West Hudson: A Cradle of American Soccer

In the past year, the name of Harrison, N.J., has begun to reappear in American soccer news. More than likely, most of the American soccer fans who have seen it were unaware that it had ever been there before. After all, the last professional team in Harrison folded in 1923, the same year as the last time the U.S. Open Cup final was played there.

The town that has been mentioned as a possible site for a Major League Soccer stadium is no newcomer to the sport, however. Decades ago, it was part of one of the most vital areas of American soccer, the region of northern New Jersey that centered on the town of Kearny and was most often known as West Hudson.

The name West Hudson refers to the western part of Hudson County, lying between the Hackensack and Passaic rivers as they flow southward toward Newark Bay. A century-and-a-half ago, the West Hudson area was all a single municipality, Harrison Township, named in 1841 for recently deceased President William Henry Harrison. In 1867, all but the built-up southwestern tip of the township seceded from Harrison and took the name of Kearny, named after local Civil War hero Gen. Phillip Kearny. In 1895, a tiny area along the Passaic River (but a crucial area to soccer history) seceded from Kearny and became the borough of East Newark, which sometimes has been mistakenly referred to as being a part of the city of Newark.

The residential “upland” of Kearny occupies only a relatively small strip of the township, less than a mile wide along the Passaic River. Most of the township’s 9.3 square miles, between the ridge and the Hackensack River several miles to the east is part of the Jersey Meadows, which once were largely wetlands and acre after acre of marsh grass, but now are landfills and industrial sites, crisscrossed by highways and railroad tracks that include the New Jersey Turnpike and the Amtrak New York-to-Washington line.

In the early decades of the Kearny area’s reign as a major hotbed of American soccer, the sport’s influence extended a bit from West Hudson, north to another, even larger textile center, the “Silk City” of Paterson about 15 miles away, south and west to Newark on the other side of the Passaic River, and east to Jersey City and Bayonne. Indeed, Newark’s role has sometimes falsely appeared to surpass Kearny’s, as Kearny’s great teams over the years have sometimes been mistakenly identified as being from the much larger and better-known Newark. Paterson, however, has produced some great teams in its own right, most notably Paterson True Blues, who won the American Football Association Cup in 1896, 1909 and 1913, and Paterson FC, the Silk Sox, who reached the U.S. Open Cup final in 1919 and ’23, and played briefly in the original American Soccer League.

The reason why the unimposing town of Kearny, which had a population of about 11,000 in 1900 and about 34,000 in 2000, became a center of American soccer is connected to the story of the American Industrial Revolution and the immigration from Europe that fueled it. As in the cases of many other spots around the United States where soccer blossomed between the Civil War and the World War II, the sport’s influence was built on the foundation of a large immigrant population. In Kearny, as in the cities of southeastern Massachusetts that have a somewhat parallel soccer history with Kearny, they were most heavily from Britain, and many of them had been drawn to the area by the prospect of employment in textile mills. It was the Clark Thread Company operation, which was started in Newark in 1866 and expanded to the Kearny side of the river in 1880, that was the main attraction, along with the Nairn Linoleum Company mill, which opened in 1886. Both were the American branches of huge Scottish companies, the Clark Thread Company of Paisley, Scotland, and Michael Nairn & Company of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, a fact that helped greatly to make Kearny as attractive to immigrants from Scotland as virtually any place in America.

Although Kearny played a crucial role in the growth of American soccer from the 1880s to the middle of the 20th century, it was not the birthplace of American soccer. That birthplace may have been Boston, where the Oneida Football Club played a game for several seasons in the early 1860s that could have been an early form of soccer. If the birthplace was not Boston, then it was New Brunswick, N.J., where the game that has often been called the first game of American football, but which actually was soccer, was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. But while the West Hudson area was not the birthplace of American soccer, it certainly was one of its most important cradles, in tandem with southeastern New England and St. Louis.

American college students were very enthusiastic about soccer in the early 1870s, particularly at Princeton, Rutgers, Yale and Columbia, but by the mid-1870s, led by Harvard’s team, they had begun to move toward rugby, which they quickly transformed into American football. But as the colleges were abandoning soccer, the immigrants were there to take up the slack. This is where Kearny comes in. The changes in the sport in America mirrored changes in England, where soccer in the 1870s was evolving from an upper-class game played largely in the schools and universities into a working-class passion. In the United States, the working class that picked up the game as the colleges were abandoning it consisted mostly of immigrant groups like the British-Americans in New Jersey and New England and the Irish-Americans in St. Louis.

