It's difficult to try to rank 19th-century American soccer teams. There was occasional contact between teams from the Middle Atlantic states and the New England states, but none between teams from the east and midwest. Teams everywhere played most of their games against local opponents.
As a result, the list below of pre-1890 teams is not an attempt to rate how good they were. There is no consideration in this list of how many games they won, what championships they won or who they beat. It is simply a list of how many games they played. The games included in this calculation are those played through Dec. 31, 1889.
Perhaps better teams were busier than weaker ones, and how many games a team played implies something about how good it was, but that's only speculation. Maybe they just had more nearby opponents.
The numbers here are based on research done by a man named Melvin I. Smith, from Asheville, N.C., whose interest originally centered on the early years of American gridiron football. His studies long ago expanded to include other forms of football, particularly soccer and rugby, and he has documented thousands of games played in the United States before 1900 in those various sports. The results of that research appear in two books, published in 2003 and 2008.
Most of the teams listed below are ones who played week after week and year after year, and only a few of them were among the very first soccer teams in America. The first game in the United States played under the association football rules formulated in England in 1863 took place on Oct. 11, 1866 in Waukesha, Wisc., between a team of Carroll College students and a team of Waukesha residents. Those early years included a lot of similar one-time games (sometimes more than one) and annual freshmen-vs.-sophomores contests at various colleges. Before 1875, the majority of soccer games in America were among a small group of eastern college teams, but most of those teams turned to rugby in 1876, and by the early 1880s the leading role in American association football had been taken over by non-collegiate teams from Fall River, St. Louis and elsewhere.
In any case, here is that list of the most active pre-1890s American soccer teams:
1. County Street Rovers, Fall River, Mass., 115 games
2. East Ends, Fall River, Mass., 111
3. Free Wanderers, Pawtucket, R.I., 106
4. Providence Association, Providence, R.I., 67
5. Olympics, Fall River, Mass., 65
6. ONT, Kearny, N.J., 62
7. Canonicuts, Fall River, Mass., 51
8. North Ends, Fall River, Mass., 48
9. Lonsdale Association, Pawtucket, R.I., 44
10. Hibernians, St. Louis, Mo., 43
11. Rangers, Kearny, N.J., 40
12. British Hosieries, Thornton, R.I., 37
13. Almas, Newark, N.J., 35
13. River Point Clydes, West Warwick, R.I., 35
15. Shamrocks, St. Louis, Mo., 32
15. Riversides, New York, N.Y., 32
17. Thistles, St. Louis, Mo., 29
18. Christian Brothers College, St. Louis, Mo., 28
18. Olneyville Thorntons, Providence, R.I., 28
20. Columbia College, New York, N.Y., 23
21. Caledonians, Newark, N.J., 22
22. Longfellows, Brooklyn, N.Y., 21
23. Rutgers College, New Brunswick, N.J., 20
24. Princeton College, Princeton, N.J., 19
24. Stevens Tech, Hoboken, N.J., 19
Why so many teams from Fall River, a small city and one that has played little part in the American soccer boom of recent years?
In the last decades of the 19th century, the American textile industry was centered largely in southeastern New England, particularly Fall River. The only city in the world that stood ahead of Fall River in cotton cloth production was Manchester, England.
In the 1870s and '80s, there was very heavy immigration to Fall River and other New England textile cities from Lancashire, where the English textile industry was centered. Coincidentally, around 1870, Lancashire textile cities such as Darwen, Blackburn, Bolton and Manchester had become some of the first places where the game of association football spread into the English working classes from the English upper classes were it had been developed.
Immigrants everywhere created the trappings of "home" in the places they moved to. For those who came from Lancashire in the 1870s and '80s, an important part of those trappings was football. Thus Fall River became one of soccer's earliest American hotbeds.