As the U.S. Men’s National Team prepares for Friday’s World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., presented by Volpi Foods, ussoccer.com explores the Federation’s many connections to The Garden State in the latest edition of On Location.
Identity blurs as the Hudson River narrows and winds its way toward the Atlantic. New Jersey and New York run parallel to each other on either side of the river. They meet along their borders elsewhere, but this proximity weaves the two states together in inextricable fashion.
Jersey residents pour through bridges and tunnels to work in Manhattan and trek home every night to carve out their lives elsewhere. New Yorkers make the reverse journey on the nights and the weekends to follow their favorite sports teams stationed in East Rutherford, Harrison and Newark.
United States coach Bruce Arena captured the unusual dynamic created by geography with a joke as his team started its preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena on Friday.
“I’m from New York, so we don’t accept New Jersey as being in New York,” Arena cracked.
This sentiment is broadly shared on both sides of the river. No matter how often they are combined, conflated or mistaken, they remain unique. The first World Cup qualifier in the New York metropolitan area unifies the region around a common goal, but it also takes place in a distinct setting with its own story. The separation naturally starts on the road to Red Bull Arena.
The locus of the modern era of American soccer is a modest Newark suburb named after a Civil War general and propelled by immigrants since its inception. Kearny embraced soccer decades before it rose to national prominence when three native sons -- John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos -- featured for the United States in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The connection between sport and town is a byproduct of the generations of Irish, Italian, Portuguese and Scottish settlers who carved out a place for their traditions and cherished its role in the community.
There are many versions of how those Saturdays and Sundays passed down through the years, but Harkes illustrates the importance of culture from the heart of the Scots American Athletic Club.
WATCH: The story of Kearny, New Jersey and its soccer legacy
Similar stories played out in different fashions throughout the area and the state during that period. The details changed from club-to-club and situation-to-situation, but the key figures emerged and the underpinnings -- the atmosphere to incubate further growth and the commitment from adults and children -- translated.
The collective emotional investment in the game permeated throughout the state. It adopted different forms to reflect the influences in a given city or town, but it pushed the entire soccer community forward along the way.
“Without a doubt,” Harkes said. “You had challenges all over the state of New Jersey. It was a very, very competitive landscape. You think about when we would travel south to play against Toms River or play against Wall. You’re getting constantly challenged everywhere. Even when we’d play indoor, we’d go to New York and play indoors at Rockland Community College. There were teams from everywhere: Jersey City, Rahway, Montclair and Union. It was constant with competitive teams and players who were building their skill sets out. You always had that there. There were so many players coming through in those generations back in the day.”
Enclaves popped up from south Jersey to the New York border and stretched through the eras with the help of guiding forces. Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley adopted the game in Essex County, nurtured a college program in Princeton and steered U.S. captain Michael through his earliest years in nearby Pennington. Schellscheidt constructed Seton Hall into a national power in South Orange, while Rutgers thrived from the earliest stages of the collegiate game in New Brunswick.
Bob and Michael Bradley in 2007
Those outposts and those teachers produced player after player as the game ascended in the country once more. Tim Howard honed his skills in North Brunswick, while Heather O’Reilly learned the game next door in East Brunswick. Carli Lloyd and Peter Vermes marched through their opponents in Delran Township down in south Jersey. Gregg Berhalter and Claudio Reyna propelled St. Benedict’s in Newark as that famed prep school won 27 class A titles before eventually ceding its throne a couple of years ago. Richie Williams started along his road to the U.S. National Team in Middletown Township in Monmouth County. U.S. defender Matt Miazga took his first professional steps with the New York Red Bulls from nearby Clifton, while U.S. forward Juan Agudelo worked his way to MLS through Barnegat and Kinnelon.
Even though those players -- and scores more from across the state and through the eras -- thrived in their environments, they also shared a common experience created by their location. The bonds created through competition and success reaped dividends along the way. They fostered chemistry as they competed as teammates at World Cups and sparked friendly rivalries as they returned home to build their MLS teams.
At each step along the way, they carried what they gathered in Jersey and used it to thrive for club and country. More often than not, they took the field alongside someone else with a similar story and a strong helping of Jersey pride.
“It’s the biggest honor when you can put on that jersey and feel that crest against your heart,” Harkes said. “It’s the best feeling in the world. You always have to look back and remember how you got there. What were the steps you took to get there? Who were the people who influenced you along the way?”
Those questions matter to the people who plan to pack Red Bull Arena on Friday, too.
They hail from their own distinct roots on either side of the Hudson or somewhere further afield. They take pride in their heritage, but they also remember the MetroStars once called New York/New Jersey home and understand that some occasions transcend territorial boundaries.
It is why they come together on the road to the World Cup without ceding ground in those inevitable quarrels created by close quarters. The eternal debate can wait for another day.