Hidden Caps: Jimmy Ford’s Appearance in the First Game for the MNT
“All were in fine fettle,” the Sporting Life reported of 14 men who disembarked from the steamship Frederick VIII of the Scandinavian-American line on Aug. 19, 1916.
The men had made the 12-day journey from Hoboken, New Jersey to Kristiania, Norway as representatives of the United States Football Association (USFA), crossing the Atlantic in the midst of World War I to play five games in two fellow neutral countries, Norway and Sweden.
One day after arriving in Europe, the USA took the field on Aug. 20 for its first recognized international game three years after the founding of the USFA (then the name for the United States Soccer Federation).
Eleven men won their first international caps that day, the first appearances recognized in National Team history. For one of them, James Ford, it was also to be his last appearance.
James “Jimmy” Ford was born in 1889 in the cradle of American soccer: Kearny, N.J. His father, James, and his mother, Rose, had emigrated from England in 1886. James found work as a day laborer, while Rose brought up Jimmy, his elder brother John and his two sisters.
Like much of the population of Kearny, Ford’s parents had come to the United States from Great Britain looking for work in the thriving textile mills that dominated the region during its rapid economic expansion.
The hard-working immigrant community in Kearny rotated around three things. Two of them - work and religion - would be familiar to much of the industrial northeast. But one element was particularly distinct to Kearny and the nearby towns of Harrison and Newark in the West Hudson region of northern New Jersey: the passion held for association football.
Ford grew up with soccer a part of everyday working-class life, just as it might have done had his family remained in Britain. Tom McCabe, a historian of soccer in West Hudson, quotes a Ford family member as saying “The Fords didn’t just feed their children milk, we fed them soccer.”
Both Jimmy Ford and his brother John were among the most-talented players in the West Hudson area as teenagers. They signed for Brooklyn Field Club in New York in 1913, a storied team on the American soccer scene founded as far back as 1888. Brooklyn made an indelible mark on soccer history with the Ford brothers playing a starring role as the club won the inaugural National Challenge Cup (now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup) in 1914.
It was Jimmy Ford who scored the winning goal in the very first final. His thumping header in the 87th minute gave Brooklyn Field Club a 2-1 win against Brooklyn Celtic in front of more than 10,000 fans in Pawtucket, R.I.
By the next season, Ford was working as a machinist and starring for arguably the greatest club team in American soccer history: Bethlehem Steel FC. Ford won his second Challenge Cup title that year with Bethlehem, scoring again in the final in a 3-1 win against Brooklyn Celtic. It was the first of four National Challenge Cup titles the dominant club would win by 1919.
It was no surprise Ford was one of the 14 selections made for the U.S. team’s tour of Scandinavia in the summer of 1916. The USFA association secretary, Thomas Cahill, pioneered American engagement in international soccer and spearheaded the selection of the group. He had originally planned to have the U.S. team take part in the 1916 Olympic Games in Berlin, but with war making that event an impossibility, the USFA instead accepted an invitation to tour Norway and Sweden.
There wasn’t exactly a National Team in existence yet and the squad the USFA ultimately sent was much more a regional team than a national one. American soccer was concentrated sharply in a few outposts, mostly clustered in the industrial northeast. Many players - like Ford - came from recent British immigrant backgrounds and where these communities thrived, soccer often did, too.
Almost the entire American team Ford played with in Scandinavia had been raised within a radius of a couple of hundred miles of Kearny, the bulk drawn from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania - with a lone representative from the West, Matt Diederichsen of St Louis.
What this did ensure was a certain familiarity: Ford had played with or against most of his national teammates dozens of times. They played together in the cold northern winters on muddy fields in an energetic, physical style. Skillful players like Ford learned to work hard for their goals.
The American players onboard the Frederick VIII crossed the Atlantic to a continent drenched in the blood of men Ford’s age. Some of those players, including Ford himself, would see the battlefields themselves after the U.S. entered World War I in April of 1917. But for now, they were headed to fellow neutral territory, and soccer was on their minds.
They had little idea how good the opposition might be. But they knew one thing: they wouldn’t be outrun on the field. The American players prided themselves on fitness. Ford and his teammates ran on the decks of the ship to grow stamina, lifted medicine balls to build strength, and worked on small-sided drills encouraging constant motion to refine their rapid movement.
While the Americans’ departure had hardly been noticed in New Jersey, the National Team attracted considerable attention in Sweden. Cahill traveled with the team as its manager, and he was a natural as a diplomat and dined regularly with the Swedish royalty. King Gustav V attended the historic game between the National Team and Sweden on Aug. 20 in Stockholm, along with around 21,000 other spectators.
The Americans’ first official international game went well; their bustling, blustering style seemed to unsettle the Swedish, apparently expecting a more gentile game. The captain, Thomas Swords, scored the first-ever National Team goal as the team earned a satisfying 3-2 win. Ford did not play in the second official international of the tour, replaced by Diederichsen in the only change in the starting XI for the game against Norway in Oslo on Sept. 3, a 1-1 draw. He did appear in other games on the trip against various All-Star teams, tallying two goals as the Americans recorded an overall record of 3-1-2 on the tour.
Jimmy Ford returned home with the rest of the roster from Scandinavia but was back in Europe only a year or so later, this time serving in the U.S. Army’s 29th Battalion.
After the conclusion of the war in 1918, Ford was able to resume his soccer career in the United States. His brother, John, was not so lucky: mustard gas had destroyed his lungs. John took up coaching soccer instead, leading Paterson F.C. to the National Challenge Cup title in 1923.
Jimmy, meanwhile, played out his twilight years in the “Golden Age of American Soccer.” The professional American Soccer League (ASL) attracted large crowds and media attention in the 1920s, the likes of which would not be repeated until Pelé started playing in the NASL 50 years later. Jimmy played for Harrison Soccer Club in New Jersey, the New York Giants and the Newark Skeeters in the ASL before retiring in 1925.
Ford did not represent the U.S. again. After the 1916 tour of Scandinavia, the U.S. did not play another official international until 1924. Though Ford was still playing in the American Soccer League that year, he was a professional, and the team selected that year for the 1924 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, was entirely amateur. Players paid to play soccer were not allowed to take part in the games.
Ford’s impressive soccer career ended with him marooned on one cap, but there’s no doubt he was one of the best American players of his era. Along with his brother, the Fords were a key part of Kearny’s developing passion for soccer that would see multiple local players go on to represent the National Team on more than one occasion: in fact, three members of the National Team’s 1990 FIFA World Cup roster hailed from the area.
They might not have known it, but John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos were following in the footsteps of Jimmy Ford when they suited up for the USA at the World Cup in Italy.
Special thanks to West Hudson soccer historian Tom McCabe for his assistance in research for this article.