By Michael Battista
Every four years, teams from around the world compete to take part in the FIFA World Cup for the chance to be called ‘World Champions.’ Copious amounts of fame and money are up for grabs.
The U.S. Men’s National soccer team has had a few missteps during qualification which continued against the Costa Rican National team in Harrison, New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena with a 2-0 loss on Friday, Sept. 1.
The team’s struggles may be the biggest story coming out of the match. Head coach Bruce Arena lost his first match since taking over, but an overlooked factor in the whole event is the area where it all happened. Hudson County, New Jersey and the surrounding New York metropolitan area both have a rich history when it comes to the sport.
During a session at the New York Red Bull’s training facility in Whippany, New Jersey, on Monday, Aug. 28, Arena spoke about what he expected at the game.
“My sense is that we’re going to have good support,” Arena told reporters. “I think when we played Honduras in San Jose there was concern there was going to be a big Honduran population attending the game… We’re well aware of the fact that there’s many Costa Ricans in the greater New York area but that’s all part of the exercise.”
Arena was sure to mention that New Jersey has it’s own special culture separate from his New York state roots.
“I’m from New York, so we don’t accept New Jersey as being part of New York,” the coach said with a chuckle.
That separation is one of the reasons why soccer could stand on its own away from the New York City glamor. The Garden State’s history with the game could be all the marketing U.S. Soccer needs when promoting an event.
Only a ten minute drive from Red Bull Arena sits my hometown — Kearny, New Jersey. On the surface Kearny seems like any other small suburb, sitting right outside of Newark with views of both the Jersey City and New York City skylines. However, in the soccer world Kearny has earned a far more prestigious title, “Soccer Town U.S.A.”
A New York Times article from June 1994, helps explain the sport’s cultural significance in Kearny.
“The town has two local soccer historians. On Kearny Avenue, the main strip, a sign proclaims, ‘Welcome to Kearny. Soccer Town, U.S.A.’ And the photographs, jerseys and cleats of past soccer heroes are enshrined in several glass displays at the local library,” wrote The New York Times.
While soccer today can be seen as a rich man’s game, with tickets for a top-level league fetching a high price and players being among the richest athletes in the world, it started out as quite the opposite. When immigrants came to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they not only looked for new opportunities but to bring their own distinguished cultures as well. This is how America produced areas like New York’s Little Italy and the early Italian neighborhoods of Newark, or the aforementioned Scottish and Irish area of Kearny.
The Times article further explains this trend by explaining the ties within the town to large European companies and their factories.
“The soccer tradition… can be traced to the mid-1870’s, a time when thousands of Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in Kearny, 10 miles west of Manhattan, after two Scottish companies, Clark Thread Company and Nairn Linoleum, opened two mills and a factory here,” wrote the Times.
Kearny’s history as a factory town, from the thread companies all the way to shipbuilding during World War II, employed thousands of immigrants. These immigrants, ranging mostly in Scottish and Irish descent, helped bring the game of soccer to the area.
In the late 1890s, they created one of America’s earliest semi-pro soccer leagues, the National Association Football League. A lot of these teams were just factory workers so names such as Kearny AC, Kearny Scots or Kearny Federal Ship Athletic Association Soccer Club were common. In total, during both iterations of the league until the mid 1920s, nine teams originated from the town.
The national team’s origins also holds history within the area as well. In 1885, Canada’s Western Football Association sent a team down to the United States in what would be their first international match held outside the United Kingdom. The American Football Association, at that time the U.S.’s unofficial governing body of soccer, organized a team and played Canada in a 1-0 loss. This game was not the official first match for the national team, but it is recorded as the first game where a team represented the country. The exact location of the game has not been confirmed, however most recorded accounts place it somewhere within the West Hudson area of New Jersey, which includes Kearny, Harrison and Newark.
John Harkes, a former USMNT midfielder and MLS star, explained in a 2014 MLS video that growing up in the area meant you never really escaped the sport.
“Soccer when you’re a kid is just everywhere you look in Kearny,” Harkes said. “Your dad’s coaching (your recreation team), your friends are kicking the ball around on the playground and so it becomes ingrained as part of your life. Soccer is everything you kind of live for.”
Speaking from experience, as someone whose father coached his recreation team for a majority of childhood, Harkes isn’t wrong. In fact, Harkes uncle, “Big Al” Alex Harkes, helped coach me to my first Kearny recreation soccer trophy with my father as an assistant coach.
The older generation continues to teach the younger generation in Kearny about the basics and, as Big Al has told countless Kearny youth, reminds young players not to be afraid of “using their left foot” if they get a shot at goal.
Harkes plays a special part in the history of soccer not only for Kearny, but for the U.S. National team itself. Harkes, goalkeeper Tony Meola and midfielder Tab Ramos all played for the 1994 World Cup squad that played in the United States while it hosted the event. To have three players come from the same town, let alone the same amateur club in Kearny High School, was an oddity that hasn’t been repeated since.
During the 2017 Gold Cup, the U.S. needed three goals over Nicaragua to win their group heading into the knockout stage. Clifton, New Jersey native Matt Miazga headed a free kick late in the second half to give his team the win, 3-0. While he would be dropped from the team after this game, his aid helped put the team in a comfortable spot on route to the Gold Cup 2017 trophy.
Going even deeper, the current U.S. squad features four players who were born in New Jersey. Forward Jozy Altidore and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya were born in Livingston and Englewood respectively, before growing up in Florida. Tim Howard, the U.S.’s star goalkeeper, was born in North Brunswick and for much of his early career played for state teams, including the Central Jersey Cosmos during his youth. He also played for the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, the previous name of the Red Bulls, during the mid 1990s and early 2000s.
The U.S. team captain comes from a family with deep ties to the team and a home down the road from the College. Midfielder Michael Bradley, the second leading active goalscorer for the team and fourth highest in history, comes from Princeton, New Jersey. His father Bob, who was born in Montclair, coached the Princeton University soccer team to numerous NCAA appearances and Ivy league championships over his 10-year tenure. His paternal linage doesn’t stop there as his father coached the U.S. National team from 2006 until 2011, reaching two World Cup competitions in 2006 and 2010. He continues to coach sides to this day with his current position with the new MLS team Los Angeles FC set to begin in 2018.
It’s important to note how major soccer promotions have used the state to great success. The original North American Soccer League, which ran from 1968 to 1984, had its biggest team play in the original Giant’s Stadium in East Rutherford. The New York Cosmos, the previous home of legends like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, sold out the American football stadium during soccer’s rise in the country. Later in 1996 after the NASL folded, Major League Soccer created the Metrostars, who continue to be one of the mainstays of the sport as the Red Bulls.
During the national team’s training session, U.S. defender Tim Ream, who played for the Red Bulls between 2010 and 2011, said that coming back to the arena was like coming home.
“It’s still really home,” Ream told reporters. “There’s still a lot of people here when I was (here)... you don’t find that at a lot of clubs these days… It’s nice to be back and see the things you used to see everyday. Little bit nostalgic.”
From its deep roots with early immigrants, to the glamor of the World Cup and even right here at the College, the sport of soccer seems destined to be intertwined with New Jersey. While New York may claim making it there means you can make it anywhere, it takes a lot to play on the field deep within the Garden State.