A Scottish-American team helped build football in the US. Now they’re going pro

Immigrants from Scotland poured into northern New Jersey in the late 19th century to find work in the giant textile mills and, in their free time, play fitba – or soccer as the locals more commonly call it these days. A club known as the Kearny Scots joined the new National Association Football League in 1895 and finished second to a club from nearby Bayonne.

The NAFBL did not last long, but the Kearny Scots are still here. The Scots-American Athletic Club was formed in 1931 in the working-class town 14 miles west of Manhattan, and the Kearny Scots won five straight American Soccer League championships from 1937 to 1941. The Kearny Scots have played in regional amateur leagues for the last 70 years.

But now the Kearny Scots have raised the stakes. With backing from the town and the Scots-American Club, the club has joined the Eastern Premier Soccer League, an elite amateur league affiliated with the US Adult Soccer Association. The league, part of a system that includes promotion and relegation, had 25 clubs in three conferences in the 2020-21 season.

The Kearny Scots are already training for a 2021-22 season that is likely to open in September, with some home matches to be played at the legendary Harvey Field Complex in Kearny. The club has landed corporate sponsors, with the potential to add a few more. The club’s long history has been a major selling point, even to its new manager.

“It’s a story that no one else can really tell,” Marin Frasheri-Gjoca, a 34-year-old who arrived in the US from Albania in 2002, tells the Guardian.

As it turns out, the Kearny Scots will be composed of elite area players, mostly in their 20s, who are, like the original Scots, immigrants or first-generation Americans.

“You’re just seeing them coming from a different part of the world – all over the world,” Frasheri-Gjoca says.

Unlike the old days, the newest version of the Kearny Scots won’t be playing against the very best teams in the nation; they are a few levels from the top and have no immediate or even long-term aspirations to, say, climb the ladder up to Major League Soccer and become archrivals with the New York Red Bulls, who play in Harrison, two miles away.

That would take millions of dollars, which the Kearny Scots don’t have (a berth in MLS will cost you just north of $300m these days). But the Scots add tradition and history to US soccer’s grass roots. According to the club website, the Scotland-based Clark Thread Co formed teams in 1883 after opening two mills in town, and ONT FC (“our new thread”) won American Football Association cups in 1885, 1886 and 1887.

“Our roots are deep,” says Andrew Pollock, the president of the Scots-American Club and the team’s chairman of Football Operations. He says of Harvey Field, “That’s hallowed ground.”

Frasheri-Gjoca was to help coach another area EPSL club last season before the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans. Frasheri-Gjoca, a youth soccer instructor in North Jersey who was a midfielder at Rutgers-Newark and played professionally in Europe, started looking for other places to form an EPSL club. The Kearny Scots were a lower-level club.

“I figured, ‘What better place to do it than the place with all the history there?’” he says.

Frasheri-Gjoca met with Pollock in October 2020 and moved forward in January – too late for the 2020-21 season but in plenty of time for 2021-22. Finding talent would not be a problem.

Kearny unabashedly calls itself “Soccer Town USA”. John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos, mainstays of the US men’s national team in the 1990s, grew up in or near Kearny. The Kearny High Kardinals have won 17 state championships, and the Kearny Thistle United boys’ and girls’ teams have been around for 50 years. (The thistle, of course, is the national flower of Scotland.)

“We think we have the talent pool – we know we have the talent pool. And that hasn’t changed for 150 years,” says Mike Mara, the president of Kearny Thistle United. “Our club is really on a resurgent path. We offer what other people do, but at a much lower price. And we still have a connection with the town.”

And, as Mara points out, soccer has never received more exposure in America, with the US women becoming a world powerhouse and matches worldwide televised here. “It just can’t be ignored any more,” Mara says of soccer in the US. “As long as you’re thinking big and set things in a certain way, the sky’s the limit.”

The 2020-21 EPSL Metropolitan Conference roster included other clubs with obvious ethnic ties: for example, New York Pancyprian Freedoms, New York Greek Americans, Zum Schneider FC. In that way, the Kearny Scots will fit right in. But no other team in the conference can trace its heritage all the way back to 1895.

“People would ask: Where’s this Kearny? What’s happening there? Is there some kind of magic there? Is there something in the water?” Jim Harkes, John’s father, says in an article about the town’s history on the club’s website.

Much is still to be announced: the roster, the schedule, sponsors, even the kits (which are likely to remain dark blue for home matches). There may be nary an actual Scot on these Kearny Scots. But the Kearny Scots, led by an ambitious immigrant, have high aspirations, a new team with a link to the storied past of a beloved team, as well as a sport.

“It’s combining history and tradition with the exposure and excitement of what we’re going forward with,” Frasheri-Gjoca says.

When the new team was launched in June at the clubhouse, a two-story blue-and-white building on Patterson Street (look for the sign with the Scottish Lion above the front door), Pollock said he could not help but look at some of the players at the event and consider their backgrounds.

“Immigrant stories, first-generation stories, are part of the beautiful game,” he says.

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