US Soccer History

US soccer history makes for an interesting, albeit painful at times, story.

 Well, I know I enjoy it since I like soccer AND history!

The following is a very detailed survey of US soccer history generously reposted on my website, courtesy of Dave Litterer.


Origins, 1609-1862

Various forms of soccer-style games have been around since Roman times, and the United States was the first British colony to start playing soccer-style games. Some form of football was played in the Colonies as far back as the establishment of the original Jamestown settlement in 1609. The rules are unclear, but they most likely resembled the sprawling Shrovetide games then popular in England. It was soon banned by ordinance as a reputed bad influence, and for the next two centuries appeared only in the least restricted of colonial communities. The first written accounts of football in the US centered on contests in the major colleges and universities of the Northeast. The freshman and sophomore classes at Harvard had instituted an annual intramural football contest in 1827, played on the first Monday of the new school year. These games were evidently quite rowdy, as the event was known as "Bloody Monday". Princeton played something known as "ballown" in which the ball was hit with the fist as well as the foot. By the 1840's, they had organized their games into intramural tournaments. Other forms of the game were played at Amherst and Brown. The game probably bore little resemblance to the modern game, and in fact the round (originally rubber) ball was not introduced until the 1850's, and games were either pick-up or special annual events. The modern form of soccer originated in England in the early 1830's. The sport grew among working-class communities and was seen as a way of keeping young and energetic kids out of trouble at home and in the school; they could let off steam and learn the values of teamwork (rampant individualism was considered a problem at the time).

The first football clubs were established in Sheffield in 1857, and soon they had enough to establish their own Football Association in 1867. Sheffield FA played London FA in 1861, one of the first regional matches. And eventually the need for a unified set of rules became obvious. This, prompted by many letters to the editors of the newspapers in the midlands, the near-north, and London regions of England, and led to a series of meetings, which culminated in the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863. This group attempted to establish a series of rules, which would please everyone, but they couldn't resolve issues such as use of hands, allowing hacking of opponents, etc. Many supporters of these elements (considered more "manly") eventually withdrew and formed the Rugby Football Union, and the FA established rules more similar to the modern game.

The next major development was the establishment of a knockout cup in 1871, based on the house competitions at Harrow School. These knockouts, in which most teams names are placed in a hat, and drawn out in pairs, then leading to a one-game knockout competition similar to the NCAA Championships, which culminates in a Cup trophy.

When soccer first started in the United States, it was played primarily by schoolboy and college teams, and was largely an upper-class game. The Oneida soccer club, formed in Boston in 1862 is often cited as the first soccer club to consist of a regular roster of players, as opposed to the pick-up games commonly played at the time. It consisted of a group of Boston secondary school students from fairly elite public schools in the area (Boston Latin, Boston English, etc.). This club would play matches against pickup teams throughout the Boston collegiate community and went undefeated, and unscored upon during their entire four-year existence. Apparently, teamwork, and familiarity with teammates was a significant factor in winning, and this was not lost on the public. The Oneida Football Club was the first soccer club anywhere outside of England, even predating the formation of Scottish teams. Clubs soon spread to other collegiate communities.

The College Era, and Rules Consolidation, 1862-1875

 Collegiate play resumed on a regular basis after the Civil War. Rules varied widely among different schools and communities; Princeton played with 25 players, some people even played a game with innings, with a victory going to the first team to score a fixed number of goals (a la volleyball). In 1866, Beadle & Company of New York published a set of rules for both Association Football (soccer) and the "Handling game" (Rugby). The first intercollegiate game using rules resembling modern game was played on November 7, 1869 in New Brunswick, NJ between Princeton and Rutgers (Rutgers won 6-4). This game used the London Football Association's 1863 rules which called for, among other things, 25 players, a field 110 meters x 70 meters, a 24 foot wide goal, movement of the ball allowed with all parts of the body (including hands, ball could be batted or held, but not carried or thrown). First team to score 6 points won. Interestingly, this same game is also generally recognized as the first GRIDIRON FOOTBALL game as well.

