Cup. And so, it should surprise us that MLS clubs are following suit.

There is nothing sinister about this stance, on either side of the pond. American soccer pundits seem to think Don Garber is forcing this decision on MLS franchises, but why would the U.S. reality be any different? The only meaningful difference: The U.S. Open Cup doesn’t boast anything approaching the F.A. Cup’s cultural cachet or relevance. Why is it controversial that MLS clubs prefer to concentrate on the CONCACAF Champions League and/or the new Leagues Cup, which released 2024 pairings today? I read where attendance for last year’s Leagues Cup final, pitting Nashville and Inter Miami, was larger than the aggregate attendance for all 97 U.S. Open Cup matches played in 2023. It would appear American soccer fans don’t much value the competition either.

More important, truly professional clubs remain late-coming interlopers when it comes to the U.S. Open Cup. Nearly all the winners prior to 1995 were, in fact, semi-pro or amateur clubs. That heritage represents the competition’s actual history, wherein — because this tournament does date back to 1913 — there is plenty to celebrate. NASL didn’t participate in this competition from 1967 to 1984. Since 1996, MLS has claimed every title but one: in 1999, when the second-tier Rochester Rhinos earned a brilliant but highly anomalous victory.

Someone will have to explain to me how anyone in the American soccer pyramid is served by insisting that MLS dominate a competition it would prefer to ignore.