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The birth of soccer in Atlanta

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A detailed timeline of the origins of Atlanta soccer

Mike Powell/Getty Images

In most of the American soccer history books, the early days of Atlanta soccer began in 1967 when the Atlanta Chiefs were launched in the National Professional Soccer League. The Chiefs laid much of the groundwork for the soccer scene in Atlanta today, specifically in the youth game where they helped launch most of the first organized programs and leagues.

However, there were attempts much earlier to build a soccer scene in the city. In fact, it was this week in 1912 that the "soccerites" first began to truly organize plans to create a structured soccer program in the city of Atlanta. The Atlanta Soccer Football Club was coming off an undefeated spring and was proclaimed as the "Champions of the South", but they wanted to develop a more structured competition like the ones in the Northeast.

At this time, soccer was seen as a winter sport with games played from November-February. Basketball had not really taken hold in the South yet, and soccer was seen as something to keep athletes active between the football and baseball seasons.

There had been some games played in previous years (the earliest I've seen mentioned is the spring of 1908), but nothing was too organized at this point. In January of 1912, the Atlanta Soccer Football Club played the soldiers at Fort McPherson. It was the soldiers' first game, they had only been practicing for two weeks. From the 1/2/12 Atlanta Constitution:

"The attendance was large, all the garrison being on hand, and in addition there was a considerable outpouring of football enthusiasts. The game was fast and exciting throughout."

The game ended with the Atlanta team taking a 2-0 win.

The club began having weekly meetings on Tuesday nights at the AG Spalding & Bros. sporting goods store at 75 Broad Street in downtown Atlanta. The Atlanta Constitution reported that they could boast seventy members in January of 1912.

As the club began to grow, talk started of beginning a league. Ogie Grice wrote about these efforts in the 1/7/12 edition of the Atlanta Constitution:

"Atlanta is not along among the southern cities to take on soccer, and next year games between teams representing the different cities and athletics organizations will be played."

Word began to spread about the growing interest in soccer in Atlanta, and other nearby cities took notice. A group from Chattanooga challenged A.S. McLundie of the Atlanta group to field a team to play the first "inter-city soccer football" match in the south. A provisional starting lineup was named in the Atlanta Constitution:

"Campbell, goal; Kelly, left back; Jackson, right back; Carpenter, left half back; Wilson, center half back; Roper, right half back; J. Harland, outer left; A. Strachen, inner left; W. Jones, center; T. Harland, inner right; Bryce, outer right; Harvey, Swan, reserves."

Starting on January 20, weekly scrimmages were held at Piedmont Park at 3pm on Saturdays to help determine the strongest team to take on Chattanooga. The provisional starters took on a group of reserves who were trying to break into the first choice lineup. Ogie Grice reported in the Atlanta Constitution that new recruits were turning up for the scrimmages, trying to join the club.

The club leadership was pleased with how the group was developing, and scheduled an away match with Chattanooga on February 22. They also booked a trip to Auburn in March to take on the soccer team from the university. Football coach Mike Donohue started a soccer team at Auburn, believed to be the first at a Southern college. Many players on Auburn's football team also played soccer, with center J.E. Pitts elected as manager of the soccer team.

A final practice was held on Saturday, February 17 at Piedmont Park in preparation for the Chattanooga match. The Constitution reported that Chattanooga had recruited Yale football star Ted Coy for their lineup, giving them increased confidence.

On the eve of the Chattanooga match, the Atlanta club named their starting lineup in the Atlanta Constitution. The recent scrimmages saw some newcomers break into the starting lineup:

Despland, Goal; Jackson, Right full back; Kelly, Left full back; Harvey, Right half back; Wilson, Center half back; McWatt, Left half back; W. Jones, Inside right; Pat Harland, Outside right; R. Jones, Center; J. Harland, Outside left; Strachan, Inside left; Jette and Worrell, Reserves; Joe Hall, Team manager.

The team, along with a "large delegation of soccer loving" supporters, traveled to Chattanooga via train from the union depot on the morning of the match. The match went better than many expected, with Atlanta winning 4-0. Pat Harland scored once for Atlanta, while R. Jones had a hat trick. Some highlights from the Atlanta Constitution account of the match:

"Atlanta's soccer eleven romped away with the first inter-city game every played in the south here today, defeating the Chattanoogans by four goals to none. The Crackers featured a center attack, and, with J.R. Jones as the chief strength, and with Strachan and Wilson doing the lion's share of getting the ball down the field, bombarded the home team's goal for the greater part of both halves."

"The first goal was made by J. Harland, after Strachan and Wilson carried the ball down the field beautifully immediately after Chattanooga failed to net anything from a corner kick. R. Jones was the bright particular star of the second half, his toe sending three goals under the bar."

Atlanta followed up the victory in Chattanooga with a win on the road in Auburn 2-1 on March 2. The game was reported by the Atlanta Constitution as the "first game of association football played by a southern college." Auburn took a lead in the first half on a goal by Newell. Atlanta changed its tactics at halftime and took control of the match in the second half. Strachan scored fifteen minutes into the half to level the score. Atlanta earned a penalty kick, but Grant's attempt was saved by the Auburn goalkeeper Major. With ten minutes remaining, Strachan scored his second goal of the game to put Atlanta into the lead.

