The Fall River Marksmen were one of the most successful professional soccer team in New England. Over their decade-long existence they won several championships in the American Soccer League and the National Challenge Cup. The Marksmen were clearly the crown jewel of the major clubs playing in the “golden crescent” of southeastern New England during the 1920’s.
The “golden crescent” was one of the major hotbeds of American soccer during the first half of the 20th century, encompassing Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Fall River & New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Marksmen duplicated the success of the earlier Fall River Rovers who had won numerous American Cup titles in the late 19th century. The Marksmen began as Fall River United, a charter member of the American Soccer League in 1921. Sam Mark, a local businessman, bought the struggling team, and built a new stadium, just over the state line in Tiverton, RI. This allowed him to avoid the Massachusetts blue laws.
He quickly built the team into a major powerhouse, acquiring Harold Brittan, Alex Kemp and Billy Orr, who led the team to a third place finish in 1922. Brittan was one of the most successful and influential players ever in the ASL, having been lured away from Chalsea to lead Bethlehem Steel, where he led that club to the league’s first championship. Brittan stayed with the Marksmen through 1928, with a slight sojourn to the archrival New Bedford Whalers. The next season, Mark acquired a right halfback who would become a fixture with the club through their entire existence, Bill McPherson who had an incredible 366 appearances for the team. With this strong scoring tandem, the Marksmen won their first “double”, taking the ASL title and the National Challenge Cup to cap a successful 1924 season.
In the fall of 1924, the ASL grew enormously – the season was expanded to 44 games, and the New England rivalries were established with the addition of the New Bedford Whalers, Boston Wonder Workers and Providence Clamdiggers. This season was when Archie Stark set the all-time record for most goals scored in a season in a first division league (a world record, still extant). The Marksmen did not disappoint, having added Harry McGowan, Tommy Croft and Dougie Campbell to their scoring arsenal, and they again took the League title, in a close race with Bethlehem Steel, who, although they had two more wins, came up short by three points due to Fall River’s 12 draws.
The juggernaut rolled on in 1925-26, with the Marksmen again taking the title. This year the standings were based on winning percentage, and based on their 30 wins, 2 losses and 12 draws, it was not a tight race. Archrival New Bedford chased the Marksmen for most of the season but fell well behind. This despite Sam Mark’s loaning of several players to the new Shawsheen Indians who were launched in northern Massachusetts , and sponsored by the American Woolen Company, owned by his friend William Madison Wood. To compensate for this, Mark brought in Tex White, Tommy Croft, and Frank McKenna, who soon made their mark on the scoring charts. James “Tec” White was one of a series of players lured to the ASL from the English and Scottish leagues with higher salary offers. Eventually, the league would get into trouble by this practice, leading to some severe meetings with the USSFA and FIFA, who ordered them to stop these predatory practices. Nevertheless, during the mid 1920’s, the ASL produced some of the finest soccer even seen in the country.
Fall River swamped championships the next season. Falling to third in the league, they captured the Cup in May with a convincing 7-0 thrashing of Detroit Holley Carburator, despite the temporary loss of Harold Brittan to the New Bedford Whalers. Bill Paterson, another catch from Scotland, joined from the hapless Springfield Babes who folded at the end of 1926, halfway through their first season. In 1927-28, the league adopted a split season, opening up interesting playoff possibilities, but Fall River did not enjoy the challenge, only managing second place in the second half after finishing in the middle of the pack in the opening half, and they had to watch the Whalers lose to Boston Wonder Workers in the championship final.
The following season saw the advent of the “Soccer War”. This began initially as a jurisdictional dispute between the league and the USSFA over participation in the National Challenge Cup but eventually grew into a no holds barred battle over who had the final authority on soccer in the United States. The dispute led to the ASL’s temporary suspension and split, and the formation of a rival league for the season. This rift was healed with face saved on all sides once the financial losses became too great to bear, but the Marksmen made out well, winning both halves of the season and the league title by default. With the addition of Alex McNab at outside right and Bert Patenaude at center forward, Fall River boasted a virtual all-star scoring threat. The Marksmen landed one of the all time scoring champions, Billy Gonsalves for the following season. This gave them two future hall of famers (Patenaude and Gonsalves) as well as three players right at the top of any decent Veterans Committee list for future induction (McPherson, White and McNab). Not surprisingly, they took the Fall 1929 title as well, although in a close race with the Providence Gold Bugs.
When the ASL made peace with the USSFA, they merged with the Eastern League, reincorporating the teams who had left during the dispute. The Marksmen added another top inside forward, Werner “Scotty” Nilsen, who would play much of his career with Alex McNab and Billy Gonsalves for much of their careers, here and in St. Louis, a partnership which would see them share numerous league and Cup titles. This was perhaps the team’s best year. Although the schedule was reduced somewhat, the Marksmen won the league title convincingly with an incredible 19 – 1 – 7 record, 9 points ahead of perennial rival New Bedford. Patenaude and Gonsalves finished 3rd and 4th in scoring respectively. They capped their triumph by winning the “double” again, taking the Challenge Cup with 7-2 and 2-1 victories over Cleveland Bruell Insurance, making them the first team ever to capture the “double” twice. A case could be made for an unofficial “triple” as the won the league’s Lewis Cup as well, beating New York Hakoah.
