1923 - 1924 National Challenge Cup: Looking Into the Past
It’s dangerous to talk history sometimes. Those that love the subject are passionate about it and if you screw up, they will let you know about it. So I’m prefacing this short piece by saying I’m not an expert, just a guy who loves history, particularly American soccer history. Also, and this is sincere, if you’re a historian, we welcome your two cents.
The footage isn’t that great, honestly. It’s presented without commentary or sound (sound wouldn’t come to movies for another 3 years) - just barely over 30 seconds of video. It begins with a marching band crossing a field, a large crowd in the background. The next shot is of the Vesper Buick soccer team, standing in line with a line judge (flag in hand). That’s followed with a similar panning shot of Fall River, their kits stitched with the “FR" for their hometown. In the back, you can see a gum-chewing Findlay Kerr (he’s easily identified in his white sweater, traditional wear for keepers in that era ). A crowd shot, showing a large group of people (reports from the time give the attendance as 15,000), mostly men dressed in the era’s style - suits, hats of all sorts, overcoats. Then some game action - which is certainly slower than the modern game, the players more stationary and the ball in the air more than the ground. Then a quick bit of action in the box that (according to wikipedia) shows a hand ball that resulted in the first goal of the match (though the PK isn’t shown). And that’s it.
It’s been talked about on Deadspin, MLS.com, and a host of smaller sites. What it is is the oldest surviving footage of a soccer match in the United States.
You’ve probably seen it before, but if you haven’t, take 30 seconds and watch it. Then watch it again. That’s soccer royalty right there. That 1924 National Challenge Cup final marked the beginning of an impressive run by Fall River, who would win four over the next seven years (1924, 1927, 1930, 1931). But both these clubs were short lived in their dominance and lifespan.
Vesper Buick is certainly the shorter lived of the two, only playing four seasons in St. Louis. Much has been made of the St. Louis soccer scene and the history goes back into the first decade of last century. In 1924, Vesper Buick won the Saint Louis Soccer League in a shortened season of only 13 matches, going 9-2-2. Their path through the Challenge Cup was smooth sailing until the final, winning the matches with a combined score of 18-3. The teams they beat are a throwback to the era: Scullin Steel, Harmarville Consumers, Goodyear Tire FC, Bricklayers and Masons. Going into the final, Vesper had every reason to feel confident, considering their track record of demolishing opponents. And while we know the history of Fall River now, this was their first entry into the National final.
The Marksmen would only exist for 10 dominant years before being renamed, then moved, and eventually collapsing in the 1930s. But this year’s club was at the height of their excellence. Much like Vesper Buick had cut through their competition in the National Challenge Cup, Fall River’s path through the competition was almost as impressive. Their big challenge was in the quarters and semis. In the quarterfinal, they played Abbot Worsted (also known as Forge Villagers), a club that always contended (though never won) for the National Challenge Cup during the 1920s. Fall River beat them 2-1 and advanced to a semifinal matchup with a club they knew very well, Bethlehem Steel. Fall River and Bethlehem Steel were the dominant teams in the American Soccer League. When Sam Mark took over Fall River, he swiped Bethlehem’s keeper, Findlay Kerr, and several other players in an effort to gain dominance in the league. This matchup of two giants took place on March 9th, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. These clubs played many matches against each other in the ASL regular season, but this matchup was a big one. Reported attendance for this match was 20,000, though that figure has been contested by some historians. Needless to say, beating their arch rivals 2-0 to advance to the Cup Final was a big deal.
The final was a high-scoring affair, with the first half ending 1-1. Fall River had jumped out to a quick lead with a Fred Morley goal, but a handball by defender Alex Kemp led to an equalizing penalty kick by Tom Harris. The second half began the same way the first had begun with another Morley goal. A minute later, Vesper Buick equalized. Fall River would complete the scoring with a goals from Johnny Reid and Harold Brittan. The 1923-1924 National Challenge Cup ended with Fall River taking home the trophy 4-2.
The goal of this article was to share that footage, but also to give context to it. Viewed without connection it loses some of its shine. Hopefully this article helps fill some gaps in the story. The fact that a clip from this match actually exists is impressive. Consider that soccer would soon fade from national interest and the clubs and leagues involved would collapse. Of course, the National Challenge Cup would rebrand and continue, but preservation and maintaining the history of the sport was ignored until it was too late. No doubt there was much more footage from this match, but let’s be thankful for the 30 seconds we got! The rest has faded into history. It’s a window into the past and fleshes out the boxscore. It should be cherished, celebrated, and canonized. It’s a look into a past when soccer dominated the sports landscape in this country.
If you are a family member of a player from the past and would like to share your photos or stories, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We value the history of this great game.
If you are a historian, we’d love to hear from you as well. This clip wouldn’t be public without the work you do. Shoot us an email and give us what you have! We’d love to share the knowledge you have with our readers.
Thanks to The Cup.US who do amazing work and helped shape this article.
- Dan Vaughn