The Town of Harrison unveiled a new statue and monument to celebrate West Hudson’s deep history with the sport of soccer (Credit: Michael Battista)

The Town of Harrison, New Jersey honored its long history with the sport of soccer this past Saturday afternoon. A ceremony for the new monument, located at Harrison Library Park in the center of the town, was attended by a crowd of over 200 and included legends of the game. Former North American Soccer League champions and U.S. Men’s National team stars all doted the star studded stage.

“The statue is so special for today, and for all the tomorrows of the people of Harrison and West Hudson,” said Hugh O’Neill, a former professional player who won gold with the Carolina Lightnin’ of the American Soccer League.

But while the event itself brought out much of the area’s soccer lineage, one notable entity was absent. The New York Red Bulls were not in attendance nor part of the monument at the park. A noticeable omission considering Red Bull Arena and the team have called the town home since 2010.

For the ceremony itself however it all felt like a culmination. Not just for the years long process of actually having the monument made but also for the century of history that West Hudson holds. The monument itself is four pieces. The two benches, dedicated to important figures in Harrison soccer, sit along the side of the area. Just to the left of the statue is a monument to every soccer team that has ever played in Harrison. Multiple speakers noted that they are not opposed to including more names as time goes on. Finally, the main statue of a lone soccer player kicking a ball towers over the site. The player, wearing a Harrison jersey, is a representation of what a early 20th century soccer player from the area looked like.

From as early as the late 1800s, the area of West Hudson (Kearny, Harrison, and East Newark) has produced high quality soccer talent. Teams like the Kearny Scots (who recently competed in the U.S. Open Cup), West Hudson A.A., and Harrison FC were pieces of the early U.S. Soccer foundation. From winning professional league titles to competing in the early editions of the national tournaments, some of which are still played today. The biggest of the group was Clark O.N.T., a team made up from workers from the Clark Thread Company in East Newark. That team won the first three American Cup tournaments between 1885 and 1887, which were the first attempts at crowning national soccer champions in the United States.

“Clark O.N.T. is really the epicenter where the game flourished,” said O’Neill. “It was from there that tons of clubs, on both sides of the river, sprung up during the golden age of soccer during the ‘20s and ’30s.”

The first, unofficial, U.S. Men’s National Team game was played at O.N.T.’s field in East Newark in 1885. The U.S. squad was composed of Clark players with other local All-Stars. The team lost to Canada, 1-0, in the first international match played outside the United Kingdom. Currently, the Clark factory is up for redevelopment and possible restoration into a residential space with a museum.

Throughout West Hudson in the proceeding years, soccer clubs like the Thistle in Kearny and others sponsored by parishes and local businesses recruited the best youth players for local and regional competition. Michael Dolaghan, the master of ceremonies and leader of the statue project, recalled his grandfather sponsoring soccer teams in the early ‘50s. Those teams competed in various New Jersey leagues, sponsored by his family’s bar.

That history helped the sculptor, Andre Iwancyzk, a native of Poland who ended up fleeing his native country due to his support of the Solidarity movement, develop his image of what a player from the early days of Hudson County soccer would look like. Dolaghan and his event committee sent Iwancyzk dozens of photos to help him build a model for what a player would look like. Someone who could represent an entire community rather than just honor one standout.

Unfortunately, Iwancyzk died in March at the age of 78 not long after the statue was completed.

Through those leagues sprouted more homegrown talent. While the previous generation was all immigrant families who all naturalized in West Hudson, their children and more were truly of the area. Players like O’Neil, John Harkes, and David D’Errico – the latter two were both captains on the USMNT, played professional soccer across the world and in the United States.

In total, 11 men from the area have been enshrined in the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in Fresco, Texas: Archie Stark and Adelino “Billy” Gonsalves (who spent 35 years in Kearny), both installed in 1950; Davey Brown in 1951; George Tintle in 1952; Jim Douglas in 1954; Fred Shields in 1968; Tom Florie in 1986; William “Shamus” O’Brien in 1990; John Harkes and Tab Ramos in 2005; and Tony Meola in 2012.

The last three played in the World Cup during the 1990s. Kearny’s popular “Soccer Town, U.S.A.” nickname is directly because of these three.

D’Errico, who was in attendance for the event, spoke on the stage about his upbringing in Harrison meant to him.

“(It was) one of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” He told New York Sports Nation afterwards. “I asked how many people know my mother… and three quarters of the people know? That’s just a beautiful legacy.”

While the past was honored many of Harrison’s future stars watched on from the crowd. Both Harrison High School boys and girls soccer teams were in attendance and received their fair share of praise. The program, which has won 25 New Jersey State Group championships in the Modern Era (the most state championships of any high school in the United States) and 37 Group sectional titles, possibly used the ceremony as a springboard for their playoff match later that night.

The varsity boys team defeated Memorial High School (West New York), 1-0, in the quarterfinals of the Hudson County Tournament later that day. The fourth-seed Blue Tide move on to the semifinals this Thursday. They will visit fellow West Hudson rival Kearny High School. The last time these two teams met was in the Hudson County championship at Red Bull Arena last fall, which Kearny won in extra time.

But that brings up the topic of RBNY and Harrison as a whole. The team’s absence from the event and the monument naming all the clubs who have called Harrison home sticks out. It speaks to the fractured relationship between Red Bull and the town, which has included lawsuits over unpaid taxes in regards to the land the stadium is on. While RBNY had been building miniature pitches around the northern state, it did make the decision to build it’s training facility in Morristown, NJ instead of more locally as well. To many, the Bulls are not a part of Harrison despite being a resident since 2010. That’s probably why Harrison High School and Celtic F.C. jerseys outnumbered Red Bull merchandise at the event.

You wouldn’t have guessed that the Bulls were playing a critical regular season match the next day. Nor would you guess the team is hosting a playoff game this coming weekend. It was a seperation from what professional soccer is now and what it was. Harrison wanted to commemorate the soccer it felt was more intertwined with it’s community.

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