The next six months saw one of the most astounding changes in fortune in New England sports history. The season started with a sense of foreboding as Bethlehem Steel, one of the greatest soccer teams in the nation’s history, folded, a victim of the ravages of the Depression on it’s parent company. Sam Mark lost Bert Patenaude to the Newark Skeeters during the season, and because they toured Europe during the start of the season, they didn’t begin league play until well into October and had to catch up for much of the season. Nevertheless, they won yet another title for the Fall 1930 season, perhaps the only time a team without the most wins or points managed this feat (the league still based standings on winning percentage). But after the season, a completely unexpected event occurred, which had a shocking parallel to Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the hated New York Yankees. This was also the year of the first World Cup, in Uruguay, and Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude found spots on the US roster.
Sam Marks did Mr. Frazee one better, he moved his ENTIRE TEAM to New York. There, merged the club with the faltering New York Soccer Club, and named the combined team… the NEW YORK YANKEES! Mark had gambled on the fact that the Marksmen were always a big draw Gotham City, and it seemed a no-lose situation. Unfortunately, by this time the Depression was hitting everybody hard and the team was only modestly successful at the gate, perhaps because of the team’s middling performance on the field. They were successful in their Challenge Cup performance however, and won their final Cup in 1931. In one of the more unusual quirks in sports annals, they won the Cup as the Fall River Marksmen (having began the tournament under that name), even though they played in the final with their Yankees uniforms, and their Fall River connection was history.
After this frustrating season, Mark moved the team back to New England, right into the middle of an amazing series of franchise dances. Mark had made his stadium in Tiverton available to anybody who wanted to field a club there after he moved the Marksmen to New York. A group of businessmen promptly bought the Providence Goldbugs and moved them south to become the Fall River Football Club. Halfway through the season, New Bedford Whalers succumbed to financial woes and were folded into the Fall River team. They did not do well that year, and were moribund by season’s end. Mark, returning from New York promptly merged his failed Yankees with them and moved the combined team to New Bedford. This may have left people completely confused, now that the new Whalers were basically a combination of the New York Soccer Club, Fall River Marksmen, Providence Goldbugs and old Whalers. No matter. The new club, with a third hall of famer, Tommy Florie, went on to win the Fall 1931 season, and took the Challenge Cup the following spring for yet another “double”.
Very little information is available on the ASL after the Fall 1931 season. The league was falling apart by this time and many teams had dropped out. Based on incomplete standings, it is known that the Whalers participated in the Spring and fall 1932 seasons, and apparently had folded by the following spring (the league folded several months later). When the second American Soccer League began play in the fall of 1933, There were no teams from the New England area at all. Werner Nilsen, Bill McPherson, Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves went to great success with major clubs in the St. Louis Major League, and Gonsalves eventually returned East in the late 1930’s with Brooklyn Hispano.
The US Open Club returned to the region in 1941, courtesy of the Pawtucket Rangers, and Fall River saw great success with the legendary Ponta Delgada team which won numerous National Amateur Cup titles in the 1940’s and 50’s, playing at Mark’s Stadium. The Stadium is long gone, the site having become a drive-in cinema. The cinema concessions building still stands abandoned, and the field is still mowed and lined, sitting directly behind the clubhouse of the still vibrant Ponta Delgada club.
Year Record (W-L-T) Comments 1921-22 5-19-1 (6th) Fall River United 1922-23 15-8-5 (3rd) 1st year as Marksmen 1923-24 19-2-6 (1st) Won the “double” 1924-25 27-5-12 (1st) 1925-26 30-2-12 (1st) 1926-27 24-12-8 (3rd) Won Nat. Challenge Cup 1927-28 (1st) 14-11-6 (5th) 1927-28 (2nd) 15-6-5 (2nd) 1928-29 (1st) 17-5-9 (1st) 1928-29 (2nd) 21-5-6 n(1st) League title by default 1929 Fall 15-4-3 (1st) 1929-30 18-1-7 (1st) Won the “double” 1930 Fall 13-6-8 (1st) 1931 Spring 9-5-3 (3rd) NY Yankees. Won Chall. Cup 1931 Fall 14-5-2 (1st) NB Whalers. Win Spr 32 Cup 1932 Spring 3-1-2 (1st) Partial Standings 1932 Fall 2-4-0 (8th) Partial Standings 1933 Spring Unknown Top ASL Scorers who played for Fall River: (* = only played briefly for the Marksmen. Rank = position on list of all time top ASL scorers. ) Goals (rank) Johnny Nelson* 223 (2nd) 1923-31 Bill Patterson 152 (4th) 1926-31 Harold Brittan 135 (8th) 1921-28 Werner Nilsen* 131 (10th) 1926-31 James “Tec” White 124 (12th) 1925-31 Bart Patenaude 118 (13th) 1928-31 Billy Gonsalves 92 (17th) 1927-32 Note: Giorgio Chinaglia is the only NASL played to have scored more goals than Werner Nilsen.