Visual evidence of US soccer history’s golden age of the 1920s mainly comes from photographs. Increased coverage of the sport in newspapers coupled with changes in technology mean that photos of players, teams and even game action are not uncommon. As valuable as such images are, they offer a limited perspective on a sport that is based on near constant movement. Photographs can never capture the sounds of game: the “thunk” of the ball as it is kicked or headed, the shouts of the crowd or the general ambiance of match day at the stadium. Moving pictures can help fill in some of these gaps but until recently precious few films were known to have survived.

In 2012, Steve Holroyd posted a tantalizing brief – just 33 seconds – highlight reel of the 1924 National Challenge Cup Final. The match featured the Fall River Marksmen and the Vesper Buick squad of St. Louis.

 

A few weeks before Fall River’s triumph the United States Men’s National team sailed for Europe in order to compete in the Olympic Games held in Paris. Although they won their first game, 1-0 over Estonia, they were soon out of the tournament after losing to eventual champions Uruguay in the second round. Before returning to the US, the squad visited Ireland (then known as the Irish Free State) to participate in that nation’s first home international. The Yanks came out on the losing end, falling 3-1 to the hosts on June 14, 1924.

 

For a long time these two silent films, featuring a total running length of 3 minutes 25 seconds was pretty much the only material available. Recently though, more footage has come to light vastly expanding our collection of US soccer history on film. Although most of the footage was originally silent, the clips shot on January 15 and December 2, 1928, include sound. Not only can we see the action on the field we can also hear the sounds of the game, the cheers of fans and even the rumble of the elevated train as it passes by the stadium. What is also notable is that these matches were recorded at a time when sound-on-film was still in its infancy. Fox Film Corporation owned the rights to much of the technology and by 1926 the company started to shoot footage with sound for newsreels. Soon all of the major film studios began to switch from silent pictures to “talkies,” a process that was largely complete by the end of the decade.

The National Archives contains some of the earliest film of US citizens playing soccer. One catch though – it was not shot in the US. Instead, the short clips feature American Expeditionary Force soldiers playing the game in France and Germany shortly after World War I. The earliest of the games captured on film is not even really modern soccer but rather a massive free-for-all called “field soccer.” The game hearkened back to traditional versions of the sport played before the codification of the Association rules in 1863. The sides contained a large number of players, usually several dozen or more, and often featured multiple balls in play at the same time. A goal occurred when one team managed to kick the ball over the opposing team’s end line. The military also filmed organized soccer games featuring teams from different units as well as more casual pick-up style matches between soldiers. Other clips from the period include games between army teams from the United States and Canada. The quality of the first couple of minutes is poor but it improves over the course of the video.

 

The Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina hold some invaluable footage documenting US soccer history. Most of the clips seem to have been taken by Fox Movietone News, likely for use in newsreels. These films contain rare glimpses of what soccer looked and sounded like in the 1920s. Footage includes league matches, an international friendly and a cup final.

The earliest clip features extended footage of the 1924 US Open Cup final played on March 30 at St. Louis. The Fall River Marksmen took home the trophy over Vesper Buick 4-2. This longer version of the film includes expanded game action, more shots of the crowd and the incredible scene when fans rushed onto the pitch at the final whistle. The previously known footage of this match embedded above was edited down from this footage and likely inserted into a newsreel. Click here to watch the original video or a newly enhanced version below.

 

The United States Men’s National Team takes on the Canadian Men’s side at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on November 8, 1925. Archie Stark scored four times and Davey Brown twice in a 6-1 win for the US. Too bad the goal caught on film is Canada’s only score! Click here to watch this video.

Box score of soccer match
Daily News November 9, 1925.

A mid-season ASL clash between the New York Nationals and Brooklyn Wanderers at Ebbets Field on December 18, 1927. One newspaper report claimed there were 3,000 at the match but I’m not so sure. Click here to watch this video.

Box score of soccer game
Brooklyn Times December 19, 1927.

Watch the Brooklyn Wanderers defeat Trenton in a National Challenge Cup match on January 15, 1928, at Hawthorne Field in Brooklyn. Listen to the sounds of the crowd, including shouts for a handball! Click here to watch this video.

Box score of socccer match
The Standard Union January 16, 1928.

The final clip features action from a double-header at Starlight Park in the Bronx on December 2, 1928. Do I hear someone hawking peanuts? The matches feature New York Giants vs. Newark Skeeters and Hakoah All-Stars vs. Philadelphia Centennials. These were Eastern Soccer League (ESL) matches, a competition formed as a result of the Soccer War. The dispute between the American Soccer League (ASL) and the United States Football Federation centered on participation in the National Challenge Cup. When the two sides could not work out a deal the Federation suspended the ASL and its clubs. The ASL became an outlaw league and the newly formed ESL became the only professional competition sanctioned by the US Federation and FIFA. Eventually, the two sides settled the issue and merged to form the Atlantic Coast League in October 1929. Click here to watch this video.

Newspaper article about soccer game
The Philadelphia Inquirer December 3, 1928.
Newspaper article on soccer match
The Boston Globe December 3, 1928.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Dan Creel for confirming the date of the December 2 matches.

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