Soccertown USA is among the best films for understanding both the potential for soccer’s development as an American sport and the reasons why America has never quite developed the soccer culture of many Latin American and European countries. The film tracks the journeys of three American professional soccer players–John Harkes, Tab Ramos, and Tony Meola–from their childhoods in Kearny, New Jersey to their roles as key players on the 1990 and 1994 World Cup national teams, the first American teams to make the World Cup in 40 years. Kearny is a hotbed of U.S. soccer talent and the film explores the conducive factors that enabled a relatively small town to produce three top American players. Soccertown USA shows several factors that can explain how soccer facilitates community ties: through common culture, same locality, and similar economic class.
(find the full movie here)
One of the most obvious features of Kearny is that it is an immigrant community, primarily composed of Scots and Italians. The fact that there is a large immigrant population makes it not surprising that soccer is popular. Residents share common ethnicities and possibly strong cultural bonds, which can promote a sense of community. Yet, the fact that Kearny is historically a community of immigrants does not seem sufficient to explain why soccer brings residents together. As the film’s director Tom McCabe noted when he spoke to our class, there is a relatively strong civic tradition in Kearny. A considerable number of residents join the military, for instance, and there are high levels of church attendance. Civic participation can take numerous forms, but the point is that these common bonds transcend family origin. For many residents, it’s not about where they came from but rather about a common purpose.
It also helps that the players featured and their childhood friends with whom they played soccer were from the same neighborhoods. They attended the same schools and saw one another virtually every day. They played soccer on the local courts, where they could often be found late into the night. As Meola notes years later, he learned more about competing from playing on those courts than he did at any other time in his life. The three future World Cup teammates and their friends all attended Kearny High School and soccer was what they did in their free time. Such proximity meant that there were already factors in place that could contribute to a strong community. Informal soccer as the kids grew up complemented more formalized high school play to make incredibly strong players, teams, and communities.
Being of a similar socio-economic status brought the “boys from Kearny” together in a way that might not have been possible in a town with greater economic disparities. Kearny is a working-class town. The players talk about growing up without being able to afford cleats that fit and other equipment that youth travel soccer players today possess in abundance. This lack of wealth meant that soccer was the kind of outlet that is common for young people in the barrios of Latin America or small towns in Europe. Blue-collar upbringings seemed to foster an unusual sense of grit and competitiveness in the three future stars and their childhood friends that made pick-up games so enjoyable.
The story of Kearny shows how soccer intersects with ideas about community. Kearny had a sense of community and it is hard to imagine the sport flourishing there without an already grounded sense of community. It seems uncertain that soccer can replace other bonds that bring people together—such as participation in religious or civic organizations—but it can augment an already robust community. If you want to see the strongest counterargument to this point, head over to our page on high school soccer and check out Vice Sport’s documentary at the bottom of the page.