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Soccertown, USA: the roots

'The assumption is that American soccer’s DNA is English but in reality it’s Scottish' – Kearny, New Jersey was the heartbeat of the game, eventually propelling the US onto the world stage.


This article first appeared in Issue 11 which was published in March 2019.

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Whether you want to use DNA or roots, if you pull at the thread that is American soccer history, the end of the thread ends with a Scot bringing the game to the country, bringing the game to Kearny, New Jersey.
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the heart of town, once referred to as the Highlands, was once thronging with Scottish chippers, butchers, bakeries and pubs. The corner of Kearny Avenue and Bergen Avenue was christened Paisley Cross.

To the uninitiated, Kearny might melt away as just another name on a green motorway sign amid the unyielding sprawl in the shadows of New York City. It’s just west across the other side of the Hudson River from all-that-glitters Manhattan in the state of New Jersey, an alternative kind of assault on the senses.

A small town of about 40,000, Kearny emerges as part of a dizzying array of cities and towns that butt up against each other around the smaller Passaic River, anchored by Newark. It’s an area best described as an amalgam of post-industrial wasteland, economic regeneration and a well-trafficked international airport hub. It’s where New York’s well-known face gives way to a less polished visage.

This is traditionally working class territory, settled over the years by waves of immigrants from across the globe, and today home to a representative face that speaks to almost all of the cultures from which they’re drawn: Major League Soccer outfit the New York Red Bulls. This is bona fide football country, the soccer kind, which has been played here by an ethnic patchwork of Europeans and Latin Americans for generations.

But the team’s stadium, Red Bull Arena, barely gives hint to the residual face, located just a couple of miles down the road, of Kearny’s once dominant culture, the one that birthed this rich heritage nearly 150 years ago: the Scots American Athletic Club.

John Harkes is the modern fulcrum of Kearny’s football tradition. The rare American pro who made it at the highest level in Europe, he was the first among his compatriots to play in the Premier League in England. He was also a pivotal figure in the modern history of the game in the United States.

Late in 1989, Harkes was part of the team that returned the US to a World Cup finals for the first time in 40 years, ensuring the unfashionable footballing nation would host the tournament four years later with some semblance of a pedigree. He subsequently played in all but one of the US games at Italia 90 and USA 94, part of the generation of players that helped pave the way for MLS and a proper national footprint for professional football Stateside.

Prior to this, football had been dark in the US for some time. There was no serious professional league, certainly not on a national scale. American football, baseball, basketball; these were US sports. The razzmatazz of the North American Soccer League that had attracted the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio in the 1970s had bit the dust in the mid-’80s.

Harkes knew a different America in Kearny. “I consider myself so lucky to have been in that area,” he says looking back on the town’s culture of the 1970s and ’80s, when he came of age.

Football pervaded in Kearny as in few other places across the country: “On the street, on the corners, we did it all the time,” explains the man who first made his name in England as a midfielder with Sheffield Wednesday. “That was just our everyday life. We didn’t realise that it wasn’t like that everywhere else. We thought Kearny wasn’t any different than anywhere else.”

A large part of the reason why it was an outlier owed to its Scottishness. Historically, and presently. Take that 1994 World Cup for which the US was a successful host and unexpected qualifier from the group stage. The temptation might be to consider the 22-man squad photo and declare Alexi Lalas’s ragged ginger mop and goatee the most Scottish thing in evidence. Not so. That accolade would belong to Harkes, whose American brogue is inflected by strong notes of Caledonia as he relates the story of his home town.

He is a hybrid of Dundee and Paisley, the respective homes of his immigrant father and mother. Next in line would come Kearny boys Tony Meola, in goal throughout both World Cups, and Tab Ramos, an ever-present in midfield.

The story of Kearny’s takeover by Scots goes back to the period that followed the American Civil War, starting it down the road towards bustling Scottish enclave in the 1870s when the Clark Thread Company, a firm borne of the mighty Clark weaving family of Paisley, expanded its operations in the area. At this time, Paisley was home to some of Europe’s most skilled weavers.

