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.

One Comment

  1. Calling the AFA a regional affair is rather unfair. I feel some people fear that honoring the AFA for what it was and recognizing their Cup winner as the national champion somehow diminishes the prestige of the USFA and the legacy of the National Challenge Cup. The 19th century edition of the AFA was the de facto National Association because it was named as such with the intention to be as much. The cup winner was declared the U.S. champion and everyone vying for it accepted it as such. Fall River had won the Bristol County Cup which as it states was a County tournament. They had higher ambitions when they challenged ONT for the title and later became members of the AFA to legitimately vie for the national championship. The AFA were ahead of every country outside of the Home Nations in establishing a national FA. Without a FIFA, the AFA were appropriately tied to the FA which was essentially the world authority of the game at that time. Their national teams are no less legitimate than modern US squads. They were players selected from affiliated teams in their first season. It doesn’t matter how far and wide they come from. Not many modern teams get all their players from the own national league. The first USFA representation was not until their fourth season (1916), 32 years later, and featured five New Jersey, five Pennsylvania, two New York, and one Massachusetts player which is essentially AFA territory all the same. The AFA had to deal with 19th century transportation and communication technology which had significant limitations. For that matter the National Challenge Cup was also not fully national when it began. The only thing it had over the American Cup was the Great Lakes region. California would not enter until the 1950s. The 1923 National Amateur Cup was not relegated to the 1923 Northeastern Amateur Cup because they rejected the California bid. Comparing other ‘National’ organizations, the NHL in its first season in 1917 had four teams from two provinces, the NBA’s first season in 1946 had eleven teams with a range not much different than the 1920 National Challenge Cup, the NFL’s first season had fourteen teams roughly around the Great Lakes, and Baseball’s NL had eight teams none in the south, west or midwest. The AFA reached a peak of 20 teams in 1893 and reached that again in 1909. Major League Baseball didn’t have 20 teams until 1962, the NHL not until 1979, the NBA not until 1976. The AFA nearly became the chosen association by FIFA where it needed the backing of at least one delegate to speak on their behalf. In my opinion had they been chosen, expanding outside the northeast would have likely happened quite readily.

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