It is not surprising that the first great soccer team in Kearny history, arguably the United States’ first national soccer champion, was sponsored by the Clark Thread Company. That team was ONT, initials that stood for Our New Thread, a product whose name was a cornerstone of Clark’s marketing efforts far into the 20th century. The use of the ONT brand name continued long after Clark had merged with another thread manufacturer that had both Scottish roots and involvement in American soccer, J&P Coats of Paisley and Pawtucket, R.I.

ONT was the first champion of the American Football Association, which was the original governing body of American soccer, although its influence was confined to the northeastern states (the American Football Association Cup was held more than 30 times and never won by a team from farther west than eastern Pennsylvania). The AFA was formed in 1884 in a meeting at the “Hose House” of Clark’s thread-making facilities in Newark, on the west side of the Passaic River. Thomas Hood of Kearny was chosen at that meeting as the first president of the AFA, which at the time was the only “national” soccer association in existence outside the British Isles.

ONT played its home games on the east side of the river at Clark Field, an open area about a block from the river that is now mostly a parking lot but was still in use for various athletic activities as recently as the 1960s, long after the Clark thread operations had been moved to Georgia. The field was located in what has since 1895 been the borough of East Newark. In the 1880s, it was still part of Kearny, although the neighborhood was already known as East Newark.

In 1885, ONT became the first winner of the AFA Cup, beating the New York Club in the final, 2-1. It won the championship again in 1886 and 1887. In both of those years, the team it beat in the final was another Kearny eleven whose name indicated its Scottish heritage, Kearny Rangers. Those were the only AFA Cup titles that ONT won under that name, but the Clark Thread Company wasn’t through as a sponsor of champion soccer teams. Clark AA, a later version of the same team, won the AFA Cup in 1907, winning a local derby from Kearny Scots, 4-0, in the final, and tied for first in the National Association Foot Ball League in 1909.

Also in 1885, the United States played Canada at Clark Field in the first full international game ever played outside the British Isles. This game, on Nov. 28, 1885, is not today recognized by the United States Soccer Federation has having been a full international, because it was played before the formation of the USSF (originally called the United States Football Association) in 1913. However, although the United States team was entirely from northern New Jersey and the Canadian team was entirely from western Ontario, they were reasonably representative as American and Canadian national teams considering the date. In both countries, soccer was still limited to relatively small regions. The United States lineup had five players from ONT, three from Kearny Rangers, two from Paterson Thistle and one from Newark Almas.

Under the headline “Canadians The Victors,” the New York Times reported on the Nov. 28, 1885 game the following day:

“The football match yesterday between the champion elevens of Canada and of the United States, played according to the American Association rules, on the grounds of the O.N.T. Athletic Association, at East Newark, was one of the best contested games ever seen in this neighborhood. The Canadians won, but only after a hard fight. The play was very rough at times, so much so that the referee had to interfere several times. Once two of the players indulged in a regular fist fight. The home team had been well selected and played well together, considering they had no practice as a team. About 2,000 people were present, some 60 of whom were ladies.

“The ball was kicked off by the home team punctually at 3 o’clock. Both sides played up well and no advantage was scored until A. Gibson of the Canadian team got the ball near the touch line and dribbled it up to the goal posts and shot it through. Several times after this the Canadian goal was saved by McKendrick, who was ably assisted by Brubacher and Holden. The forwards of the mixed team did good service toward the latter part of the game, but were unable to get a goal, the Canadians at the call of time having scored the only goal made.”

The two met again in Nov. 25, 1886 — Thanksgiving Day — and this time the American team got the victory. The game was played on the same field, which the Times had referred to a year before as being in East Newark. This time, the Newark Evening News called it Kearny. The Newark newspaper said that “umpire” chosen by the Canadians was William Clark Jr., who may have been the same William Clark Jr. who was one of the managers of the Clark Thread Company.

This time, the American lineup included six players from ONT, two from Newark Almas, two from New York Pilgrims and one from Kearny Rangers. The headline over the Newark Evening News story said “The Canadians Beaten.” The story said:

“Fast falling rain was making a big marsh of the foot ball grounds in Kearny yesterday afternoon when the members of the Canadian foot ball team, dressed in their showy uniforms, made their appearance. The citizens of the Dominion arrived in the city shortly after noon. By the time they had shaken hands with all their friends and eaten dinner at the Continental Hotel it was nearly 3 o’clock. Most people supposed that the game would be postponed on account of the miserable weather, but the Canadian players found the American team practicing and ready to receive them, while 2,000 enthusiasts stood shivering in the rain anxious to witness the contest. The ground was soft and slippery, and the spot where the spectators stood was a little lake. The dead heads, who were perched on the surrounding fence and freight cars, had by far the better view of the game, and they saw it in more comfort. The game was soon called, Robert Craig being chosen for referee, with H. Starmer of the Almas umpire for the Americans and William Clark, Jr. for the Canadians.

