Town that built US soccer from immigrant legacy

Manchester United's new American goalkeeper made his home in a place which has produced a succession of outstanding talents
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The Independent Football

Manchester United's pre-season tour of the United States takes the club to New Jersey to play Juventus at the Giants Stadium tonight. The game is being held in one of the few regions of the America that has a footballing, or soccer, tradition.

It is a quiet legacy, little known even in New Jersey, which was built by Lancastrian and Glaswegian immigrants who formed mill and factory teams in the same way, and at the same time, as others formed clubs such as United. Many of these immigrants, particularly the Scots, settled in the New Jersey town of Kearny. Starting with the Glaswegian immigrant Archie Stark, who is the highest-scoring player in the history of American soccer, through to John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Tony Meola, key players in the national team of the Nineties, this small town (population 35,000) has been home to many of the America's best players. It was also, until recently, home to Tim Howard, United's new keeper.

One of Kearny's best players is Meola. Now the goalkeeper for the Kansas City Wizards, Meola attracted attention as part of the US team in the Nineties. His impressive performances helped convince the world that America could produce quality players, particularly goalkeepers. The latest of these seems likely to be Howard, who Meola knows well from their time together at the NY MetroStars. When Howard joined the MetroStars, it was Meola who suggested he should live in Kearny, because, as he puts it; "it is a soccer town and a great place to live".

Talking to Meola, it is clear that he has a pride in his home town. He laughs at the portrayal of Kearny in the television programme The Sopranos (some of the show is filmed in the town). "TV tends to exaggerate", he claims, though he does admit that "he has friends back home, cops, who would rather be in that show than just riding around in squad cars."

Meola describes Kearny as a town of two halves. The Kearny he recommended to Howard is the few square miles of residential area, where Meola grew up; which he describes as "having a great sense of community, a real friendly place". The other Kearny, the outskirts which border on to Newark and Morgan Park, is a decaying industrial landscape similar to that which Tony Soprano drives through in the show's title sequence.

The origins of Kearny as a soccer town lie in these industrial outskirts. Kearny grew rapidly in the years following the American Civil War. With the North's victory much of the South's lucrative cotton trade switched from Lancashire to New Jersey and factories sprang up in the towns along the Hudson River. This boom attracted Scottish workers who poured into New Jersey. They brought with them their love of soccer and soon established works' teams. In 1885 these teams, along with others in the industrial north-east, formed a league, one of the first outside the UK. Many of the best clubs in this league were from Kearny.

In the Eighties a generation of players emerged from this tiny soccer enclave who would begin to challenge the notion that America was incapable of producing decent players. The first signs of this came in the early part of the decade with Kearny High School winning both state and national championships with a team that featured Meola and Harkes. These players would go on to play an important part in the US national team, which, to the surprise of many, gradually moved up the world rankings. The team are now ranked ninth.

Mike Rusek, who, along with a Scottish immigrant John Millar, coached the Kearny High School team, has no doubt that the success enjoyed by this generation of players has its roots in the town's Scottish community. Influences such as the annual fixture against Celtic's youth team gave "Kearny players a reputation of being real competitive with a quite aggressive approach to the game".

At the same time as Harkes and Meola were winning success with their high school, Ramos, another young Kearnyite to feature in the national side, was making his reputation at St Benedict's, a Catholic School in the neighbouring city of Newark. Following the success of Ramos, and with the players support, the school has developed what Rusek believes is the best high school soccer programme in the country. "The future looks good for St Benedict's", he says. He believes that in the same way as Scottish immigrants helped develop soccer in Kearny, St Benedict's is able to draw on the newer generations of Catholic, Latin American immigrants. He is probably right. Claudio Reyna, Sunderland's highly rated midfield player was another St Benedict's product.

The legacy of soccer in Kearny and New Jersey is one in which Sir Alex Ferguson could see a distant reminder of his background, and has a faint echo of United's origins.

More importantly, with Howard, the New Jersey-born, former Kearnyite, expected to make his debut for his new club in tonight's match, it is a legacy that may have some bearing on Manchester United's future.