The origin of soccer in Philadelphia rests squarely on the shoulders of the city’s 19th Century British immigrant population. British immigrants came to work in Philadelphia’s bustling steel and shipbuilding industries but large numbers came to work in the city’s textile trades. The soccer/textile connection can be found both in Britain and the United States. Just as areas in Britain that were historically associated with textile production – mainly in the north of England and in southern Scotland – were the first areas where association football, or soccer, became a mass sport, those areas in the United States associated with textile production – southern New England, the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey – were the areas were soccer first flourished and became organized here, notably with the creation of the American Football Association (AFA) in 1884.
In the second half of the 19th Century, Philadelphia produced more textiles than any other city in the United States and was the world’s largest and most diversified textile center. The immigrants settled where the work was – largely in North and Northeast Philadelphia in neighborhoods like Kensington, Fishtown, Frankford, and Tacony, as well as in and around Chester. These working class neighborhoods are the inaugural grounds of league soccer in Philadelphia.
Immigrants formed athletic clubs that were often named after the neighborhoods in which they were located or after football clubs from the home country. While these clubs met to play soccer informally, no organized league existed in the city until 1889 when the Kensington Rovers, Philadelphia North End and the Chester Volunteer Athletic Association announced their intention to form “a League for the State of Pennsylvania” – the Pennsylvania Football Union, the first amateur league in the city.
Joined by the Shamrocks, the Eddystones, the Philadelphia Association and the Frankford clubs, league matches were soon being played on club grounds as well as at some of the city’s famous baseball parks, including the Athletic Base Ball Grounds at 26th and Jefferson, Forepaugh Park at Broad and Dauphin streets, Philadelphia Base Ball Park at Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue, and Germantown Ball Park near Wayne Junction. Games were played on Saturdays (Philadelphia’s Blue Laws prohibited play on Sunday’s) except for games on Thanksgiving and Christmas, a tradition that was to result in many noteworthy matches in the coming years.
The 1890s were times of great economic turmoil. and clubs came and went in the league, which, by 1890, had changed its name to the Pennsylvania Association Football Union (PAFU). But one man proved tireless in keeping the league going: Clement Beecroft. According to the Philadelphia City Directory of 1890, Beecroft lived in the heart of British Philadelphia at 2210 N. 3rd Street. His sporting goods store, Beecroft Brothers, was at 11th and Chestnut streets at 100 S. 11th Street, the offices of which were the location for many meetings important to the league’s development.
While Beecroft, an English immigrant himself, doesn’t seem to have played soccer in the league, he was nonetheless a sportsman. A noted cricketer for various Philadelphia clubs, he also served as an officer in the Philadelphia Cricket Association. His interest in racquet sports led to a patent for an improved racquet design in 1892, as well as being an officer of the Philadelphia Handball and Racket Club. His wife was no slouch at tennis herself and played in the 1893 US Open.
Beecroft was elected the first president of the league in 1889 and would serve in various capacities for the PAFU until the league disbanded after 1895. The Inquirer described him as “indefatigable” and possessing “unceasing energy.” Such spirit was necessary for times were tough in Philadelphia following the Panic of 1893 and both players and clubs must have found it difficult to continue playing. Also, because soccer was viewed as an “immigrant” sport, many fine immigrant players probably found it easier to assimilate by playing “American” sports like baseball, gridiron football and the new sport of basketball.
But Beecroft’s role in establishing soccer as a legitimate sport in Philadelphia is undeniable: the formation of a league with governing rules, regularly scheduled matches finishing with a championship, and the fostering of intercity play with teams from Trenton, northern New Jersey and New York City all led to regular press coverage. The Inquirer became an active booster of the sport. Such coverage would slowly help to make soccer a sport that required no prefix.
Beecroft also managed the Philadelphia team that was formed in reaction to the Philadelphia Phillies professional soccer team, established in 1894 as part of the American League of Professional Football. The ALPF was a briefly lived attempt by owners in baseball’s National League to fill stadiums in the off-season that lasted only 18 days.
The Beecroft-managed Philadelphia team would become the foundation of the John A. Manz team in 1895. (Manz was the treasurer of the G. Manz Brewing Company, which operated the Bavaria Brewery at 6th and Clearfield Streets.). The Manz team would prove to be virtually unbeatable by local opposition.
On May 24th, 1897, Manz became the first team from outside of Southern New England/Northern New Jersey to win the AFA’s American Cup when they beat the True Blues of Paterson, New Jersey. The players received “handsome gold badges and a silver cup” and were crowned the soccer champions of the United States. By 1898 a new league had been formed in the city, the Pennsylvania Association Football League. League soccer in Philadelphia was just getting started.