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.
Sport Clube Português coach Joe Manso says that Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, also known as “Little Portugal,” used to contain more than 10 amateur teams: “But we’re the only ones left.” (© Sport Clube Português)
Presently bottom in the Premier Division stand Kearny Scots, with continuous existence dating to 1932. Its earlier incarnation, the Scottish-Americans, was one of five founders of the National Association Foot Ball League in 1895. In 1912, five of the league’s eight teams were based in or near Kearny—whose current streetscape would be familiar to viewers of The Sopranos, which included some exterior shots of the town of 40,000.
Kearny’s attraction to Scottish workers was the opening of American branches of Clark Thread Company, based in Paisley, Scotland, and Michael Nairn & Co. of Kirkcaldy, which produced linoleum. Those bewailing soccer’s rampant commercialization—the naming of New York’s MLS side, for example, after a popular energy drink—should note that Clark created a team in 1883 named after its signature product ONT (Our New Thread), “a filament which was the first suitable for use in sewing machines,” writes David Wangerin in Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game (WSC, 2006). The side in 1885 became the first winner of the American FA Cup, the AFA having formed in the so-called Hose House of Clark’s first thread-making factory in Newark (see Roger Allaway, “West Hudson: A Cradle of American Soccer,” American Soccer History Archives, 26 Mar 01).
ONT’s home ground, Clark Field, on 28 Nov 1885 hosted the first full international match outside Britain, a U.S. team composed entirely of northern New Jersey residents playing a Canadian unit from western Ontario. Canada won 1–0. The ground featured a rematch, a 3–2 U.S. victory, on Thanksgiving in 1886. Allaway quotes the description from the Newark Evening News:
Fast falling rain was making a big marsh of the foot ball grounds in Kearny yesterday afternoon when the members of the Canadian foot ball team, dressed in their showy uniforms, made their appearance. The citizens of the Dominion arrived in the city shortly after noon. By the time they had shaken hands with all their friends and eaten dinner at the Continental Hotel it was nearly 3 o’clock. Most people supposed that the game would be postponed on account of the miserable weather, but the Canadian players found the American team practicing and ready to receive them, while 2,000 enthusiasts stood shivering in the rain anxious to witness the contest. The ground was soft and slippery, and the spot where the spectators stood was a little lake.
The availability of space—here in the wetlands and marsh grass of the Jersey Meadows—influenced the development of soccer (see our review of David Goldblatt‘s The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, Jan 5, for discussion of the Vorstädte in Vienna). “The ethnic groups found urban fields, often grass and dirt lots next to factories,” writes Len Oliver. “Soccer on Sundays was often their only outlet and chance for ethnic pride and expression of their culture” (“The Ethnic Legacy in American Soccer,” SASH [Society for American Soccer History] Historical Quarterly ).
Kearny Scots for five years’ running, from 1937 to 1941, won the championship of the American Soccer League, with two-leg victories over teams such as Brooklyn Hispano, St. Mary’s Celtic (Brooklyn) and Philadelphia German-Americans.
The streets of Lisboa? No, Newark. Revelers show Lusophone colors during the 2006 World Cup. (© Sport Clube Português)
One can understand why such ethnic attachments prove a difficult part of soccer’s American legacy. Within a land in which such differences are supposed to melt away, they are an untidy reminder of the nation’s international origins. Members of the ethnic groups themselves, too, sometimes shy away from the associations given the pressures toward assimilation.
Early in the 20th century, say Markovits and Hellerman, a combination of poor organization and the “taint” of foreign influence damned soccer to second-class status. Links overseas constituted “a drawback at a time in American history when nativism and the creation of an American identity in clear opposition to Europe was culturally hegemonic.”
Markovits and Hellerman refer to “soccer islands” such as Kearny; Fall River, Massachusetts; and neighborhoods within New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and St. Louis. Walter Bahr, the Philadelphian who assisted on Joe Gaetjens‘s goal in the Americans’ 1–0 victory over England in 1950, cites the influence of Ukrainians and Hungarians in sustaining soccer’s pulse after World War II. “Every time there is an upheaval in the world,” Bahr said, “the soccer-playing immigrants come over and our soccer has benefited.”
Another soccer island, as recently as the 1994 World Cup finals, would have to be 21st Avenue in Paterson, New Jersey, a destination in particular for residents of the southern Italian town of Montescaglioso. Sicilians also created businesses there, although the city’s main attraction was as America’s primary silk-manufacturing center, due to its founding at Great Falls on the Passaic River—the landmark from which William Carlos Williams begins his epic poetic journey in Paterson (“the river comes pouring in above the city / and crashes from the edge of the gorge / in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists—”).
The Paterson True Blues won the American FA Cup three times. Paterson FC played in the ASL and twice reached the final of the U.S. Open Cup. More revealing, though, is how references to soccer pepper the Library of Congress’ prodigious urban vocational chronicle of the faded Industrial Revolution center in the mid-1990s. True, the interviews, close to 500 of them, occurred not long after the 1994 World Cup. But ethnographer Thomas Carroll finds that soccer comes to the fore in discussions of the workaday lives of avenue residents. He interviews Rocco Ditaranto, owner of Ditaranto’s Market, who has a speech pattern one would hope for from someone named Rocco Ditaranto:
The only time I put on the television is when there’s a soccer game. I watch all my World Cup on the television. … Even when we saw the World Cup, most of the time nobody comes. As soon as the game is just about to start people come in. And then you gotta take care of people. You can listen, but you don’t watch it. … I don’t even enjoy a soccer game when I’m working. I like to sit down, relax and watch it. I’m into the game, and I like to watch the game, the way it’s being played, the skill they use. … We like the game, and we follow.
Although he does not mention soccer’s influence within the five poetic units of Paterson, the opening section of Williams‘s Passaic River–charting project, “The Delineaments of the Giants,” has been analyzed with regard to its fondness for “blocks of silence” and samples of “failed communication.” Perhaps “loving, poetic, dramatic” soccer, after which ethnic-soccer historian Oliver quests, resides in such blocks of silence, on the soccer islands of forgetting.