“The Canadians won the toss for position and took advantage of the wind and rain. When the kickoff took place, the Americans found a healthy foot ball team and a vigorous storm howling down upon them. It was almost impossible to make a goal in the face of such a wind, and the American team was kept constantly on the defensive. In spite of the odds, the Canadians were given a hard battle for half an hour. At last, Fred Doll sent the sphere skimming through the American goal, scoring the first point for the visitors.

“After a rest, one half the allotted time for the game having been consumed, the teams reversed positions and the Canadians faced the wind. The fight was sharp and brief but the Americans forced the inflated sphere nearer and nearer to the Canadian goal, until at last J. Chapman of the Kearny Rangers drove it between the posts, tying the score. Two more points were afterward scored by the Americans through the clever passing of Swarbrick, Swithenby, McGurck, Gray and Cornell. This gave the Americans a lead of two, which the Canadians could not overcome. The visitors rallied toward the close and secured another point, but the score remained at the end of the game in favor of the American team, 3 to 2.

“Shepard of the Canadian team collided with one of the American players during the contest, and tore his tongue so badly that Dr. Hugh C. Hendry was obliged to put several stitches in it. Forsyth of the Canadians was also slightly injured.”

Those two games, and ONT’s American Cup victories in 1885, ’86 and ’87 were not the end of Kearny’s soccer history. Far from it. Although Kearny’s heyday as a focal point of American soccer ended more than 50 years ago, it has continued to produce good soccer talent right up to this day. Two of the greatest stars of American soccer in the 1990s, John Harkes and Tony Meola, grew up there and were teammates at Kearny High School. In between the days of ONT and the days of Harkes and Meola, there has been a lot of soccer played in Kearny.

The most famous Kearny team over most of those years has been the one often referred to as Kearny Scots. This team has had a lot of other names: Scottish-Americans, Newark Scots, Kearny Americans, Kearny Scotland. It also has had two different incarnations. The present club, operated by the Scots-American Club that was founded in 1932 and has been a center of Kearny life since, was a member of the semi-pro American Soccer League from 1933 to 1953. It currently plays in the New Jersey Champions League, a collection of the state’s leading amateur teams. The earlier version, which often was called Scottish-Americans of Newark, N.J., but which was headquartered in Kearny and usually played its home games at Clark Field, was one of the five teams in New York and New Jersey that in 1895 founded the National Association Foot Ball League, the most significant league in pre-World War I American soccer. This team, which won the American Football Association Cup in 1915, dropped out of the National Association Foot Ball League in 1919, when many teams were having trouble because of players being in the army.

Kearny Scots have never been a dominant team in American soccer like Bethlehem Steel and Fall River Marksmen decades ago and New York Cosmos and D.C. United more recently. In part this is because they have never really played above the semi-pro level. The National Association Foot Ball League (1895-1921) and the second American Soccer League (1933-83), in both of which Kearny Scots were a significant team, were basically semi-pro operations, and Kearny Scots were not involved in the professional first American Soccer League.

More than anything else, what has set Kearny Scots apart is longevity. Even if you disregard the earlier incarnation and count only the team that has been in existence since 1932, Kearny Scots may be the oldest still-operating soccer team in the United States. They have had some outstanding players on their rosters, most notably Archie Stark and Billy Gonsalves, who probably were the two most famous players in American soccer before World War II. Although their playing careers overlapped, they played for Kearny Scots almost 25 years apart.

Like many other players over the years, neither Stark nor Gonsalves was in his prime when he played for Kearny Scots. Stark, whose family moved from Scotland to Kearny in 1912 when he was 14 years old, was a member of the Kearny Scots team that won the American Football Association Cup in 1915, a decade before he became the greatest goalscorer in American soccer history during his seasons with Bethlehem Steel in the American Soccer League. Gonsalves played for Kearny Scots in the 1941-42 American Soccer League season, as his career was winding down after many successful seasons in New England and the Midwest.

Gonsalves barely missed the run of championships that is unquestionably the highlight of Kearny Scots’ long history. From 1937 to 1941, they won the American Soccer League title five consecutive times, a run that has never been matched at the semi-pro or professional level in American soccer. The stars of that team included Alec Rae (who played for the United States against Mexico in 1937), George Conn, Fred Shields, John Wojciechowicz, Wally Peters and George “Beef” Davis. By that time, the team was playing its home games on its own ground, called Scots Field, about a mile east of Clark Field, near the border between the upland and meadowlands portions of Kearny.