Thus, the first great influx of Scottish immigrants came to Kearny and its neighbours in the 1870s when Clark built two large mills in the town, expanding with two more in 1890. Soon, other companies and mills would crop up in the years that followed, bringing more skilled workers from the British Isles.

Then another Scottish firm, the Nairn Linoleum Company of Kirkcaldy, established facilities in Kearny, attracting more labour from Scotland. It all added up to give the town a particularly Scots hue, with Irish stock also prominent.

That meant the simultaneous import of a favourite pastime. And it wasn’t long before these Scots and Irish mill workers were dominating the very fundaments of organised American soccer, also establishing the wider West Hudson area, of which Kearny is a part, as what some describe as a cradle of football Stateside.

Tom McCabe, a local football historian and professor at the nearby Rutgers University-Newark, paints an evocative image of Scots descending from ships that came up the Hudson invariably clasping luggage crowned by a ball. “The assumption is that American soccer’s DNA is English but in reality it’s Scottish,” says McCabe. “This continues to be the case around the world.

“The laws get codified in a tavern in London in 1863 but it’s really the Scots who bring it around the world. That is certainly the case in Kearny. All the initial players and administrators were Scots coming here to work in the thread industry.

“Whether you want to use DNA or roots, if you pull at the thread that is American soccer history, the end of the thread ends with a Scot bringing the game to the country, bringing the game to Kearny, New Jersey. The influence of the Scottish community in Newark and in Kearny is overwhelming from the very beginning.”

By the 1880s, the mills brimming with Scottish labour, a Clark work team dominated what passed for national competition. Composed mostly of Scots, they clinched the first three editions of the American Cup, a forerunner of the surviving national knockout competition, the US Open Cup. They were ONT FC, the ONT acronym standing for Our New Thread, a marketing gimmick for a new Clark product of the time.

McCabe has chronicled Kearny’s football story in an upcoming documentary, Soccertown, USA, an intimate portrait of the extraordinary rise of three boys – Harkes, Meola and Ramos – from the town’s gritty streets in the early 80s to the same US national team squads in the 1990s.

Back in the early 1980s, before the burning embers of the old NASL went cold, Kearny could claim a long, Scotland-tinged football heritage. But the narrative had yet to form a point around which the nation at large would rally.

For decades football had been ethnically driven, enduring in the United States on the backs of successive waves of immigrants. Irish, Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Italians, Portuguese. The West Hudson was a hotbed, with Kearny and its Scots in the thick of this rich tapestry.

“We had pockets of a football following, and it mostly was people from other countries,” says Charlie McEwan, who arrived on the Kearny football scene at a key juncture. “So you had small pockets of these clubs. But not the townships. Not like Kearny had. Kearny had this following of soccer from the ’40s, from the ’30s, from Clark Thread, and it was strictly the Scottish immigration.”

McEwan had emigrated from Blairmore, Argyll as a teenager in 1953, bringing with him a love of the game. Further waves of Scots continued to arrive in Kearny, attracted to the area’s reputation as a Scottish hub, bolstering the talent base. The mills were gone but the football tradition lingered.

McEwan had played in the high school team in Irvington, near Kearny, after moving to the West Hudson area, with other immigrant children. But it was as an adult and local Scottish father that he helped spark the modern chapter that resolved Kearny as, like the large banners draped along its main thoroughfare declare, Soccertown, USA.

Alongside like-minded fathers, he launched one of the first boys’ clubs in the area, and they quickly cemented a formidable reputation, securing a string of championships, and were later part of a catalyst for a youth football boom across the entire US.

Appropriately, the club that came to be known as Thistle FC – after a quizzical naming ritual – was an idea hatched in the Scots American Athletic Club.

“We were sitting around and a fellow who was sitting next to me, Phil Murray, a referee, who came from Rutherglen, said, ‘Call it Thistle,” explains McEwan. “We had a fish and chip shop up here called Thistle, and another one says, ‘Are you going to name it after a fish and chip shop?’ ‘No!’ ‘Well, you’re saying Thistle FC. What is that? Thistle Fish and Chips.’

