History | Remembering New Jersey’s immigrant soccer past

Newark, New Jersey | Major League Soccer has started its 13th season with an eye toward expansion, with additional international players and with its marketing machinery, as ever, in fine fiddle. Its sense of America’s unique soccer heritage, however, has always seemed weak, as if it did not wish to claim connection with the alphabet soup of predecessor leagues—many with the dreaded “ethnic” associations—and builders who authored this hidden history.

Fortunately, the notion of American soccer as a game among immigrant enclaves has been preserved, with a regional focus, at Newark’s Sport Clube Português and within a northeastern amateur league featuring divisions along ethnic lines (Elizabeth Dwoskin, “On State’s Fields, A World Cup in Miniature,” New York Times, Mar 23).

Within the Paterson office of Prudential insurance representative John Granata on 5 Aug 1994, a Library of Congress ethnographer dutifully records the ethnically tinged football ephemera on view. (Working in Paterson Folklife Project, Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

Not that ethnic separation should be celebrated in and of itself, for it stands in contrast to soccer’s capacity for integrating. The game’s reputed ethnic associations hindered soccer in its domestic development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries yet, in truth, probably were overstated. Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton, 2001) point out that “club composition was never limited by ethnicity. … Italians regularly played for German clubs, Irishmen played for Italian-named teams, and Gentiles of all kinds played for Jewish sides.”

New Jersey boasts its own self-contained soccer culture in West Hudson, the western section of Hudson County between Newark International Airport and the Meadowlands, an urban island bounded by the Passaic River and New Jersey Turnpike. Tellingly, the small collection of bedroom communities now fully absorbed in the New York conurbation lies just eight miles northwest of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which processed more than 12 million immigrant arrivals between 1892 and 1954. Extending the pocket, which centers on Kearny, 10 miles to the north brings Paterson, the “Silk City,” into the picture. An even shorter jog to the south includes Harrison, where construction on Red Bull Park started earlier this year, and Newark.

Newark served as headquarters of the first soccer league organized outside the UK, the American Football Association (1884). Portuguese migrants in 1921 founded Sport Clube Português, where more than 85 years of memorabilia rest in a lobby cabinet. The club still participates in the northeastern amateur Champions League; it is four-time defending champion of the nine-team USSF-affiliated Premier Division. Fellow participants in the current season include FK White Eagles (Hope, N.J.)—not to be confused with the Serbian White Eagles of Toronto—SC Vistula (Garfield, N.J.), with website available in Polish and English; and NY Salamina FC (Staten Island), with roots in Famagusta, Cyprus.

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