New Jersey, the Garden State, is famous and infamous for many things: the Mafia, Atlantic City, Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi, stone-washed jeans, the Pine Barrens, Bruce Springsteen, teased hair, the Meadowlands, the Jersey Devil, pharmaceutical companies, the Turnpike, the Lindbergh Kidnapping, diners, and soccer, yes, soccer. While many American soccer fans are familiar, even if just in passing, with the game’s history in St. Louis, not as many are aware of how deep the Beautiful Game’s roots stretch in New Jersey.
On November 6, 1869 Rutgers and Princeton faced off in a game that gave birth to two American traditions: football a/k/a soccer and American football a/k/a gridiron a/k/a throwball. While the NFL and NCAA love to point to this match as the birth of their game, what they don’t like to acknowledge is that the teams involved played a game that was a variation of the 1863 London FA Rules.
If New Jersey is one of the birthplaces of soccer in the United States, then Kearny, New Jersey is the birthplace of soccer in New Jersey. Kearny, which is located on the Passaic River, across from Newark, was home to Michael Nairn & Co. as well as a Clark Thread Company factory, both of which had attracted a substantial Scottish workforce. In 1883, Clark Thread Company started an athletic association for its employees and named its soccer team Our New Thread, a/k/a ONT, in honor of the development of the first thread that could easily be used in sewing machines. The various garment industries located in Kearny and throughout the West Hudson area of New Jersey had strong ties to England and Scotland and many of the industry’s workers played for various amateur, semi-professional, and professional soccer clubs over the following decades, including the two incarnations of the American Soccer League, as detailed below.
While the first professional soccer league in the United States emerged in 1894 (the American League of Professional Football), the first viable professional soccer league, the American Soccer League, started in 1921 and was primarily based in the northeast. New Jersey was well represented in ASL I over its 12 year existence by the likes of the Harrison Soccer Club, Jersey City Celtics, Paterson Silk Sox, Newark Skeeters, and the Newark Americans. Although the initial ASL died in 1933, a new ASL emerged in 1934 and survived until 1983. It was in this version 2.0 of the ASL that some of the truly great New Jersey sides emerged, including Kearny Irish, Kearny Scots, Newark Germans, Paterson Caledonians, Trenton Highlanders, Kearny Celtic, Elizabeth Falcons, Newark Portuguese, and Newark Ukranian Sitch.
The great Billy Gonsalves played for the ASL’s Kearny Scots in the 1941-1942 season and later served as a player-coach for the German-American Soccer League’s Newark club from 1947 to 1952. Gonsalves remained in the Newark area for the rest of his life, dying in Kearny on July 17, 1977.
Gene Olaff, considered by some to be one of the greatest American goalkeepers, was born in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1920. He earned a cap in 1949 and missed out on the 1950 World Cup because his employer, the New Jersey State Police would not give him a leave of absence to go to Brazil. Olaff played for several ASL teams in the New York City area until his retirement in 1953. In 1975, Gene Olaff served as Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, but retired soon after due to the agency’s age restrictions. Olaff currently lives in Florence Township, New Jersey, where he’s actively involved in youth soccer.
Despite the demise of the ASL in 1983, New Jersey’s influence in soccer on the American landscape continued because the Garden State produced several of the best known American soccer players, including numerous U.S. National Team players. Among the soccer players who were born or grew up in New Jersey are Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna, Gregg Berhalter, Jozy Altidore, Giuseppe Rossi, John Harkes, Glenn Davis, Vincenzo Bernardo, Tony Meola, and Tim Howard.
Unfortunately for New Jersey and its soccer roots, the modern era of professional soccer has treated the Garden State in the same manner it has been treated by the NFL. The Cosmos might have spent their most famous years playing at the Meadowlands, but they were still the New York Cosmos, not the New Jersey Cosmos (yes, I know there was a period when the team, full of self-importance, played as just “The Cosmos,” but really, everyone knew they were New York’s team.) Initially, the MLS tried to do right by New Jersey, initially putting fielding a team called the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (and based their kit on the colors of the A.C. Milan kit). Unfortunately, in 2006 the Austrian firm Red Bull GmbH bought the club and renamed them RedBull New York, clearly dropping New Jersey from the team’s name. Despite this change, the squad’s new stadium will be located in Harrison, New Jersey, a town, as detailed above, with a strong soccer past.
Recently there has been talk of putting an MLS expansion team in New York, putting the MLS on the same level of the other professional sports leagues which all have two teams in New York. However, I think the MLS would be smart to take the time to recognize the role that New Jersey has played in the development of the Beautiful Game in the United States and place that expansion team in New Jersey proper.