Soccertown USA is a treasure of painstaking research conducted by Writers Tom McCabe and Kirk Rudell. For years, I had wondered why so many US National Team players and referees came from New Jersey. This documentary explains how the Town of Kearny, a suburb of Newark, NJ, was a working class neighborhood of immigrants who brought their love of the game to their new country. The town became an oasis of excellence that developed American champions.
I don’t normally write a synopsis, but I found some of the facts in this film so interesting that I wanted to preserve them for reference. The best resource of course, is to watch the film. It is 120 years of US soccer history in 65 minutes.
The American Game
In the 1870s, an influx of immigrants settled in the the town of Kearny to work at the mills owned by the Scottish Clark Thread Company. They brought with them the game of soccer and, similar to what we saw in The English Game, company teams became the local entertainment. The film covers early Kearny players’ contribution to American soccer history. However, European football remained an immigrant’s sport of ethnic teams and never broke out into the limelight, even after the USA vs ENG Miracle Match at WC 1950.
Beginnings of youth soccer in Kearny
A century later, the mills had closed and Kearny had become a very rough neighborhood brought down by addiction. Some parents got together to form Thistle FC, establishing youth soccer as a means to keep kids off the streets.
“In a tough neighborhood, there’s access to drugs, alcohol, things like that. Players that were older than I had been fantastic players. But you could see maybe those careers, those windows of opportunity closed because they didn’t take the right path”.– former USMNT player John Harkes
The film has many personal stories from the players, coaches, and parents of Kearny. John Harkes wore hand-me-down cleats from his older brother and had to stuff them with newspaper. Tony Meola was 2 years younger than Harkes and was named “Meatball” after his mother’s best dish. She was “Mama Meatball” to them. Tab Ramos was 10 years old playing in nearby Harrison and had just moved from Uruguay. He joined Thistle FC, and they won State Cups.
I read in a couple of places that the club was named for sponsor Thistle Fish & Chips. The Scots American Club was the pub, sports bar, and hangout place for the club, which cemented the community’s closeness.
What made these players so great
Kearny players had an active 5v5 street soccer scene. As in France’s Concrete Football, Thistle teammates would play pickup several times a day. The enthusiasm carried into Kearney High School, where the Cardinals had several hundred Scottish “hooligans” who travelled to their away games. Kearny HS won state championships in 1981, 1982, 1984, and 1987.
Kearny is only 5 minutes from Giants Stadium, where the New York Cosmos were playing. Four Kearney players played in the NASL. Santiago Formosa became a role model: the local boy who played for the NY Cosmos.
The 1990 World Cup
Tab Ramos got drafted by the NY Cosmos while still in HS, but the league shut down before he had a chance to play. When NASL collapsed, the boys’ dreams of going pro were over. They went to college and in 1989 were called up to the senior USMNT team to help qualify for WC 1990.
USMNT went to Trinidad & Tobago for WC 1990 qualifying. The player comments about this game are very entertaining. In the 31st minute, Paul Caliguri hits the “Shank heard round the world” and the boys head to WC 1990 in Italy. It is the first time USMNT has qualified since 1950.
“We sent essentially a college team to the World Cup,” says former USSoccer President Sunil Gulati. “We were taking on the paychecks,” says former John Harkes. Adds Tab Ramos (or maybe it’s Tony Meola),
“The 1990 World Cup really felt like we were tourists and won some sort of fantasy competition in which you get to actually play with the best players in the world.”– Tab Ramos or Tony Meola
The 1994 World Cup
USA won the bid to host WC 1994. This made it possible for the Kearny Army to travel to LA for a week and attend the games. For USA versus Colombia (see The Two Escobars), they drove a yellow school bus to the Rose Bowl, with keggers, just like in high school. Speaking about the Kearny supporters back home,
“Everywhere we went, they were with us in spirit. And so, yeah, we played for ourselves to win and to be successful, but we were also playing for them. All the time. And when you play for somebody else, that can sometimes push you on to greater heights.”– former USMNT player John Harkes
The USA advanced to the knockout round versus Brazil, but Leonardo’s elbow to the head of Tab Ramos not only fractured his skull, but also took the USMNT’s best player out of the game.
The Birth of MLS
To help launch MLS, Sunil worked out the machinations for Tab to be the first player signed by MLS, for the NY/NJ Metrostars. Tab was Sunil’s ideal signing because he was an American, Hispanic, a WC star, and an attacking player.
I should note in the credits, there is a disclaimer by one man from Harrison, NJ, who says with a smile that Harrison is the real Soccertown. So this documentary might be a little biased towards Kearny’s influence. 🙂
However, the thing that strikes me most about this film is its jaunty honesty, with a tone of WTF how did we get so lucky. It’s pretty rare in a soccer documentary, and maybe it’s a Jersey thing. I should ask The Cooligans’ Alexis Guerreros. Maybe that’s why I like it — this film is gully. Ain’t nothing more American than this film. Enjoy it.
9 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 9