The Pioneer of Paterson

A founding father of American soccer needs rescuing from the ash heap

By Tom McCabe

Illustration by Nick Iluzada

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Howler Issue 6.

AMERICAN SPORTS FANS love their founding fathers. Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented baseball (even though he didn’t), Yale’s Walter Camp tinkered with rugby and midwifed American football, and the YMCA’s James Naismith invented basketball by tossing a soccer ball into a peach basket. Baseball soon became the national pastime, football thrived on college campuses, and basketball took hold in America’s cities. But what about soccer?

The first reported game in the United States took place in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on October 11, 1866, when Carroll College (now called Carroll University) students beat some townies 5–2. Nine days later, freshmen and sophomores played against each other at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Yet no founding father like Doubleday, Camp, or Naismith emerged from these contests. It’s as though someone left soccer on America’s doorstep. The game here is an orphan with nobody to claim it.

More than a dozen years after those initial matches, though, Thomas Ashness Tuffnell arrived in Paterson, New Jersey. He’d been born in Macclesfield, England, in 1859, and worked there as a silk spinner from boyhood until 1880. That year, reacting to the collapse of the silk industry, he took his wife and six-month-old daughter to America, where he found work as a silk twister in one of the many mills powered by the 70-foot-high Great Falls of the Passaic River.

Within months of his arrival, the 21-year-old Tuffnell formed Paterson Football Club, calling his creation “the first club playing the Association Game in the United States.” There was a fundamental problem, however: no one in town had a soccer ball. Tommy and several friends scoured Paterson and then traveled across the Hudson River to New York City. No luck there, either. Exasperated but not discouraged, Tuffnell asked some sailor friends from the steamship Adriatic to bring one back when they next came to port. The Adriatic sailed from Liverpool to New York every month or so, and the round, dark brown, leather-paneled import may well have arrived dockside a few months later.

Initially, members of Paterson FC merely used it for simple kickabouts in a remote part of town. To a man, they all labored in the silk industry as weavers, spinners, and loomers. “The players had great difficulty in retaining the ball,” noted the Newark Star-Eagle in a 1923 retrospective. “They would kick the ball from one to another, and many a time the pioneers of the game in this country had to chase blocks before they recovered their precious spheroid.” Keeping possession has been a recurring problem for Americans ever since.

The men of Paterson FC soon grew tired of playing only among themselves. In January 1881, the club decided to stage an exhibition match against a New York team to raise money for victims of the Irish Famine by charging an admission fee. While no match report survives from the historic day, Tuffnell recalled many years later that his team beat the New York Caledonian Club 7–5. The club also raised more than $100 (more than $2,000 today) for famine relief.

Tuffnell’s first foray into charitable work led him down a path of considerable civic contributions. In the ensuing years, he helped bring a public school and a trolley line to his People’s Park neighborhood. He was so well known that folks in his district called him “The Mayor.” Yet Tommy Tuffnell should also be remembered for bringing the people’s game to Paterson and America.

Within a few years of Paterson FC’s first game, the club stood together and posed for what is now one of the oldest portraits of an American soccer team. The small caption at the bottom of the tattered black-and-white photograph reads:

The paterson football club, 1884. Organized in 1880. The first club playing the association game in the United States.


Tom McCabe is an historian who tweets under @TomMcCabe5. Nick Iluzada is an illustrator — see more of his work here. Both are frequent contributors to Howler.