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1911 “soccer championship of America”: Tacony FC in St. Louis

The Bethlehem Steel FC tour to St. Louis in December of 1916 for the unofficial title of “Champions of America” was not the first time a Philadelphia-area team had made a trip out West. Five years before, Tacony FC, the winners of the American Football Association’s American Cup tournament in 1910 and a semifinalist in the tournament in 1911, had made the same trip in what would be the first of a series of exhibition matches between St. Louis and Philadelphia-area teams over the next several years.

The combination of national wire services supplying daily newspapers with coverage, affordable rail transportation, an economy on the up after the hard times at the turn of the century, the establishment of stable local leagues, the re-emergence of the American Cup competition after a six-year hiatus between 1899 and 1905, and the eventual formation in of a truly national soccer governing body that began with the founding of the American Amateur Football Association—soon to become the United States Football Association, now known as the United States Soccer Federation—were some of the factors that came together to make such long distance tours increasingly possible. Another factor was as obvious as it was simple: Soccer’s popularity was rising both in Philadelphia and around the country.

Inter-city competition since the 1890s

Philadelphia teams had faced opponents from other cities since at least 1891 in exhibition matches that were billed as inter-city championships. These games were often short series with home and away legs taking place over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holidays against opponents that were typically from Newark or New York City. Leading Philadelphia teams were also keen to test themselves against visiting squads that had gained national prominence by winning the American Cup and, later, the National Challenge Cup, known today as the US Open Cup. Not only were these matches an opportunity to measure the quality of Philadelphia clubs against top-class opposition, they were an occasion for proud Philadelphia soccer fans and boosters to promote soccer locally, as well as a chance for clubs to make some money to fund their own participation in national tournaments.

In addition to Philadelphia teams participating in the American Cup competition, Philadelphia Hibernian and Philadelphia Thistle had recently participated in the short-lived Eastern Soccer League. Comprised of prominent teams from New England, northern New Jersey and Philadelphia, the league was the brainchild of the AFA’s Robert Morrison with Thistle’s president, Andrew M. Brown, acting as vice president. The planned format of the league was to play home and away series on Sundays and on holidays. But bad weather and scheduling problem’s—Pennsylvania’s blue laws prohibited the playing of games on Sundays, for example—meant that many of the scheduled games did not take place and the league folded after its season.

St. Leos, 1911

Tacony goes to St. Louis, 1911

The St. Leo’s team was one of the earliest professional soccer organizations in the US. Led by coach, organizer and promoter Billy Klosterman, the “blue and whites” won ten St. Louis championships between 1903 and 1915. By guaranteeing his players a portion of the gate receipts, Klosterman was able to build his team by signing the best players he could find, whether they came from other St. Louis teams or from as far afield as Chicago.

Before the founding of the National Challenge Cup tournament that soon superseded it, the AFA’s American Cup was the only tournament that had any kind of official claim to naming a national champion. But, as David Lange writes in Soccer Made in St. Louis, because the tournament participants came almost entirely from the northeast of the US, “St. Louisans refused to recognize the American Cup winner as the national champion.” In order for a national champion to be named, St. Louis soccer boosters believed East Coast teams ought to travel there to play the best team that city had to offer.

A wire service dispatch from St. Louis in the Dec. 15, 1911 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer declared that the “Champion Taconys” had taken up the offer to play in St. Louis “for the soccer championship of America” on Christmas Eve. The dispatch continued, “The visit of Tacony, which is heralded as one of the best elevens in the country, is creating a vast amount of interest among the followers of the dribbling game…The St. Leos are a well balanced team and there is every indication that Tacony will find them tough opponents who are well up on the rudiments of the game.”

Why would St. Leos want to play Tacony? In addition to being winners of the 1910 American Cup and the champions of the the Philadelphia-based professional Pennsylvania League for two years in a row, “the reds” had lost only three times since the start of the 1909-10 season. On Dec. 17, the Inquirer reported, “There is not a team in the country which has met with such success, and their record will be hard to duplicate when taking into consideration that they captured the trophy with practically a new team which moulded itself together right at the start of the 1909-10 series.”

Led by manager Aleck Campbell, the team was built on the skill of immigrant English and Scottish players such as forward Hector McDonald, “easily the best all around player in the country,” and center halfback Rob Morrison, “without a peer in this country,” and a former Junior International from Scotland. In contrast, St. Leos players were native-born Americans. This contrast would for years continue to be a recurring theme in contests between St. Louis teams and East Coast teams.

The Inquirer reported on Dec. 22 that an additional game had been added to the St. Louis series to be played on Christmas Day, the day after the meeting with St. Leos. The opponent would be Innisfails, who were second in the St. Louis League behind St. Leos and soon to supplant them as the dominant team in St. Louis soccer. While the Inquirer reported that “Several clubs have tried to induce Tacony to stop off on their homeward bound journey and show their worth,” the work obligations of the team’s players prevented the addition of further matches. Indeed, the squad of twelve players that left North Philadelphia Depot for St. Louis on Dec. 22 was not the regular Tacony team. Five Tacony starters who had been instrumental in helping “to place their team in the foremost ranks of the soccer world” had been unable to secure leave from work and were replaced by players from other Philadelphia teams including Philadelphia Thistle and Philadelphia Celtic. Also with the team was former Scottish international Tommy Hyslop. While the Tacony players may have been “professionals” in that, like their counterparts in St. Louis, they shared a portion of the gate receipts from games, these earnings were not enough to make a living. They all had day jobs to support themselves and their families.