In the first three years of Kearny Scots’ ASL title run, the league used a post-season playoff system, ending in a two-game final decided on total goals. In 1937, Kearny Scots beat Brooklyn Hispano in the final, 5-3, 3-3. In 1938, they beat St. Mary’s Celtic of Brooklyn, 4-2, 2-2. In 1939, they beat Philadelphia German-Americans, 3-2, 4-2. In 1940, the league title was decided by regular-season points, and Kearny Scots outdistanced runnerup Baltimore Canton, 27-23. In 1941, it was closer, with goal difference settling the issue after Kearny Scots and Philadelphia German-Americans each finished with 32 points.

Those were not the only league championships in Kearny Scots’ history, however. They had won the National Association Foot Ball League title in both 1896 and 1897. They also won the ASL’s Lewis Cup in 1940 and 1948, and reached the final of the National Amateur Cup in 1975.

For most of their time in both the NAFBL and the ASL, Kearny Scots were a middle-of-the-standings sort of team. During their NAFBL years, the team they most often had to take a bow to was another Kearny-area squad, West Hudson AA of Harrison. Harrison, less than two square miles in size after the 1867 division, was more varied during its soccer heyday than Kearny in both the ethnic makeup of its population and the types of local employers. However, none of its steel-product makers, roller-bearing manufacturers, brewers and other businesses was as involved with soccer as Clark Thread was just to the north.

The NAFBL, and much of American soccer had a hiatus in the early years of the 20th century. Economic conditions caused both the American Football Association and the National Association Foot Ball League to suspend operations after the 1898 season, but both resumed about seven years later, West Hudson, which hadn’t been a factor before the break, was raring to go afterward. In the first 10 seasons after the break, West Hudson won either the AFA Cup or the NAFBL title eight times.

Because of its achievements in one of those seasons, 1911-12, a case can be made that West Hudson is the first American team ever to win “the double.”

The double is an elusive thing to define in American soccer. Throughout the world, it means winning a country’s top league title and its national cup title in the same year. Today, this is easy to define in the United States. It means Major League Soccer and the U.S. Open Cup. Going back, on the cup side it means the U.S. Open Cup back to its origins in 1914 (when it was called the National Challenge Cup) and the American Football Association Cup before that. On the league side, it means the original American Soccer League from 1922 to ’32, the second American Soccer League from 1934 until it was superseded as the top league by the North American Soccer League in 1968, the NASL from 1968 to ’84, the American Professional Soccer League and its predecessors from 1985 to ’95 and Major League Soccer from 1996 to date.

Prior to 1922, it is harder to say just what the top league was. The leading possibility certainly is the National Association Foot Ball League, which had teams primarily in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But claims might be made in various years for the Southern New England Soccer League, the St. Louis Major League or the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League.

West Hudson won both the AFA Cup and the NAFBL in 1912. In the cup final, it beat Paterson Rangers, 1-0. In the NAFBL race, West Hudson finished with 20 points, four more than runnerup Wilberforce of Paterson. Three years before, Clark AA, the successor to ONT, had come close to winning the double. It shared the NAFBL title with West Hudson after each finished with 18 points and it went to the AFA Cup final against Paterson True Blues, tying and then losing the replay by 2-1.

West Hudson won the AFA Cup two other times besides 1912. Both times, it beat Paterson True Blues in the final, 3-1 in 1906 and 3-2 in 1908. The team from Harrison won the NAFBL a total of six times, including the title that it shared with Clark AA in 1909. The others were in 1907, 1910, 1912, 1913 and 1915.

West Hudson at its best may have been better than Kearny Scots their best, but its time in the limelight was relatively short. It reached the AFA Cup final for the last time in 1917 (losing to Bethlehem Steel, 7-0) and dropped out of the NAFBL after the 1918-19 season.

In its last few seasons, West Hudson played at the stadium that briefly added to Harrison’s reputation as a center of American soccer, the Federal League baseball park. This 20,000-seat stadium had been built in 1914 for the Newark Peppers of the Federal League, which was an attempt to break away from major-league baseball. The league went out of business after the 1915 season, and the stadium soon was taken over by soccer teams. In 1918, the replay of the U.S. Open Cup final between Bethlehem Steel and Fall River Rovers was played there. The two had tied two weeks before in Pawtucket, R.I., but this time Bethlehem won, 3-0, avenging an upset defeat in the previous year’s final. In 1923, Paterson FC won the U.S. Open Cup there. The Silk Sox played a 2-2 tie with Scullin Steel of St. Louis in Harrison, and Scullin then decided to pass up a replay because of injuries. The stadium burned down in August 1924.

