Soccertown USA

By | April 11, 2020

A new documentary has just been released, and is free to watch on Youtube, about the remarkable story of Kearny, New Jersey and the town’s role in the history of U.S. soccer.

One of the makers of the film, Tom McCabe, has also written an interesting piece about an African-American soccer player from Kearny in the 1920s.

The history at the beginning is remarkable, the different characters are quite endearing, and the recounting of the links between economics, society, and soccer is really strong. The recounting of the 1990 and 1994 World Cups is great, and links to another two other excellent soccer documentaries about the same period, Once in a Lifetime and The Two Escobars

Please share your reactions and comments about this interesting film!

Category: Major League Soccer MLS United States World Cup

About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2010) and The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (Basic Books, 2018)

7 thoughts on “Soccertown USA

  1. Cole Walter

    I found the film really amazing because it I never really was aware of how soccer was not so popular in America before the 90s. I always had kind of assumed that there were some sorts of leagues, but they just weren’t popular, and maybe just gained some sort of attention in the 2000s.
    I also found it really interesting how soccer players are created. It is not a coincidence that so many formidable soccer players came out of Kearny. I think that it is a certain level of getting down and dirty at a young age, and being extremely competitive, that makes these kids so good. The story of the kids in Kearny is similar to those in other countries where amazing players come out of. They often play pickup games, and since its winner stays, they are extremely competitive. There isn’t much coddling from the parents or people trying to train them. In order to win more, they have to learn for themselves the best skills to develop and how to get better. Although kids all over the country may have played soccer and wanted to get better, it was this, and the passion of Kearny for soccer, that made them so good.
    The USA world cup run in both 90 and 94 proved to Americans around the country their potential to perform on the world stage, in the world sport.

  2. Jake Mann

    Watching this documentary truly made me think about the conditions and environments that are the most successful in creating brilliant players that are successful on the international level. Throughout the course, we have explored various countries’ soccer programs and have paid at least some attention to the development of youth players and how their experiences at a young age translated to their professional careers. Though there have been widely different experiences across the continents, what strikes me as the underlying common element would be independent experience with the game from a young age. In the case of Kearney, the asphalt courts assumed this role. It was repeatedly stated in the documentary that the winner-stays-on asphalt arenas were perhaps one of the most influential environments for players, ultimately helping shape them into fierce competitors on the national and international levels. These courts forged incredible talent simply out of necessity- this is what the kids of Kearney did, three times a day, and in the rapid, small-sided games, ‘there was nowhere to hide.’

    In hearing the stories of Kearney and its ability to foster talent among the children who played, it was certainly surprising to hear that this took place in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. These tales sounded more like they took place on the streets of Brazil, or the Netherlands, or France- the soccer powerhouses of the world. This method of training simply wasn’t the American way- instead, we have academies and private training (that inherently create economic obstacles that weed out those without a disposable income to spend on soccer). And therein lies the difference between American soccer and the rest of the world, and why I feel we are still unable to truly become global contenders. Despite increased interest and funding in recent years, soccer simply isn’t as accessible to children. There are notably very few small-sided and improvised courts across the streets of the United States, regardless of socioeconomic demographics. There isn’t as much emphasis on the game, and fewer children are on the streets passing a ball, attempting to emulate their favorite players. In the limited case of Kearney, viewers could see what is perhaps the dream of every American fan- a passionate love of the game that develops from a young age, independent of coaches, parents, and even beyond the real field. It is little wonder that this small New England town was able to produce such a large share of American talent. It had all the common elements that we have studied across the world, helping prove the necessity of a playing environment from a young age. While academies are able to polish talented players and funnel them into college programs and the MLS, these systems are unable to find gems in the rough and integrate what may be some of the best soccer players in the country into national programs. If America is able to foster an increased youth soccer culture and lower the paywalls of the academy system, perhaps it will be able to increase its international position. Until then, however, us American soccer fans will have to settle with the ranking that we have, hoping that a kid from somewhere like Kearny has what it takes to put some fire back into the squad and spur some hope for the game.

  3. Evan Neel

    This film offered a very interesting perspective on the development of young talents and what makes a player so good. According to the film, much of a players success can be attributed to the instillment of a competitive nature at an early age. This is demonstrated in the film through the street courts/blacktops where the winner stays, and the fierce rivalries that took place at the high school level in a town engulfed by its spirit. So is this what it takes to produce the best soccer players? I’d say no, not entirely. When you look at the teams who were sent to the 1990 and 1994 world cups, they were by no means powerhouses. Even when you look at the team’s star players, like Lalas, Ramos and Wynalda, they were only average at best on the international level. The documentary itself even explains that the U.S were practically entering the world cup with a college team. So clearly, it takes a little more than a competitive nature. And this is where development academies come in. Where an undying passion for the game and a developed essence of competitiveness plants the seed, it is the high level academies that nurture talents and see them fully grow into their potential. Now, 30 years later, academies are abundant, but the U.S still falters on the world stage. It can often be said that the national team lacks intensity and is prone to simple mistakes, always playing down to the level of competition (but maybe that is just my skewed view as a frustrated fan). So if it is competitiveness and passion that the country lacks, maybe more towns like Kearny could go a long way.

