A few places might lay claim to the title of the first soccer capital of the United States. St. Louis has sometimes been referred to by that name. An argument might be made on behalf of the West Hudson area of New Jersey. The first game of association football ever played in the United States is believed to have been one in Waukesha, Wisc., in 1866. There was a brief flowering of the sport in colleges in New York and New Jersey around 1870.
None of those is my choice, however. My pick is Fall River, Mass., where the first recorded soccer game wasn't played until 1883, after games had been played in more than 20 different states. Fall River is a place that has played little part in the American soccer boom of recent decades, one where there is little evidence today of what a hotbed of soccer it once was. Nevertheless, to the generation of American soccer players and fans who grew up in the middle of the 20th century and earlier, Fall River is a hallowed name.
Fall River may have had a later soccer start than some other places, but once the game got going there, it grew like nowhere else. By Jan. 1, 1890, there had been more than 380 games played involving teams from Fall River. In contrast, there had been about 140 games by that date involving St. Louis teams, about 150 involving New York teams and just over 200 involving northern New Jersey teams.
In none of the places where games were played before Fall River's first were there more than a few early teams, not enough to merit that "capital" designation. In Fall River, within just a few years after that 1883 start, there were more than enough, 27 teams by 1885. Why was soccer such a big hit in Fall River? Because of the combination of three factors, the textile industry, the immigration that it attracted and the pattern of the early growth of the game in England.
In the 19th century, the American textile industry was centered in New England, and particularly in Fall River. That industry had gotten started in the 1790s in Pawtucket, R.I., and earned Pawtucket the title of Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution. The textile business grew slowly in Fall River for decades, but it took off just after the Civil War, when a variety of factors converged to make Fall River the idea place to take advantage of the surge in American demand for cotton cloth. By 1880, Fall River had five times as many spindles, the standard measure of textile-mill size, as it had at the end of the war just 15 years before. At its peak, Fall River led the nation in the production of cotton cloth, and was second in the world only to Manchester, England.
Manchester is the heart of the Lancashire area of northwestern England, where the 19th-century English textile industry was centered, the only area in the world that exceeded New England in the strength of its textile industry. Beginning in the early 1870s, the textile-mill cities of Lancashire were one of the first places where association football moved into the English working class from the English upper class where it had been developed. The first Lancashire club was in Turton in 1872, and it was quickly followed by others in Darwen, Blackburn, Oldham, Bolton, Manchester and elsewhere. In the last 20 years of the 19th century, there was a flood of immigration from Lancashire to New England textile-mill cities, especially to Fall River. Immigrants everywhere brought with them to their new homes many of the things that they had known in their old homes. Therein lies the answer to the question "Why Fall River?" That's because one of the things that immigrants from Lancashire brought to Fall River, to a degree unmatched by immigrants anywhere else, was interest in playing and watching association football.
Three different Fall River teams won the American Football Association Cup, the original national championship, in its early years, taking it five times in a row between 1888 and 1892. Teams and players from Fall River remained a major force in American soccer up through the 1950s.
Many places could make claims to being the capital of American soccer in 2013, but Fall River is not one of them. It was very different 125 years ago.