Philly Soccer History - The Early Days

Days of Philadelphia Professional Soccer

In 1884, the American Football Association was formed. The first governing body for soccer in the U.S., it was also the third to be formed outside of the British Isles. The next year, the AFA instituted the first cup competition in the United States, the American Cup. In the early years of the competition, Philadelphia sides such as Philadelphia Hibernians, Philadelphia Wanderers and West Philadelphia F.C. competed for the Cup, but without much success. The American Cup was dominated by New England and Northern New Jersey teams in its early years, with no Philadelphia team ever advancing as far as the final.

By 1894, soccer had grown in popularity to the point where it seemed that a professional league would be a viable option. Baseball had begun paying its players several years earlier and professional soccer had proved to be quite popular in England. Meanwhile, the sport itself had continued to grow in the U.S., ceasing to be the exclusive province of immigrants and expanding beyond the eastern seaboard.

Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that the first individuals to express interest in forming a professional soccer league in the United States were men who had already pioneered professionalism in team sports. In August of 1894, six representatives of National League baseball clubs met in New York to announce the formation of the American League of Professional Football. A.A. Irwin, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, was named league president. Philadelphia was granted a charter franchise, along with Baltimore, Brooklyn, Boston, New York, and Washington.

As Philadelphia's first professional soccer team, the Philadelphia Phillies would set the tone for many of the Quaker City teams that would follow them--a good idea poorly executed. Drawing on a number of English and Irish players, the soccer Phillies hoped to challenge for the league crown. Things got off to a good start when, in their first exhibition match, the Phils trounced Trenton 11-1 before a thousand people. Their second exhibition match found them defeating the Philadelphia Wanderers 3-1.
Brimming with optimism, the Phillies opened their season on October 6, 1894 before 500 people at the Philadelphia Base Ball Park (later known as the Baker Bowl), only to be crushed by New York, 5-0. Among the Phillies on the pitch was halfback Charlie Reilly, who, during the summer, played third base for the baseball Phillies. Reilly quickly became a fan favorite, along with the red-headed captain of the team, Montgomery.

Immediately after this match, the club decided that it needed to beef up its roster, and made the league's first major signing by acquiring former Sunderland fullback Davy Wilson. Before even arriving to America, Wilson was named the new captain of the team. However, he did not arrive in time to participate in the Phillies’ second match, which found them losing again to New York, 5-2. Weightman scored the first two goals in Phillies history.

It wasn't until their fourth match that the Phillies finally nabbed a win, defeating the Washington Senators, 2-1, despite of the loss of Davy Wilson to injury. The ALPF did not finish its first season, though. Poor attendance, as well as the fear of a rival baseball league driving up operating costs come spring led to the owners canceling the season in late October. Philadelphia was late in receiving word, though--the Phillies played one last match, getting trounced by Baltimore, 6-1. When all was said and done, the Phillies were 2-7-0, having managed to play the most games of any team in the league.

Although the league folded, the Phillies kept playing. In fact, Philadelphia's team had a hand in re-establishing soccer as a college game. As the result of the efforts of Harvard University, the Intercollegiate Football Association largely abandoned soccer in 1873 to embrace what would become known as American football. Twenty-one years later, the same Ivy League schools which had joined Harvard in its defection from the kicking game were ready to try soccer again and, in November 1894, the newly reformed Princeton University club scrimmaged the Philadelphia team, signaling the return of college soccer on the East Coast.