School days

school scan0001 Among the unexpected things to be found in the Spalding soccer guides from the early part of the 20th century is a high school soccer league. That's right. A public high school soccer league in the United States more than 100 years ago.

The 1907 edition of the Spalding guide included a photograph of a plaque on which the inscription says that it is "The Wm. H. Maxwell Trophy for Annual Competition in Soccer Football Among the High Schools of the City of New York Public Schools Athletic League." For that first season of high school soccer in New York in 1906, the league included seven teams. Morris High School from the Bronx narrowly won the inaugural championship over Commercial High School from Brooklyn. They were followed by Manual Training from Brooklyn, DeWitt Clinton from the Bronx, Flushing from Queens, Curtis from Staten Island and Townsend Harris from Manhattan. Each team played each of the others once. The key game of the season was a 1-1 tie between Morris and Commercial, which enabled the Bronx team to finish atop the standings with 10 points to Commercial's 9. I don't know which one, if either of them, was the home team for that game. I suppose it's possible that all the games were played on some neutral site.

The PSAL championship would be one of the oldest continuous soccer leagues in America but for a short gap. There was a break of a few years in the 1980s, when New York City's financial crisis caused the suspension of a number of high school sports, one of which was soccer. Even if it's not continuous, it's the earliest high school league that I'm aware of. In Chicago, a high school league started in the spring of 1912 with four teams, Englewood, Oak Park, Lane Tech and LaGrange, although Englewood and Oak Park had begun playing each other three years earlier. In Philadelphia, the Public League started playing soccer in 1913. In Baltimore, a Baltimore County league began playing soccer in 1915. (In Portland, Ore., a league that was mostly high schools, but was dominated by its lone college team, began in 1910.)

There are instances of secondary-school games and teams here and there that go back a few decades earlier than those leagues do. Many of those involve private schools, or public high schools playing against private schools, or high schools playing against colleges. According to records kept by Mel Smith of Asheville, N.C., the first association football game between two public high schools took place on Nov. 25, 1876 at Lafayette Square in Oakland, Calif., when Oakland High School played a 0-0 tie with the San Francisco Boys' High School (which is now Lowell HS). One public high school team that played before those two was New Brunswick High School in New Jersey, which played its first game on Nov. 7, 1874. However, its opponent was a private school, Rutgers Grammar School, which won the game, 6-0. The first prep school association football team was at Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn in 1870, but its opponents were college teams.

In Mel Smith's records, he refers to proto-soccer games in the United States, before the use of the association football rules drawn up in London in 1863, as the "American kicking game." The first appearance of it at the high school level seems to have been in 1853, when four Boston schools, the Boston English High School (public), Boston Public Latin School (public), Dixwell Latin School (private) and Wendell Phillips Grammar School (private), began playing each other on an irregular basis. Records are very vague, however, and these schools turned to the "carrying game," a forerunner of rugby, in 1858. There also may have been a team as early as 1847 at the Williston Seminary School, a prep school in Easthampton, Mass., although no records of games have been found.

Despite all of this earlier activity, it appears that the high school that has been playing soccer without a break for the longest time is East High School in Rochester, N.Y., which has been playing since 1915.