When most football supporters think about the history of the game in New York City they think back as far the star-studded, seismic impact of the New York Cosmos. But the history of the game in the city that never sleeps is a long one and in many ways serves as the history of soccer in the United States as a whole. Many cities have legitimate claims to the “authentic soccer city” label, not all of them blessed with Major League Soccer participation today. New York has always mattered, however, and its clubs have always been central to the sport’s fortunes and progress.
Forty years before the Cosmos became the Cosmos and took their early steps towards North American Soccer League immortality, the USA’s national championship was won by a club in New York. The New York Giants name, more familiar in the modern age as a gridiron franchise, had changed hands almost in the blink of an eye in 1930 and the American Soccer League champions of ’31 were in fact the third incarnation of New York Giants in soccer. The second version had helped shape the outcome of the somewhat inappropriately titled “soccer war” of the late 1920s. The owner of the third was the man who kicked it off in the first place.
Having topped the ASL table at the conclusion of the spring half of the 1931 season the Giants played fall champions New Bedford Whalers - themselves subject to a bizarre multi-directional merger involving the New York Yankees and Fall River Marksmen - over two legs. It was a remarkable playoff. The Whalers won 8-3 in the first leg in New Bedford; three of the goals were scored by Tom Florie, a second-generation Italian from New Jersey, and two by the legendary Billy Gonsalves.
In most leagues, in most countries, at most times of football’s history, a two-legged affair has been dead and buried with a five-goal difference at the halfway stage. Not this time. Shamus O’Brien, Fall River-born Bert Patenaude and Bart McGhee scored three goals in ten first half minutes at Starlight Park in New York and the Giants added two more by the middle of the second period. Patenaude, famous for a far higher profile achievement on the world stage, scored a sixth goal ten minutes from time. The tie ended with a remarkable 9-8 scoreline and the pinnacle of the New York Giants name in soccer. Both the Giants and the ASL would soon disintegrate.
The New York Giants name first appeared in football in the American League of Professional Soccer which was formed in 1894 and contested by six teams, each owned by National League baseball teams. The ALPF never completed a season and the Giants played just six matches decked in their all-white kits before outside interference from the American Football Association and within baseball brought the project to an end. The New York Giants of baseball would later come to provide the otherwise absent link between the 1894 soccer team and the title-winning side many years later.
The second New York Giants formed out of the Paterson FC club from New Jersey in 1923. They'd played in the National Association Football League during the late 1910s and won the league title once before playing a single season in the ASL in 1922/23, a season which ended with Paterson - known poetically and in classic baseball fashion as the Silk Sox - as holders of the US Open Cup. At the end of the season Paterson were purchased by Maurice Vandeweghe, moved to New York and renamed as the New York Giants. In a league won by the works-owned J. & P. Coats team from Rhode Island, the Giants name was positively glittering.
The Giants muddled along in a league dominated by the two behemoths of inter-war American soccer, Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel. Fall River won the league in the Giants’ first year in the ASL and again in 1924/25, with Vandeweghe’s Giants finishing eighth out of twelve teams, one place ahead of the Indiana Flooring franchise with whom an odd collision course would soon be in motion.
Davey Brown was the greatest player of the second incarnation of soccer’s New York Giants. Hailing from East Newark, Brown had played for the original Silk Sox and re-joined the Giants in 1924, scoring 26 goals in 1924/25 and 28 in 26 games in the following season. The league was again won by Fall River in 1925/26 but Bethlehem Steel were victorious in 1926/27, an achievement arguably overshadowed - along with the iconic Giants defender Bela Guttmann - by Brown’s staggering return of 52 goals as the Giants finished fifth.
The Jersey-born forward, who scored seven in one game against Philadelphia FC that year, would eventually play for both the second and third Giants in a total of three spells between 1924 and 1931. He scored four goals in three appearances for the USA national team but missed the 1930 World Cup because of injury. Brown was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1951 and died in 1970 at the age of 71.
If Brown had trumped Guttmann as the Giants’ protagonist in the first half of the 1920s, an even bigger name was about to kick him off the stage and deliver a five-year soliloquy that eventually brought him success as the owner of the New York Giants name that he so craved.
Charles Stoneham, described by a baseball historian as, “a multimillionaire whose fortune rested mainly on questionable legal securities operations,” took over the New York Giants baseball team in 1919. They won the World Series in 1921 and 1922 and Stoneham turned his attention to the beautiful game when he bought the ASL’s Indiana Flooring franchise in time for the 1927 season. According to the late football author David Wangerin, Stoneham was twice involved in very serious brushes with the law and was an associate of Arnold Rothstein, a “powerful” figure in New York’s not-very-salubrious 1920s underworld. He was entirely new to soccer but the impact he had in the latter part of the decade was enormous.
