History | Remembering New Jersey’s immigrant soccer past

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 [1996]).

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)

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