The History of Football/Soccer in the US


Even though there’s no physical evidence of who brought football/soccer to America, immigrants from Europe likely brought the sport to the US. It is also possible that this popularity influenced students and soccer fans from other countries later on as people started arriving in large numbers through Ellis Island around the same time. Soccer took a while to become famous as playing was dangerous, and players did not take care and do it responsibly.

American soccer history

With that said, things have changed. Let’s have a look at the timeline.

Harvard vs. McGill 1876

In 1876, Harvard University played McGill University in Canada using modified London Football Association rules. The game used a round ball and wooden posts with nets, the length was about 70-80 yards, and the width was about 30-40 yards. The match is one of the first known American soccer games in history.

The popularity fell when colleges gained control over soccer because there were many injuries due to a lack of rules or safety measures. 

New Jersey vs. Rutgers 1896

The 1869 New Jersey vs. Rutgers football game is often cited as the birth of American intercollegiate soccer. Players played the game with rules based on the Football Association’s (FA) first set of rules, an early attempt to unify soccer.

Even though this game was considered a college football game, it is more likely that players played it under association football (soccer) rules because American universities did not have their codes or variations for sports. Many rules were just copycats from England. 

Professional soccer begins

The beginning of professional soccer in America was around 1884, with teams joining the workers’ league’s industrial cities like Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lowell, Massachusetts. These were the forerunners of industrial soccer. These teams were the backbone of American soccer for about 20 years and attracted crowds of up to 40,000 people, which is a considerable number even by today’s standards.

The first official soccer league in America was the American League of Professional Football (ALPF) that started in 1894 with five teams; four from Pennsylvania and one from New Jersey. The National Association FootBall League (NAFBL) also began in 1894, but it was amateur instead of professional like the ALPF. 

This league had 12 teams in total, and they would play each other in a round-robin format until there was only one team left that won the league title. Another significant difference between these two leagues was that the NAFBL favored the “dribbling game,” whereas the ALPF preferred a more physical style of play.

Photo by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash

American Cup

Another important soccer event in the US in the 19th century was the American Cup or The National Challenge Cup, which was launched as a challenge in 1885 for any team that wanted to take it. 

A response was received from Blau-Weiss Gottschee, who became the first-ever winner. The cup would later evolve into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which is still played today—recently won by MLS side Sporting Kansas City.

Indoor soccer league 

The first-ever indoor soccer league in America started up on February 11, 1902, when several teams from the ALPF played at Madison Square Garden for a crowd of over 10,000 people. 

Lousy weather conditions created the indoor soccer league during the season, which forced many games to be postponed. The teams decided to play indoors, so they didn’t have to wait for better outdoor playing conditions. 

This league would split into two different institutions the following year, called New York State League and American League. These leagues dissolved in 1904, forcing most teams to join other organizations like the newly created United States Football Association (USFA) or the USSF.

United States Soccer Federation (USSF)

Soccer investors laid out the foundation of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) in 1913, and Paul Harris was elected as temporary president until a convention was held. The first convention was held on April 5, 1913, in New York City, which saw ten state organizations unite together to form this federation. 

The federation would then ratify the constitution and by-laws before electing their first-ever official president – Alfred E. Hart. He would hold this position until 1951, when he died in office.

Photo by Lars Bo Nielsen on Unsplash


WW1 and soccer

World War I had little effect on soccer in America, but after the war ended, there were many changes to the game brought about by soldiers and students living and working abroad in Europe. It is said that influences brought back modified rules which included splitting players into defenders and forwards, and a practice that whenever the ball went out of play during a throw-in, the other team got to take the throw.

An essential event in soccer history happened in April 1925, when at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, formed the first-ever American Soccer League with seven teams participating in it – Fall River United, New Bedford Whalers, Providence Clam Diggers, Todd Shipyards, Brooklyn Wanderers and Robins Dry Dock. 

This league would become one of America’s major leagues until its collapse in 1931. Several teams rejoined for another short run that ended in 1933 because of economic difficulties. The ASL served as a role model for soccer leagues in the US for decades to come.

WWII and soccer

After World War II, the USSF found itself involved in a power struggle after failing to convene an annual meeting, leading to the creation of two different groups. The United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA) and the National Soccer League of Chicago created their constitution, by-laws and appealed directly to FIFA for recognition, giving them provisional status. 

Recognition led to another USSFA convention where they revoked all these actions, which saw nearly every state organization leave. At this same convention, they finally recognized NSL of Chicago as the leading authority on soccer in America, but problems continued because its president was accused of embezzlement. 

The USSFA did not last much longer, replaced by the USSF, which took over their duties in 1953 under the guidance of president Joe Barriskill who would hold his position until 1994 after failing to get re-elected for a seventh term.

Modern times

In 1994, the USSF decided to change its governing philosophy and structure, which started with its first-ever open election for the presidency. Alan I. Rothenberg quickly became president on February 10, 1990, holding the position until 1998 when Sunil Gulati took the role of president and is still holding this position as we speak.

The league structure in America has always been a bit different than all the other countries. Soccer has changed a lot since its early days, with leagues growing more and more popular by the day despite many thinking it would never be possible at first. 

The most significant change came with the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted by America, proving the US can host successful soccer events.

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