The American Football Association

The name is simple, clear and direct. It would make an excellent title for an organization governing the sport of soccer in the United States. However, it has already been taken, well over a century ago.

The American Football Association was founded by British expatriates at a meeting in the summer of 1884 on Ogden Street in the northern part of Newark, N.J., at the firehouse of the Clark Thread Mill complex. Clark, the American branch of a large Scottish company, was a major employer of Scottish immigrants, particularly ones who had worked for Clark in Paisley, Scotland. A company soccer team, named ONT for the company’s main consumer product, called Our New Thread, had been formed the previous November.

The American Football Association was only the second “national” football association to be formed outside the British Isles, following one in Canada. “National” is in quotation marks here because the AFA really was regional rather than national. Its influence never spread beyond the Middle Atlantic and New England states. Still, the AFA did perform some important tasks.

Perhaps the most visible of those tasks was the start of an intersectional cup competition. In its very first years, the AFA Cup was dominated by teams from New Jersey, but Fall River teams began winning some honors before 1890 and Philadelphia teams a few years after that. In all, during its on-again, off-again run from 1885 to 1929, the AFA Cup was won 13 times by teams from New Jersey, followed by Pennsylvania (8), Massachusetts (6), Rhode Island (3) and New York (2). ONT won the first AFA Cup, beating the New York Association, 2-1, in Paterson, N.J., on April 25, 1885, and also won it in 1886 and 1887.

Equally regional was the AFA’s formation of the first national team, which was national in name only. The “United States” team, all of whose players came from New Jersey clubs (including five from ONT), played Canada in Kearny, N.J., on Nov. 27, 1885, the day after Thanksgiving. Canada won, 1-0. The Americans got revenge a year later, again in Kearny. This game was played on Thanksgiving Day, the Canadians ate Thanksgiving dinner at their hotel before the game, and the Americans won, 3-2.

A third task had a lower profile than the others, but may have been more important to the future of the sport in the United States. That was the AFA’s efforts to standardize the rules interpretations used in various parts of its domain. For the rules of the game to be interpreted the same way in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania may seem unremarkable today, but it once was a big step forward.

The AFA began to lose its influence after 1910. The feeling among many in American soccer was that the AFA was too exclusively devoted to the concerns of the professionals and not giving adequate attention to other factions within the sport, that it wasn’t interested in westward expansion and that its ties to the English FA, both sentimental and financial, were too strong. The last straw for some may have come in 1911 when the AFA, which had never had an American-born president, followed orders from the English FA and attempted to bar American teams from playing the touring Corinthians, an English team that was involved in a dispute with the English FA. These factors resulted in considerable support moving to the American Amateur Football Association when it challenged the AFA in 1912, and the challenger, after changing its name to the U.S. Football Association, was able to take over the leading role in 1913.

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