The best soccer documentary is made in New Jersey

Early this year while in Texas I met three players from the Houston Dynamo academy. We had an interesting, informal conversation about what life is like for teenagers in a pro club's youth program. Tab Ramos had come on as head coach a couple months earlier and they were hopeful about his interest in promoting Homegrown players. Then they asked me if Tab had been a good player.

The question took me by surprise, because they'd already impressed me with their deep knowledge of the soccer world. So I did some math in my head. Never a very quick process, but I realized that kids born in 2002-2004, like these guys, wouldn't know much about the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, the trailblazing American players who moved to Europe in the 1990s, or the launch of MLS in 1996, when Ramos was the league's first signing.

How would they know that Ramos scored crucial goals for the USA in qualifying for the 1990 and 1998 World Cups, and that he assisted on Earnie Stewart's gamewinner over Colombia at the 1994 World Cup?

I told them that for me, Ramos was among the very best, most entertaining and creative players to ever wear the U.S. jersey. But how could I put it in perspective for them? A list of comparable players who sprung to mind in the timeline of American soccer since I've followed it -- Hugo Perez, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- was not that helpful an answer. Revisiting the math -- even the youngest of those players couldn't have made a major impression on these boys.

That Ramos played youth soccer with John Harkes and Tony Meola and all three ended up teammates on two USA World Cup teams I think impressed the boys as unique American soccer trivia, but neither Meola or Harkes rang a bell.

I thought about that conversation when, on my 15th day of shelter-in-place in Oakland, California, I watched "Soccertown, USA" -- a dynamic 68-minute documentary that tells the story of Kearny, the New Jersey city whose rich soccer culture of more than a century entered the spotlight when Harkes, Meola and Ramos helped the USA qualify for the 1990 World Cup. The first U.S. World Cup appearance in 40 years.

We'd been sifting through soccer movies and documentaries to offer recommendations, and as Arlo Moore-Bloom's "SA Movie Choice" series demonstrates, there's no shortage. But for me, "Soccertown, USA" has been the most enjoyable hour of soccer viewing since the stoppage of live action because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The educational cut of the documentary, winner of the Audience Award at the Kicking+Screening Soccer Film Festival last June, is now available for free on YouTube.

"We consider it our gift to the American soccer community," says producer Tom McCabe, an adjunct professor of history at Rutgers-Newark who is also working on a book about Kearny.

In December 1989, shortly after the USA beat Trinidad & Tobago to qualify for Italia 90, Soccer America editor-in-chief Paul Kennedy sent me and Ridge Mahoney to Kearny to report  on the town of 35,000 where soccer was king. The mainstream media also picked up on the story. Tri-state local news channels sent crews to Kearny. The Los Angeles Times reporter Julie Cart reported on Kearny two months before the 1990 World Cup. International media discovered the unique story as well. Kennedy wrote about Kearny for France Football. Meola's heritage tipped off the Italian media; his parents had emigrated from towns near Avellino. (Harkes was born to Scottish immigrants and Ramos emigrated with his family from Uruguay.)

The 1994 World Cup brought another wave of media attention to Kearny, but "Soccertown, USA" delivers the thorough treatment this fascinating part of American soccer deserves. Woven seamlessly into the narrative is the immigrant history of New Jersey, a glimpse into early 20th century American soccer, and the New York Cosmos/NASL impact. It all complements the core: how American youth players of the 1970s developed the skills to put the USA on the international soccer map.

It's not just a New Jersey story. It revisits, explains and celebrates a seminal era of American soccer: the period spanning the last years of the NASL, the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, and the launch of MLS.

The key to creating an entertaining sports documentary is finding the right balance between the interviews, imagery and game highlights. "Soccertown, USA" succeeds. The youth soccer clips of Ramos, Harkes et al., and highlights of the historical games pop up at all the right times. Harkes, Meola and Ramos are excellent story-tellers and a variety of colorful Kearny characters -- many of whom you'll recognize for their past and current roles in the American game -- contribute to complete the picture.

Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, who's covered American soccer since moving to New York in the 1960s from England, helps explain the source of Kearny's unique soccer culture -- and recalls how the free-play environment produced a type of soccer that attracted him.

