Swithenby, Swords stake claim as first USA skippers

In 1885, the first international match was played outside of the British Isles. On 28 November, USA hosted Canada in Kearny, New Jersey – a hotbed for football in the United States, now well known for producing some of the country’s most talented and recognisable players – in that historic match, which the visitors won 1-0 thanks to Alex Gibson’s lone goal on the day.

And while by definition this was indeed a game played between two countries, it would hardly resemble the likes of an international fixture we have come to expect these days. The game was hosted and sponsored by the Clark Thread Company, a local manufacturer located just outside of New York City. The company was an early supporter of the game, and even had a team called ONT, which stood for Our New Thread, a new product the company was actively marketing in the late 1800s.

Five of the 11 USA players came from ONT, and the other six all came from other teams within a few miles of one another, while the Canadian club was comprised mostly of university players exclusively from western Ontario. One of those ONT players was Jack Swithenby, who wore the armband for the Stars and Stripes 131 years ago – the first player ever to do so – while playing alongside brother Joe for ONT and the national team. Admittedly, there is little historical record about Swithenby’s involvement in the international game outside of skippering this first friendly, which he followed up a year later in 1886 when the Americans got their revenge against their neighbours to the north with a 3-0 victory over Canada.

The international in 1885 took place 28 years prior to the United States Football Assocation (USFA), now known as the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), becoming an official FIFA Member Association in 1913. As a result of that, and in addition to the loose definition of either the American’s or Canadian’s ‘national’ team, this match is no longer recognised as an official international fixture. According to USSF history books, that distinction belongs to a tour to Scandinavia in 1916.

Swords the skipper in Sweden
An appropriately named ‘All-American Soccer Football Team’ was assembled by the USFA to travel to Norway and Sweden for a six-game swing in the summer of 1916, when all three nations were still neutral in the on-going World War I. This iteration of what is now USA’s national team first played an ‘All-Stockholm’ side in Sweden’s capital on 15 August, five days before participating in the American’s first official international fixture against Sweden’s full national team. Playing in front of 17,000 fans – including King Gustav V –  the Americans edged their hosts in a 3-2 thriller, which was later described as “a great triumph for American soccer.”

However, there are differing accounts of what happened in the game, but the consensus was that Sweden were not accustomed to the American’s style of play: “None of Sweden’s 37 previous matches seem to have prepared them for the Americans’ all-consuming desire for victory, manifested in such unsporting tactics as stalling to take a throw-in, playing defensively to protect a lead and even shouting for the ball…The US’s high-tempo, ball-chasing style seemed outmoded to a country which had grown accustomed to a less frenzied passing game.”

Tommy Swords, a native of Fall River, Massachusetts, led the Stars and Stripes as USA captain during this Scandinavian tour and there are even unconfirmed reports the skipper scored the United States’ first international goal in that 3-2 victory, though other accounts of the day list defender Dick Spaulding as the one who opened the scoring. Regardless of who made the scoresheet in Sweden, Swords, however, will forever hold his place in footballing history in USA as the country’s first true captain. Unless you were to maybe ask a member of the Swithenby family.

The midfielder was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1951, two years before Swords’ death, despite never representing his country again after that six-game tour in Scandinavia.

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