"From then until the finish Auburn played like demons, but the Atlanta defense was equal to the occasion and the game concluded with the score 2 to 1 in Atlanta's favor."

Atlanta made some changes to the lineup that defeated Chattanooga. Newcomers Simpson, Worrell, Hogg, Grant, and Moore started in Auburn.

The Constitution hyped the return match booked for the following Saturday at Piedmont Park:

"Next Saturday Auburn comes to Atlanta to play a return game at Piedmont park, and it promises to be a great contest. With their experience of Saturday the Auburn team will be dangerous, and it behooves the Atlanta club to select their best team possible to beat them out. It is to be hoped that a large crowd will be on hand to witness the game and give encouragement to the local boys. A big delegation of Auburn students will be on hand to root for their team."

The Constitution continued to spread the word about the home game with Auburn on March 7, running an article entitled "Local Soccers To Play Auburn". Tickets for the game were being sold at the AG Spalding & Bros. store on Broad Street. In an effort to explain the game further, the article included:

"The Atlanta boys defeated Auburn in Auburn recently, winning 2 to 1. This is considered a mighty close score in soccer, and shows that the teams are very evenly matched. So Saturday's game should be a fierce one."

Atlanta won the match but the score and details are unknown, for some reason the Atlanta Constitution did not report on it. However, a few days later, they included this tidbit in their sports section:

"Atlanta Soccers must be awarded the palm for sheer gameness in the face of adversity. To them is due the credit for establishing soccer football in the south. To keep it going they have paid out their own good money. In the game with Auburn on Saturday, they lost $40, being shy that much from the guarantee they were to give the Auburn boys. Every man on the club paid his pro rata share without a murmur. For pure unadulterated sportsmanship, that takes the prize."

The club held a "banquet and smoker" on March 23 at Folsom's as a celebration of their undefeated inaugural season. Due to their record, the Atlanta Constitution went on to proclaim the Atlanta Soccer Football Club as the "champions of the south."

On September 19, the first informational meeting for the next season was held in the offices of Dr. Toepel at the Candler Building in downtown Atlanta. The next meeting was held on October 3 at the AG Spalding & Bros. store on Broad Street. Officers were elected and a discussion was had about plans for the upcoming season. The Atlanta Constitution reported:

"The question of forming an association football league will also be brought up. There has been organized an American Amateur Football association, which will control the game in this country. The local club plans to organize one in the south, to be represented in the American association."

The hope seemed to be to recruit enough players and other local teams to form a city league.

Practices started for the next season on October 5 at Piedmont Park, with additional sessions each Saturday afternoon. An "exhibition game" was scheduled with "the strong Lithonia team" on October 26 at Piedmont Park. There were games mentioned between teams from Atlanta and Lithonia as far back as the spring of 1908, with very little detail about how those teams were formed at the time.

The match with Lithonia was highlighted in the October 26 Atlanta Constitution with a short preview that included a few interesting tidbits. Kickoff was scheduled for 3:30pm, admission was free for spectators. The Atlanta team will wear maroon jerseys for their match with Lithonia, while their opponents would wear blue.

The "Stone Cutters" of Lithonia won the match 5-2 at Piedmont Park in front of a "fine crowd of spectators." Strachan and McDonald scored the goals for Atlanta. The teams played thirty minute halves. The Constitution noted that the Lithonia players were in better condition which helped them win the match.

Atlanta saw some new faces in their lineup:

Witanuer, goal; Harvey, right back; Jette, left back; McWatt, right half; Wilson, center; Roper, left half; Brice, right outside; Pat Harland, right tackle; Jack Harland, center; McDonald, left tackle; Strachan, left outside

After their scrimmage on November 9, the Constitution reported:

"The most gratifying part of it is that quite a number of new recruits have joined the Atlanta club and the ultimate success of the game here seems a sure thing, and before many weeks a real league should result, following the action of the soccer players of Birmingham, who have a well-organized league now working, with six teams playing each Saturday."

A return match with Lithonia was scheduled for November 16, the Atlanta club made plans to travel by "motor." The weekly meeting at the AG Spalding & Bros. store on November 14 was used to finalize plans. It was noted that "every old player or prospective soccerite will be made welcome."

The Constitution traveled with the team for the match in Lithonia:

"Lithonia was the scene of the return match between the Atlanta and Lithonia teams on Saturday, when the Gate City bunch came away wit' the game, thus getting their own back, the game resulting in a 2-1 victory.

Strenuous and fast play was the order of the tussle, and each team played like a bunch of demons, as is demonstrated by the close score."

The teams played thirty-five minute halves in this game. Manley scored both goals for Atlanta.

On November 25, it appeared that the first attempt to create multiple teams in Atlanta occurred with teams called the National and Corinthians playing at Piedmont Park. The teams were described as:

"The Nationals are composed entirely of American boys, who are endeavoring to master the art of the great English game of soccer football. If they continue to show the class of football that they put up in Saturday's game, it will not be long before they will be getting the best of their British rivals, the Corinthians."

While plans for an organized league didn't quite get off the ground in 1912, this match shows that larger numbers of players were turning out and there would be an opportunity in the near future to do more with soccer in Atlanta.