"I had a motorcycle in those days," Gardner says. "I got on the motorcycle and headed for Kearny or Harrison to see those high school games because they were so much more real, and I felt so much closer to the game as I'd understood it."

I imagine that most who've been involved in American soccer from before the 1990 World Cup qualification will also experience the delight from "Soccertown, USA" that I felt. I also believe there's more to it than nostalgia. That reflecting on the game's history could help us navigate the future. Whether or not it matters if kids today know about American soccer in the 1980-90s, I'm not sure. But those who are curious should view "Soccertown, USA."

Full movie (68 minutes).

7 comments about "The best soccer documentary is made in New Jersey".
  1. Sean Mara, April 4, 2020 at 11:34 a.m.

    A shout out to Kris Peat pictured talking to Tab in bottom center photo. He was from Vernon, NJ and played for Charlie McEwan's Thistle team with Tab.  He was on the u18 National team from 1982-84.
    A friend and former u16 Celtic goalkeeper asked me about him just two days ago.  I see that Kris is the Women's coach at the University of Denver.

  2. Sean Mara replied, April 4, 2020 at 11:44 a.m.

    And a shout out to Joe Elsmore, former Kearny High player and Head of Nike Marketing for North America, picured in the bottom left photo in the center.  
    It wasn't until I read Caitlyn Murray's 'The National Team' that I found out Joe signed Mia Hamm to Nike before they were deep into soccer.
    He was a young Nike rep and moonlighting as a ref and worked UNC women's matches.  The rest is history.
    No wonder he rides on the floats in NYC when they win the world cup! :D

  3. Dennis O'Connell, April 5, 2020 at 7:01 a.m.

    Thanks Mike Woitalla!  I am glad you mentioned the documentary and provided a link to watch it.  In addition to giving me something to do during this COVID-19 confinement, I also felt like I was reliving my own soccer journey, growing up at the same time as all these players.  It brought back memories of attending World Cup qualifying games at St. Louis Soccer Park, watching the US vs. Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 on the end of my mom's bed, shagging balls and interacting with these players during US Cup 1993 and the World Cup 1994, and then traveling the country seeing every MLS team play in their home stadium in 1996.  

    When you said these young guys had no knowledge of Tab Ramos, at least as a player, I was stunned!  I grew up seeing him on Snickers commercials, seeing him score a scorcher against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying, and taking an elbow from Leonardo in the 1994 World Cup.  Later I was impressed while watching him coach in the US vs. France match at the Turkey U20 World Cup in 2013.

    Again, thanks for pointing out a wonderfully done documentary about the sport we love!

  4. TJ Kostecky, April 5, 2020 at 11:05 a.m.

    Thanks Mike for your story and for sharing the link.
    Watching it last night and reliving those extraordinary memories, made me smile, laugh, and weep with joy!
    i felt like a kid again. 

    About 10 years ago I invited Tab to speak to my mens team at LIU Brooklyn. Similar experience, only two of my players had ever heard of him. In front of the team. I then asked Tab to tell us about the intense pressure and responsibility he felt in having to win in Trinidad and Tobago in order for the US to quality for the World Cup? He proceeded to share the following story with all of us..."I remember this moment. We emerged out of the lockeroom and the noise continued to escalate. As we did before every match, we lined up alongside our opponent before entering the stadium.
    I looked at the player standing beside me and immediately saw fear in his eyes and sweat dripping down his face. He was scared. I then turned around, looked at the T&T team and saw the same fear in each player. It then occurred to me that they had even more pressure on their shoulders then we did. At that moment I knew we would win this match"

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, April 5, 2020 at 5:39 p.m.

    Thank you for sharing that story, TJ.

  6. Bob Ashpole, April 5, 2020 at 5:42 p.m.

    Another great article, Mike.

  7. James Madison, April 5, 2020 at 8:22 p.m.

    Amen, Mike!  I just watched it, and, boy, did it bring back memories! IMHO, Tab is the best player the US has ever fielded, although I would also put Harksie on my all-time 11.  Meola would have competition from both Kasey Keller and Tim Howard.

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