“But anyway, it came around. We did call it Thistle. That was how it started in the late 70s.”

As the ’80s unfolded, almost all at once, along came Kearny’s pièce de résistance from within the Thistle ranks: the World Cup three. While Harkes was indubitably an American of Scottish stock, Meola, an Italian-American, and Ramos, a childhood immigrant from Uruguay, were stamped Scots by their coaches.

Coaches like McEwan, James Harkes, another of the fathers, a one-time aspiring Dundee United player who’d grown up in the shadow of Tannadice and left for the US in the 1960s, and Sonny McKeown, a 1970s incomer from Easterhouse in Glasgow whose own son Gerry enjoyed a semi-professional career in the fallow years of US soccer’s 1980s. Ramos became “wee man”, while Meola got to thinking no one knew his name as he found himself answering to “hey, big man”.

The century between the Clark work team and the coming of Harkes, Meola and Ramos populated Kearny football lore with a rich canon. Alongside ONT FC, in the late 1800s there were teams called Kearny Rovers, Kearny Rangers, Caledonian and Thistle. The first-ever US international match was played in the town in 1885.

An unofficial contest, with a team that included a number of Kearny men of Scottish stock, went down 1-0 to Canada on ONT’s home field, which is now a car park for a popular diner draped on one side by lingering Clark mill buildings and the banks of the Passaic on the other.

Still later on, a Scottish infusion continued to figure prominently. There was Archie Stark, who arrived from Scotland as a youngster in the early 1900s. He first announced himself on the US soccer scene with another great Kearny team.

The Scottish Americans FC team of 1914-15 claimed the American Cup, the same trophy first won by ONT, the Clark team. Stark cemented his name in US soccer history as a goalscoring sensation in the 1920s with Bethlehem Steel, who played in a then professional –  and vibrant for the time – American Soccer League.

The Scottish Americans side, meanwhile, continued to claim titles in a waning American Soccer League during the 1930s and ’40s. Often referred to as the Kearny Scots amid variations in its name, they were joined by crosstown rivals the Kearny Irish, who added silverware to the town’s collective haul. The US national team chosen for the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 claimed three local talents among the selected party.

Among them was Stark, though he eventually declined the invitation because he was starting a new business. The squad that travelled nevertheless bore a strong contingent of Newark-area footballers and a wider infusion of Scottish Americans drawn from elsewhere in the country.

The 1960s and ’70s might have given a hint of what was to come out of Kearny in the modern era. Kearny-born Hugh O’Neill, latterly a president of the Scots American Athletic Club, honed his football skills on the streets and fields of the town in the ’60s and went on to star in the NASL in the ’70s. He had a brief spell in Scotland with Rangers in 1976 without making a first-team appearance.

Also the absurd: Jim May, a 1960 transplant from Glasgow’s West End, tells of his transfer from the Kearny Scots team to a German American outfit in 1967. “I was playing with the Scots and they were an exceptionally good team at that time,” he recalls. “They’d won the state championship for the first time in a long time, and the German team came along, wanted to buy me.

“So a very good friend of mine was the manager, John Gaffney. This Sunday night as usual we were sitting at the bar after the game, drinking. He came along to me and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to go to Germany?’

“I said, ‘Why would I want to go to Germany?’ ‘Because I’ve just sold you.’

“I said, ‘You’ve sold me? I’m an amateur, you can’t sell me.’ ‘Hey, don’t start your fucking bullshit,’ he says. ‘Celtic’s in the cup final and I’ve fucking sold you.’

“Celtic got into the European Cup final, it was such a huge event and he sold me to the Germans so he could go. They gave me the money and I gave it to him.”

The tradition endures to the present day in other forms. McEwan sees it live on in prominent college coaches, scouts and managers in the US professional game like Harkes, with third-tier outfit Greenville Triumph, and Ramos, in charge of the US Under-20 national team.

