The very first steps took place farther west than one might expect, in Waukesha, Wisc., on Oct. 11, 1866, when a team of Carroll College students beat a team of Waukesha townies, 5-2. That game holds the honor of being the first game in the United States under the 1863 London association football rules, but only by a narrow margin. The second game took place just nine days later, in Hartford, Conn., when a team of Trinity College freshmen played a 1-1 tie with a team of Trinity College sophomores.
A lot of the earliest soccer games in American colleges were of that intramural sort, with freshman vs. sophomores being the most popular division. Before 1870, frosh-vs.-sophs games had taken place at Trinity, Brown, Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey), Wesleyan, Columbia and Rutgers.
The first college where a lasting team was formed, rather than one that was just organized for the day or for the game, was Princeton, which played its first game in November 1867 (the exact date is lost) against the Princeton Theological Seminary. The college team won, 5-2. After that beginning, Princeton played at least one game in each of the next nine years. One of those was the game against Rutgers on Nov. 6, 1869 that has long been incorrectly referred to as the first game of American football. But while it was really association football that was being played, it wasn't Princeton's first soccer game, just the first intercollegiate one (Princeton's opponent in both of its previous games, the Princeton Theological Seminary, wasn't a college).
By the early 1870s, a few college teams were playing each other fairly frequently. At first, it was just Princeton, Rutgers and Columbia. In 1872, Yale and Stevens Tech joined the group. In 1873, additions were the City College of New York and New York University. There also were games to the west involving Cornell and the University of Michigan, and games to the south involving Washington & Lee, VMI and the University of Virginia. The freshmen vs. sophomores craze also was spreading, to schools that included Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Williams, Bowdoin, Worcester Poly, the University of Vermont and the University of California.
Harvard, in the meanwhile, was remaining aloof from all this, as were other Boston-area colleges. Many of the Harvard players had come up through what was called the Boston Rules Game, which had been developed in the early 1860s by the Oneida FC team of Boston prep-school boys and which was much more like rugby than like association football.
In 1874 and 1875, Harvard's Boston Rules team played a series of rugby games against Canadian teams, particularly from McGill University in Montreal, that caused the Harvard players to decide that rugby was the way to go. In 1876, they convinced teams from the mid-Atlantic states who had been playing association football to give up that game and join them on the rugby field. Within a year, all of the main college soccer teams in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had abandoned that sport in favor of rugby. And that is why I say that the American college soccer of the 1860s and 1870s amounts to a false start.
It was another 30 years before college soccer began to regain its feet, but in the 1880s, the sport grew rapidly among immigrant groups in factory towns and cities like Fall River, Mass.; Kearny, N.J.; Pawtucket, R.I.; St. Louis, Philadelphia and Chicago. While the colleges were altering the rules of rugby to create American football, those immigrant communities were playing soccer the same way Europeans did. So that change of direction in 1876, while damaging to American soccer in the short run, was not a bad thing in the long run, and that growth in the 1880s among immigrants and factory workers is what I consider the real, lasting start of American soccer. ---------- This is another post about 19th-century American soccer that relies heavily on research done by Mel Smith of Asheville, N.C. (who doesn't necessarily agree with all of the conclusions I've drawn from it)