History | Remembering New Jersey’s immigrant soccer past

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.

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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.

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5 comments on this post.
  1. Patricia Wright:

    I have in my possession a photograph dated 1884 of the Paterson Football Club. It states that the team was organised in 1880 and was the first club playing the Association Game in the United States.

    My husband’s great-grandfather Peter Wright was the captain in the photograph. Peter Wright immigrated from England around 1880 following the decline in the silk industry in England.

    Can anyone provide me with information regarding the Paterson club at that time?

  2. John Turnbull:

    The Paterson True Blues participated in the 1894 American FA Cup and lost the final to Pawtucket. They may have competed in previous versions of the AFA Cup, but it is difficult to come by these records. (At various times, there were also teams called Paterson Thistle, Paterson Rangers and Paterson FC.)

    There were organized association football sides in 1880, in St. Louis and in Eastern cities. Paterson may have been one of these sides, but I cannot confirm it. Certainly your picture is excellent evidence. If you can make a scan of the photo, I can ask someone on the staff at the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.

    Most histories cite Oneida of Boston in the early 1860s as the first U.S. football team, although they played a soccer/rugby hybrid. Otherwise, the first game under London FA rules took place in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton universities; they played 25 a side, and the sport continued to develop in colleges before clubs took hold in workplaces and communities.

  3. The Global Game | History | Were Paterson FC the first stateside association football club?:

    [...] While Oneida played one of the football codes—perhaps a soccer-rugby hybrid—beginning in 1862, photographic evidence offered by a descendant of a Paterson FC captain suggests that the New Jersey side, formed in 1880, staked claim early to playing by the Football Association rules established in London in 1863 (see also Mar 30). [...]

  4. Ernesto Kirchgassler:

    During the late ’70s and ’80s my friends and I were growing up in Jersey City, NJ. We used to get kicked out of the baseball fields in Pershing Field Park which is in the Heights (Central & Manhattan Avenues), and luckily one of our friend’s fathers was foreman at a nearby cardboard factory (The Davey Co.) where they had hand-built regulation-sized goals with nets in their parking lot. There we would spend partically all our free time having great games and tons of fun.

  5. Tom Weaver:

    My wife’s family always told her that her Grandfather, William Grant, took his share of the proceeds from the sale of his family’s Scotch business and used it to buy a soccer club in the Newark area. This would have been after WWI, do you have any record of a William Grant owning a team?

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