Some were tangentially connected to Kearny on the playing side but, drawn in by kinship, impacted the legacy. Peter Millar played in the very earliest days of the NASL with the Baltimore Bays. By then, he’d spent a couple of years in Argentina in the Boca Juniors system before being summoned back to the US for Vietnam War duty. He’d emigrated to the US from Saltcoats as a 16-year-old, was later lured to Kearny by the Scottish environs and then slipped into coaching the area’s youngsters.

By the time the likes of Harkes came to the fore in the early ’80s, he’d helped lay foundations. “The Kearny school programme at that time was recognised as one of the better teams in New Jersey and I would say also probably in the United States,” Millar says.

The long-standing high school coach at the time, John Millar, was American-born with a mother from Paisley. “I took over the high school varsity team in ’75, and we always had good players,” he says. “There was never a time when we didn’t have good players. In the early ’80s we had John [Harkes], we had Tony [Meola]… It took us to the World Cup.”

Tommy McKeown, brother of Gerry, second son of Sonny, remembers arriving in Kearny as an apprehensive eight-year-old from Easterhouse in the late 1970s. Football turned out to be his passage to friends. He watched it grow into a full-fledged national force in the ’80s deep from within, part of the supporting cast in the teams that propelled Harkes, Ramos and Meola to two World Cups.

He describes a raucous backdrop to this regal line, scenes seemingly cut straight out of Scottish schemes and workingmen’s clubs. Scottish parents in the Scots social club on Friday and Saturday nights. Their kids then turning out in the town’s football teams on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It bound them together and forged a unique identity, says McKeown.

“We’d go to towns and play against American kids, and they didn’t really know what we were about. There were a couple of kids from back home that brought a little bit of the raw and toughness to the game over here and it just filtered through the whole town.”

That translated to a string of state championships at the high school aligned to the boys’ club titles acquired by Thistle FC.

McKeown’s best friend, current Kearny High School boys soccer team head coach Bill Galka – Scottish on his mother’s side, mostly Polish on his father’s side – was another of the supporting cast. With a diminutive frame and tricky play that earned him the moniker Wee Jinky, he saw things from a greater distance of separation as a second generation Scots American.

Almost all of his coaches growing up were Scottish, generally fathers who’d immigrated and imparted a little of the ways of home. He has seen other towns catch up in the years since the 1980s glory days, in tandem with football’s growing popularity in the States. But last year he returned Kearny High to the summit, his boys crowned state champions for the first time since 2004.

Meanwhile, as 2018 ticked into 2019, another chapter in the Kearny legacy was being written in Dundee. So it came to pass that in early January Ian Harkes, son of John, grandson of James, would sign for Dundee United. It capped an incredible journey for the Harkes family. James, or Jimmy as he’s better known around Kearny, had grown up in Fleming Gardens North, a brisk walk from Tannadice. United are the club he has supported since the 1940s, where he had trials as a youngster, and the team he’s never stopped keeping track of in his 58 years in the US.

He modestly refers to his own talent on the field as “nothing spectacular”, but his footballing ability was not insubstantial. He’d played junior football in his home city, including a spell with Dundee North End, and continued to play top-end amateur with the Kearny Scots for 15 years after settling in New Jersey.

“It’s a Hollywood script that is,” Jimmy says of the continuing family narrative, his Dundonian tones seemingly undulled by more than half a century in the US. In the 90s when John’s career in England was at its height, he and wife Jessie had become slightly disoriented by it all. “I didn’t know whether we lived in the States or over in England, for Christ’s sake. I was flying over there every time he got in a cup final and so on. It was an amazing journey.”

Another Harkes son, James junior, John’s elder brother, also exhibited some ability as a young player shortly before John’s emergence. A centre-back and sweeper, he too was thought on track to progress in the game but unfortunately was cut down early by injury. Now Ian, the grandson.

“He did a good job, did John,” adds Jimmy. “He passed it down the line. Lucky enough we had Ian come along and he turned out quite a good player.” Ian’s mother Cindi, herself a talent in the women’s game and later a coach, also looms large. In England while John turned out for the Owls, for instance, Cindi was playing for Sheffield Wednesday Ladies.