  4. Max Labaton

    I found this film insightful and was intrigued by how it highlighted a vibrant pickup culture in Kearny. For my final project (focused on rec leagues and community), I have learned about how travel leagues decrease rec league participation and create a pay to play system, where only well-off players can access these opportunities. Part of the reason it seems that American soccer has not been able to compete with global powerhouses lies in the absence of such a pickup culture. As we see from the film, some of the best American soccer players grew up playing on the streets or at the courts. These experiences seem particularly formative. As Tony Meola notes, he and his future teammates learned more about competing from playing on the courts at a young age than they did at any other stage in their careers.

    Players from working-class immigrant communities like that in Kearny who grow up playing pickup show how America can produce soccer talent that can rival the world’s best. At one point in the film—I think it’s right before Cosmos folds—one of the commentators notes that “soccer in America is taking off.” This juxtaposition of a seemingly ascendant soccer culture with the financial realities of a lack of widespread fandom made me think of Galeano’s quote that soccer in the United States “is the sport of the future and always will be.” Given the success of the women’s national team, there may be reason to dispute this claim.

    On a related note, the film we watched in class about the 1999 women’s team raises interesting questions about qualities fans admire in players. We talked a bit in class about the players being “accessible” and the implications. There seems to also be something accessible about the three Kearny boys in that they show how players from the most modest backgrounds can play at the highest levels. It seems likely that having successful generations of American soccer players requires young players to believe that they—like the Kearny boys or members of the women’s team—can make it in spite of (or maybe because of) modest beginnings.

  5. Emma Parker

    Street soccer at the Harrison Courts struck me as one of the most important aspects of John Harkes, Tab Ramos, and Tony Meola’s development. The self-made rules fostered a competitive mindset, an intangible skill that supersedes physicality. In fact, an interviewee describes the asphalt of the Harrison Courts as a “testing ground where skill and passion mattered (15:52).” The games were always played as small sided soccer, or up to five players a team. As a result, weak-links were more likely to be exploited and every player had no choice but to give it their all. The other rule, “winner stayed on (16:32),” was particularly pertinent because once a team lost, the waiting time to get back on the court was lengthy. These rules made the stakes of winning extremely high, and the Harrison Courts became a “cauldron of competition (15:58)” where talent was forged. As an enclosed, unforgiving concrete turf, the courts tested the athletes ability to fight to win in the most unfavorable conditions.

    At 43:40 in the film, Harkes, Ramos, and Meola entered another cauldron of competition, but on the international stage of the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. team had not participated in a World Cup tournament since 1950, and their lack of experience and professional skill was apparent immediately. Having terribly lost the first group stage match and set to play Italy next, the hosts and an established team, Meola described his experience as a gladiator walking into the Roman colosseum full of lions. To me, the enclosed Italian stadium was reminiscent of the fenced Harrison Courts, where excuses were disregarded and the will to win permeated the battlefield. Instead of surrendering to their almost inevitable fate of an immense blowout, the team managed to cap the Italian’s lead by one goal. Despite the losing outcome, I believe that Harkes, Ramos, and Meola illustrated that fate has choice; for them, it was a choice of whether to play with their disadvantageous at the forefront of their minds or leave them outside the stadium.

    Street soccer in Kearny developed Harkes, Ramos, and Meola’s ability to stay present, a skill that transcends competition from the local to international level. Although they realized their position as underdogs, they decided to lay all their cards on the table and did not fear losing with dignity. This mindset challenged U.S. soccer’s excuses for its prolonged history of substandard performances. At the Harrison Courts in Kearny, nobody cared who won two years ago; the games were about the current most formidable team. Soccertown USA reminds us that the beauty of soccer lies in its simplicity; almost anyone who is physically able can compete if they have the right mindset. It should serve as inspiration to those who may think they do not have the means to achieve their goals.

  6. Andrew Donohue

    I really enjoyed this film. I think it is interesting to think of Kearny in comparison to smaller cities in England that also have a fervent passion for soccer. Cities like Burnley are grappling with post-industrial life and starting to fade in population and prestige, but soccer is one of the things that keeps them going and vibrant in the eyes of the public and the world. Soccer is something they can hold onto for city pride and they do, fervently supporting Burnley who has made it all the way to the Premier League
    Kearny seems built in this same vein. There is an intense passion and pride around the local high school soccer team as seen by “The Hooligans”, hundreds of fans who traveled across the state to watch the team play in the state championship. There is much talk about how soccer in the US lacks many of the passionate fan groups that European teams enjoy, but this may be the closest approximation to true European fan culture. The town that closes ranks around the team and supports their boys all the way to the top. This is commonly seen in the United States with high school football, but in Kearny soccer is king. And they supported their team all the way to producing three players capable of excelling on the international level, a claim few cities in Europe can match.

  7. Angel Garza Reyna

    This film is quite interesting. I could relate a bit since the film explores the realm of street soccer. Growing up in the “barrios” where there is not much to do but go fishing or play soccer, I saw a lot of talent. Then, transitioning to a high school that was about 30 miles away from where the “rich kids” were allowed me to observe the inequalities. These “rich kids” were enlisted into clubs, which ended making their way up into pre-professional soccer teams.
    On the other hand, I saw my neighbors stay in the same place or simply stop playing the sport. The opportunity never presented itself in my city – the middle of nowhere. If only talent search could be more focused in nonvisible communities, maybe the unique style would intensify the game and potentially world cups.


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