ONT, Kearny Scots and West Hudson have been the most successful teams in the soccer history of the Kearny-Harrison-East Newark area, but there have been several other noteworthy clubs:

Irish-Americans of Kearny, also often known as Kearny Celtic, played in the second American Soccer League for nearly the same years as Kearny Scots. For many of those seasons, they used their ethnic rivals’ Scots Field as their home ground.

Kearny Irish won their only ASL title in 1934, the inaugural season of the second ASL, and dropped out of the league in 1951. They also won the ASL’s Lewis Cup in 1944, when they beat Brooklyn Wanderers in the final.

The stars of that 1934 Kearny Irish team were Archie Stark, playing the final season of his career, and Shamus O’Brien, who also had played in the original ASL. Stark tied for the ASL goalscoring lead that season with Henry (Razzo) Carroll of Kearny Scots. The only other players from either team to lead the ASL in goals were Charlie Sheppell of Kearny Irish in 1943 and Dick Roberts of Kearny Scots in 1952, the same year that he played for the United States in front of a crowd of 107,765 in Scotland.

Two other West Hudson teams, Erie AA of Harrison and Federal Shipyard of Kearny, played in the NAFBL in its last two seasons, 1919-20 and 1920-21, and Erie AA continued into the first two seasons of the original American Soccer League as the Harrison SC. That Erie/Harrison team produced one of the biggest stars in American soccer during the 1920s in Davey Brown, who was born in East Newark in 1898. Brown, who ranks second only to Stark among goalscorers to come out of the Kearny-Harrison-East Newark area, gained his greatest fame with the New York Giants, for whom he scored 52 goals in the 1926-27 ASL season. The goalkeeper for that Harrison team was George Tintle, a Harrison native who had been a member of the U.S. national team on its tour of Sweden and Norway in 1916.

Arlington AA, from the northern part of Kearny, won the AFA Cup in 1898, and three other local teams, Kearny Rangers, Kearny Rovers and Kearny AC, were frequently contenders for that title in the 1880s or ’90s.

The area also produced one star player, at least before Harkes, who was born there but gained his greatest fame elsewhere. That is Tom Florie, who was born in Harrison in 1897, but played nearly his entire professional career in New England.

Florie, a forward, was the captain of the United States team at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, at which it reached the semifinals, and he played again for the United States in the 1934 World Cup. He only played eight full international games for the United States, but during his 10 years as a regular in the U.S. national team, it only played 11 games.

Florie played in the original American Soccer League throughout its existence, most of that time for the Providence Clamdiggers or the New Bedford Whalers (he was with his home-town Harrison team in the first ASL season, 1921-22, and a played part of a season in 1931 for Fall River). In all, he played 315 ASL games, in which he scored 126 goals.

Of course, Florie isn’t the only Kearny-area product to captain the U.S. national team. Meola, who was born in Belleville, a bit to the north of Kearny, but went to Kearny High School, was the U.S. captain for much of the early 1990s, including the United States’ four games at the 1994 World Cup. Harkes, a major star for clubs in both England and the United States, captained the United States from early 1996 to early 1998, including a number of World Cup qualifying games.

The interest of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in Harrison as a possible location for a stadium may mean a new life for the soccer history of the Kearny-Harrison-East Newark area, but even if they go elsewhere, West Hudson is not about to become a soccer backwater. Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where the MetroStars now play and where John Harkes was a ballboy for the New York Cosmos 20 years ago, is only about six miles north of the spot where the United States played Canada on Clark Field in 1885. The stadium has become a regular stopping-place for the U.S. national teams for both men and women. It was the scene of numerous games in both the 1994 World Cup and the 1999 Women’s World Cup. In the last quarter-century, Giants Stadium has held nearly 20 soccer crowds of 70,000 or more, and a great many of those spectators likely were from the West Hudson area.

When the Clark family of Paisley, Scotland, chose a location for its American thread-making operations in the 1860s, it didn’t know (and probably wouldn’t have cared) that it was helping to start a American soccer legend. But a legend it is.

More information and artifacts concerning the American Soccer League, the U.S. Open Cup (including the cup itself) and other subjects discussed in this article can be found at the National Soccer Hall of Fame, 18 Stadium Circle, Oneonta, N.Y. 13820, as well as at the Kearny Museum, 318 Kearny Ave., Kearny, N.J. 07032.