Though he didn’t grow up in Kearny like his father, Ian’s blossoming career owes much to the Kearny legacy. And Kearny, in turn, can claim another high-caliber football son into a third century.

It’s perhaps quite apt that in John’s youthful heyday Kearny teams and their travelling hordes attracted a curious moniker. An effervescent Tommy McKeown captures the scene: “We got labelled the Kearny Army. I always laugh at it because everyone now knows the Tartan Army. But we got Kearny Army by people who didn’t even know what the Tartan Army was, so it was pretty funny and pretty unique. But that’s the truth. You’d look at half-time and we’d have 400, 500 supporters there for a high school game. And at half-time they’d just march right across the field to where we were shooting. The other goalie would be like, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

The army marches on, back to where it all started.

The Kearny of today harbours few remnants of the Scottish high street Kearny Avenue represented not so long ago. There’s a fish bar, a butcher. Kearny Avenue occupies elevated ground from which in the misty distance the trace outline of the Manhattan skyline stretches along the eastern vista. But the heart of town, once referred to as the Highlands, was once thronging with Scottish chippers, butchers, bakeries and pubs. The corner of Kearny Avenue and Bergen Avenue was christened Paisley Cross.

The Scottish population has largely moved on, an exodus that started around the early ’90s according to some of the hardy few still dug in.

The Scots American Club stands at the corner of Patterson Street and Highland Avenue. It’s an unpretentious structure that could almost blend into a typical American neighbourhood of suburban detached dwellings but for the Scottish national team blue and white paint job wrapped around its entire length.

Inside, it’s a homage to local football talent. The World Cup three. Much further back, early forerunner greats like Archie Stark. Lesser names who graced the club’s Kearny Scots side with aplomb. Kearny select sides who hosted visiting sides from Europe like Liverpool and Celtic. There are nods, too, to the fatherland with an array of Scottish football club scarves.

Of particular note is a Hibs team picture from the era of the Famous Five, which contains the late former club president James ‘Jake’ Bradley. He was with Hibs from 1947 to 1951, later emigrating to the United States and becoming another influential figure.

The club hangs on amid the dwindle in its captive population. Its team is now an over-30s amateur side who play in a New Jersey state league, earning some recent success. It attracts a football crowd, and is host to a New York Red Bulls supporters’ club.

The Red Bulls themselves recently rescued the club from near disaster by paying to have the building’s creaking roof replaced. Its function halls are sometimes used for such Latin cultural events as quinceañeras, a traditional party held to mark a girl’s 15th birthday. It’s a signifier of the current dominant population in Kearny, with – ominously – Peruvians, conquerors of the Scottish national team at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, prominent pretenders to a hitherto Scots throne.

Harkes captures the new scene full circle: “I’ll go back to Kearny now and talk to Billy Galka and he’ll say it’s a joke now, ‘Oh, I saw that one kid on your team has freckles’,” he says laughing. “He might be Irish or Scottish or English and everybody else is Latino or Central American. So it’s completely changed in demographics.

“But we needed that. That’s what the catalyst was for the game. If we didn’t have the ethnic backgrounds we probably wouldn’t have had the passion for the game back in those days.”

Current Scots club president Andrew Pollock, a Red Bulls die-hard, sees the Kearny legacy alive in the MLS franchise’s set-up, even if the net must be cast a little outside of town to catch it.

There’s a strong commitment to local youth from the New Jersey-New York area by the outfit across the town line in neighbouring Harrison. Lately that policy has yielded MLS silverware. Pollock sees the Kearny story come back to the baseline with the Red Bulls elsewhere.

Red Bulls academy director David Longwell, a native of Renfrew, formerly was involved in youth development at St Mirren. That’s a neat narrative arc for the area and for people like Pollock, whose grandparents left Paisley and set sail for the United States to work in Kearny’s textile mills the best part of a century ago.

This article first appeared in Issue 11 which was published in March 2019.

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