Tacony arrived in St. Louis on Dec. 23, “confident that they will trim the St. Leos.” The “soccer championship of America” was now being referred to as the “blue ribbon classic,” and as a dispatch from St. Louis in the Dec. 24 edition of the Inquirer reported, “Interest in the followers of the game is at fever pitch in this city, and they are willing to place their last cent on the outcome of the two games with Tacony.”

St. Leos 4–4 Tacony

On a heavy, muddy field dotted with pools of water, St. Leos opened the scoring only three minutes after the start of the game off a goal from inside left forward William Monahan. Twenty minutes later, center forward “Bull” Brannigan made it 2–0.

As described in the Inquirer match report on Dec. 25, “Then Tacony got busy and worked the ball through the quagmire.” Hyslop, who an earlier report had suggested was on hand largely as a coach who “might” play in the Innisfails game, had started at inside right forward and got a goal back for Tacony in a scrimmage following a corner kick. Only five minutes later, St. Leos’ outside right forward James Donahue, playing with three fractured ribs, made it 3–1. Tacony responded almost immediately. “The crowd had hardly finished cheering,” the Inquirer reported, “when Outside Right Forward Taylor scored from a corner kick.”

Two minutes before the half, J. Taylor scored again to make it 3–3.

The game settled into a “tug of war” for the first twenty minutes of the second half with both teams showing “speed and improved team work after the rest.” Such improvement soon became bogged down in the mud. As the Inquirer reported.

Then Tacony and St. Leo piled up on each other in a scrimmage exhibition such as seen only once in a generation. The St. Leo forwards rushed the ball into Tacony’s goal area, but were halted less than a yard from the goal by an almost impassable wall of wily little backs. Shins, toes, and the ball shared equal honors in the exchange of kicks. Then someone slipped in the mud and nineteen players involuntarily formed themselves into a heap of humanity, with the small leather ball the center of attraction.

Play resumed with the referee bouncing the ball between the two sides. After another scrimmage, Tacony cleared the ball, “but it was returned from the twenty-one yard line and Outside Left Forward Dave Miller scored another goal for St. Leos.”

Tacony immediately went back on the offensive with Hyslop carrying the ball down the sidelines. He then “worked the ball through a broken field and tied the score with a pretty pass.”

Those looking for the declaration of a Champion of America would have to content themselves with a draw.

Innisfails 3–1 Tacony

The Inquirer match report for the draw against St. Leos described, “In addition to being a struggle of the East against the West, the game was a contest of old-world tactics against those of the new. Tacony, defending the good name of the East, was composed entirely of foreign-born players coached into the methods their forefathers used in England and Scotland.” Against Innisfails only a day after that epic battle, Tacony would face a rested team again composed of native-born players.

Inside right forward Bingham scored first for Innisfails after 16 minutes of speedy play characterized by both teams rushing the ball from one goal area to the other. Tacony soon equalized from an own goal when Innisfails defender Pete Harris “missed his kick and the sphere rolled safely through the uprights.” Immediately after the resulting kickoff, Innisfails again worked the ball into Tacony’s area and outside right Murphy quickly scored to make it 2–1. Five minutes before the half, Innisfails center forward McCaffrey scored the final goal of the game to make it 3–1.

The Inquirer reported on Dec. 26, “The Tacony players put up an excellent exhibition so far as individual work was concerned, but when it came to well-oiled soccer machinery the local squad had a combination that took their opponents off their feet.” Tired from the previous day’s game, and fielding a team half of which was composed of players from other teams, the Philadelphia club simply did not have it in them to make another comeback.

Upon their return to Philadelphia, manager Campbell blamed muddy conditions, hard luck and goalkeeper A. Pennell. The Inquirer reported on Dec. 28, “Pennell was unable to do himself justice, allowing the easiest shots imaginable to roll into the net, ” adding, “Had Pennell shown any of the form that he has previously displayed in this city, Campbell believes that they would have lowered the colors of their rivals in both games.”

A report in the Inquirer on Dec. 31 placed greater emphasis on the fact that Tacony was without so many of its regular starters. “It is hoped that the next local team that arranges a tour will try and take along their regular eleven, and not at the last moment have to fill in with substitutes…The management was not to blame in the least for that state of affairs, but surely the players that have the club at heart could have seen their way clear to make the journey, thereby keeping the splendid combination of the champions intact for such a grueling test.”

Filled with confidence when they left for St. Louis, Tacony returned to Philadelphia without bragging rights to being champions of America and filled with excuses. Despite a thrilling comeback agaisnt St. Leos, a lackluster showing against Innisfails had resulted in their fourth loss in two years. East had met West and come up wanting. Whatever the causes of their disappointing showing, Tacony would soon have another chance to lower the colors of St. Leos, this time in Philadelphia. The St. Louis team would be touring the East in March, 1912.

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