Soccer was also taken up at this time by Yale, Columbia and Cornell, and reintroduced to Harvard in 1871 in a hybrid form known as the Boston Game, a version which also allowed the throwing and carrying of the ball. At this time, football was still played by a number of different and conflicting rules. In 1873, inspired by the English Football Association's rules unification, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers met in New York to draw up a uniform set of rules based on the London 1863 rules. They established 20 players on a team, a field measuring 400 feet x 250 feet, 25-foot wide goal, 6 goals to win, and a point scored by passing the goal past the goal posts. Carrying the ball was prohibited. Shortly after the first game under these rules, a Yale victory over Princeton, an English team, the Eton Players visited New Haven and played Yale, to whom they lost 1-2, in the first Anglo-American international match. Yale was persuaded to adopt the English custom of 11 players to a side, and subsequently argued for its universal adoption, which was generally achieved by 1880.

Meanwhile, Harvard had become more interested in the Rugby form of the game, and looked for competition against similarly oriented teams. When they happened upon McGill University of Montreal, who had also adopted those rules, the two teams played the first intercollegiate rugby match in 1874. The second of these games was played with an oval ball under English Rugby Association rules, and marks the evolution of soccer into the modern gridiron game. A fateful event which would forever change the fortunes of American soccer took place in 1875 when Yale Harvard and bridged the game gap to play a match under special concessionary rules, which included both goals and tries (later touchdowns), and a 15 man roster. Harvard won 4 goals to none and 4 tries to none. Yale reassessed their position after this humiliation, and decided to adopt the Rugby code. Princeton, (who had watched the game as observers) were impressed enough to follow suit. In 1876, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association using Rugby rules. Stevens, Wesleyan and Penn soon followed, and the end of 1876 had signed the death knell signed for collegiate soccer in the US.

The Working-Class and Immigrant Eras, 1875-1894

 After the demise of college soccer, the game lay primarily in the hands of working-class communities, who were rapidly adopting the game, as the upper classes increasingly looked to rugby/gridiron. This was a trend in Europe as well as the US. As immigration increased, the new arrivals brought soccer traditions with them, and the game grew rapidly in the Northeastern industrial cities. The growth first took place in the West Hudson region of New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York City, soon spreading by the late 1870's to Fall River, and New Bedford, MA. Pick-up games and loose informal teams soon grew into established clubs and led to corporate sponsorship finally the development of local and even regional leagues. The game spread to other parts of New England including Boston and Rhode Island, and into Baltimore, and in the 1880's, into Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis, and finally Pittsburgh. The game was continually hampered by sociological forces-- Baseball was seen as the American past-time, and many immigrants would attempt to Americanize themselves to assimilate, often switching to baseball from soccer which was seen increasingly as a sport only played by foreigners.

In 1884, a group of ex-British enthusiasts met in Newark and formed the American Football Association, the fourth national association to be formed. Besides attempting to coordinate the proliferating local and regional amateur leagues, the AFA established the first National Championship competition, the American Cup, which was first won by ONT ("Our New Thread", brand name for the sponsoring sewing manufacturer in Kearny, NJ) in 1885. Before the cup's suspension in 1898, the bulk of the champions were primarily from Southeastern New England, which had turned into the first true soccer hotbed in the country, with its "golden triangle" of Fall River, Pawtucket and New Bedford. The AFA also organized the first national team, which played two games against Canada (a 0-1 loss on 11/28/1885, and a 3-2 win in 1886).

Soccer grew at a moderate pace during the early 1890's, spreading to Denver, Cincinnati, Cleveland and even San Francisco and Los Angeles by the end of the century. Corporate sponsorship had led to some leagues attaining semi-pro stats, and more and more teams were based on cultural and ethnic organizations rather than factories and corporations. The AFA favored the semi-pro clubs in its American Cup scheduling, and the New York clubs withdrew in protest to form the American Amateur Football Association in 1893. The game was slowly being reintroduced on a low-level basis in colleges. Finally, in 1894, the first attempt was made to establish a fully professional soccer league. Interestingly, this league was not promoted by any of the existing soccer associations, but was formed by a group of professional baseball owners from the National league, and was intended to fill the baseball stadiums during down time. The league even used The American League of Professional Football had six teams from major Northeastern cities, and made its 1894 debut with much fanfare, but attendance was low after the first week, partially to the scheduling of too many weekday games, and some managers used less than ethical measures to procure overseas players. The league collapsed among heavy financial losses during its first season.

Continue to Page 2 of US Soccer History

› › US Soccer History

Like this page?

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.
Follow SoccerForParents on youtube


Soccer-for-Parents is excited to now offer our Simple Soccer Rules to parents "on the go". This is our own free android app (sorry ipeople) that installs in seconds and contains everything on our normal rules page along with a link to the official FIFA rules and USYSAA rules. Here is the free app!

(ad free version here)