Unsurprisingly, Stoneham wanted to rebrand his new club to match the successful name he owned in baseball. Even more unsurprisingly, the existence of a New York Giants team in the ASL, under Vandeweghe’s ownership, prevented him from doing so. Settling for the New York Nationals moniker, Stoneham set about building a club that overcame a difficult first half-season in 1927/28 to finish third in the second half and lose out to Bethlehem Steel in the playoffs. They also won the US Open Cup in 1928, defeating Chicago Bricklayers over two legs in the final. Their success ignited the “soccer war” of 1928 and 1929.
The trophy practically still bearing the residual warmth of his hands, Stoneham - by now an ASL vice-president with a reputation for controversial proposals - announced that the Nationals would be boycotting the Open Cup because cup games interrupted the ASL season. A league-wide boycott ensued, with the ASL demanding that cup matches be played outside the league season. But the Open Cup was a United States Football Association competition and the boycott was not universally observed; the Giants, along with Bethlehem Steel and Newark Steelers, refused to boycott and played instead in the USFA’s Eastern Soccer League.
WIthout the USFA sanction and therefore stripped of FIFA recognition the ASL became an outlaw league, a fairly common feature of the USA’s remarkable history as a soccer nation. Bethlehem Steel were, predictably, the new official league’s dominant force throughout its three ‘half’ seasons. By October 1929 the USFA v ASL dispute had been resolved and the top teams reunited. Bethlehem Steel, New York Giants and the 1929 Open Cup winners New York Hakoah joined the ASL, or rather its Atlantic Coast League offspring.
Vandeweghe owned both the Giants and Hakoah and had to sell the latter in order to comply with the ACL’s rules. The 1929/30 ended with Stoneham’s Nationals in fifth, Vandeweghe’s Giants in eighth, and Fall River Marksmen at the top of the table. It was a familiar enough ranking but the early 1930s were anything but business as usual in New York soccer and the American first division as a whole. The ASL reverted to its original name and Stoneham, belatedly, had the desires of his newly discovered soccer heart emphatically fulfilled.
The New York Giants name passed from Vandeweghe to Stoneham almost overnight in 1930. Vandeweghe sold the Giants to the Soccer Exhibition Company, which renamed them to become the New York Soccer Club. Stoneham moved fast. The Nationals became the Giants but the changes didn’t end there. With the Great Depression strangling the resources of their feted owner, Sam Mark, Fall River were hit hard by the economic struggles. They moved to New York to merge with New York Soccer Club (the former Giants, of course) and became the New York Yankees. The Yankees won the US Open Cup in 1931 but they did so under the now defunct name of Fall River Marksmen, the handle under which the eventual winners had begun the campaign.
But Stoneham’s ultimate triumph was just around the corner. In 1931 his Giants team won the spring championship and finished second to the Whalers (effectively a super-club that included Fall River and the old Giants, given that they were the relocated and renamed New York Yankees) in the autumn.
The incredible playoff series was in part enabled by another stellar season in front of goal for Davey Brown, who scored ten goals in fifteen games as the Giants snared the spring championship, but it was Patenaude who stole the show in the autumn by scoring 24 goals in 16 games. Patenaude played for ASL clubs in Philadelphia, Fall River and New York, including his single season for the Giants. Famously, he represented the United States at the 1930 World Cup and scored the first ever World Cup hat-trick, firing three past Paraguay in Montevideo. McGhee, Gonsalves and Florie all featured for Bob Millar's side that day. Patenaude died in Fall River on his 65th birthday in 1974, his place in the global history of the game assured.
The Giants never completed another season; the ASL itself disappeared into the abyss thanks to the Great Depression and the kind of politics and disputes that have dogged soccer in the USA throughout history. Stoneham soon passed away in Arkansas in 1936, succumbing to Bright’s disease at the age of 59. His controversial business life and his part in the soccer war compounded his ability to divide his colleagues and associates, but what cannot be denied is that he had a huge impact on the history of the game in New York and in the USA as a whole, so much so that the failure of the ASL is considered by many to have been the point at which soccer lost its potential foothold in the American sporting landscape.
In ‘Soccer & American Exceptionalism’, academics Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman briefly suggest that the collapse of the league might have been the golden opportunity missed by football to gain a permanent place in the American sporting arena.
Instead, there wasn't be another full and unified national first division in the United States until the North American Soccer League kicked off in 1968. A few short years later New York would again be at the core of a turning point in the tale of the American game.