Fall River Marksmen - The rise and fall of one of American soccer's most successful clubs

Fall River Marksmen logo

If you’re driving down Canonicus Street in Tiverton and pass by Andrew’s Auto Body, turn left onto Mill Street. On your right will be the massive Bourne Mill Apartments, converted from their original use, but on your left there’s a large empty field surrounded by a mess of trees. That’s all that remains of Mark’s Stadium, shuttered in the 1950’s. The Fall River Marksmen, American Soccer League, and Mark’s Stadium are as forgotten and neglected as that overgrown lot, but once they were kings of American soccer.

In 1921, Thomas Cahill, the first coach of the United States Men’s National Team and former president of the United States Football Association (previous name of the United States Soccer Federation), filed paperwork with the USFA (now the USSF) and created the first Division 1 soccer league in the United States, the American Soccer League. The league was a combination of leftover clubs from the National Association Football League and some expansion clubs which had sprung up across the Northeast. Clubs like The New Bedford Whalers, Bethlehem Steel, Boston Wonder Workers, and J&P Coats filled the table for this up and coming league. The club names reflected the working class, industry-based characters of the towns they were based in. The American Soccer League would be the most successful soccer league in the United States for the next 75 years, though few know its story.

Much like many of the ASL founding clubs, Fall River United was as an expansion brought in to flesh out the new league. At the time, Fall River, Massachusetts was the largest textile producer in the United States, with more than 100 mills operating in 1920. The decade before, the city had hosted the “Cotton Centennial,” a celebration of the region’s industrial success. The event was of such importance that it earned the attendance of President Taft. The town was the jewel of American industry and demanded immigrant labor to maintain its shine. Thousands of people from all over Europe travelled to fill the jobs of the many factories that filled this little town on the shores of Mount Hope Bay. These newly minted Americans still had a taste for that most European of all sports, soccer.

The American Soccer League and its clubs were created to satisfy these working class immigrant soccer fans. Fall River United’s first campaign, however, was less than appetizing, as they finished 6th out of 8 clubs in the inaugural ASL season. Fall River did manage to lead the league in one statistic, losses. Jack Corrigan and Paddy Butler led the team in scoring with 6 and 5 goals, respectively. With so little to be excited about, the club was on the verge of collapsing (3 others did that first year) when a hero emerged.

Sam Mark, born Markelevitch, was a businessman who had seen the crowds that soccer could draw and saw potential in the brand new, but failing, club (the reasons for their financial struggles have been lost to history). It’s hard to tell what size crowds matches were drawing at this time in the ASL. Headlines and articles from the era claim that some clubs were averaging 10,000 a match. Even if that’s a massive exaggeration, there’s no question that investing in a soccer club was a more promising enterprise than other sports at the time. For comparison, in 1921, the Boston Red Sox drew just under 2,000 fans a game to newly built Fenway Park. Soccer was the most well-attended sport in the country.

Mark purchased Fall River in September of 1922 and immediately began construction of a new stadium across the Rhode Island state line in Tiverton. Tiverton was a tiny bit of Rhode Island, isolated by geography and an 1862 agreement between Rhode Island and Massachusetts that ceded Fall River to one side and Tiverton to the other. Much like the rest of the area towns, Tiverton had built its economy around fishing until the textile mills began to fill the scenery. Mark’s choice of jumping the state line was due to Massachusetts’ restrictive “blue laws” which prohibited most activities on Sunday, including soccer. To this day, liquor still can’t be purchased on Sunday in the state.  To avoid these laws, Mark uprooted his club and placed them in a brand new 15,000 seat stadium he had built just over the hill.

To fill his new field, Mark raided multiple Scottish League sides, buying up players. However, his biggest addition was from his chief opponent, Bethlehem Steel. Harold Brittan had played for Chelsea before coming to the States and had blossomed into a prolific scorer for Bethlehem. Brittan had scored 24 goals in 17 appearances the year before and provided hope of instant offense for the newly renamed Fall River Marksmen (after the owner’s last name).

 Fall River Marksmen vs. Bethlehem Steel

Fall River Marksmen vs. Bethlehem Steel

The addition of capital, new digs, and ton of new talent yielded instant results in the 1923 season. Fall River moved up the table and finished 3rd in a very competitive league, with Brittan scoring 19 goals. The next season, the club added two names which would become synonymous with their success. Right halfback Bill McPherson would play 366 matches for the club before it dissolved. The other addition was the man in the net, Findlay Kerr. In 1924, he had 14 shutouts and gave up less than a goal a match. That year the Marksman won their league by 6 points and completed the double by winning the US Open Cup. The semifinal match of the national competition, between Fall River and Bethlehem, drew an estimated 20,000 spectators.

 The Fall River Marksmen are presented with the Dewar Trophy after winning the 1931 National Challenge Cup

The Fall River Marksmen are presented with the Dewar Trophy after winning the 1931 National Challenge Cup

The rest of the decade would see the Marksmen dominate the American soccer landscape, winning a total of 6 league titles and 4 US Open Cup competitions. The American Soccer League blossomed into the largest and most successful soccer league in the United States. Everything was roses, for a brief moment, and then it all crashed down.

What doomed the ASL was a four-headed monster, partially created by their own actions. First, the crash of the American economy and the evaporation of manufacturing jobs, which funded so much of this East coast league, was a massive blow. Secondarily, a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria swept the nation and, to many, soccer was an immigrant sport. Third, infighting within the league’s clubs and the USFA damaged the league’s reputation with fans, leading many to jump to other sports. And finally, the raiding of players from Europe, without respecting European contracts, brought the might of FIFA against the ASL, who would pressure USFA to sanction the league. With so much damage done, the once-successful league folded in the early 30’s. The Fall River Marksmen were eventually absorbed into other clubs, who eventually faded into the history books.

While some books have been written about this era, few contain much of the lives of the men whose names filled the headlines. The stories beg to be told, but no one remains to tell them. The explosive growth of other sports in this country paired with a general lack of interest in soccer in this country from the mid 30’s until the early 70’s would allow the past to evaporate, leaving a gap in knowledge that is impossible to fill. What remains is mostly newspaper articles, box scores, and league tables, but that hardly fleshes out the history of this era.

So now there’s a gap where once there was a lively era of American soccer. The Marksmen are nearly forgotten and that little lot on Mill Street sits in disrepair.

Author: Dan Vaughn