The Scots Club—An American Soccer Brigadoon - by Tom McCabe US Soccer Historian
The Scots American Club has long been the social, cultural, and sporting hub of the Scottish-American community in Kearny and beyond.
Formed in 1931, the Scots Club drew on other Scottish societies and organizations, including local chapters of the Caledonian Club and St. Andrew’s Society. The Club always aimed to make immigrant Scots feel at home in a new land. Over time, it also provided their sons and daughters with a sense of Scottishness and connection to the customs and traditions of their forbears.
Scots are especially proud of their inventiveness (steam engine, bicycle tire, penicillin, macadam, thread, etc.), and while they did not invent modern soccer, they most certainly brought their kicking tradition wherever they immigrated. Kearny was no different as the world’s game first appeared in the neighborhoods along the Passaic River in the 1870s. It came to national prominence when Clark Thread Company formed teams in 1883, and went on to win the first three American Football Association cups (1885-1887). Dubbed ONT FC after the firm’s slogan, “Our New Thread,” the company team regularly imported soccer talent to stock its championship teams, and work in its mills.
Ever since there’s been a mystical and magical relationship between Kearny and soccer—generation after generation has fallen in love with the game, a thread as long as the 150-year-old town itself.
“I likened Kearny to Brigadoon, a Broadway musical about a mystical kingdom in Scotland that came around every 100 years. It was our Brigadoon, every one who grew up here,” noted Pat Brannigan, a retired Kearny fireman. “Some say it’s gone now, but it will never go away. No one who grew up in Kearny would change a thing. That was the key thing—soccer. Well, soccer and Billy Raftery, that’s what we followed.”
Soccer, or “fitba,” became such a part of the everyday fabric of life in Kearny that local newspapers called it “the Scotch game.” Other Kearny teams competed against ONT like the Caledonians, Rangers and Rovers in the mid-1880s, but a real local challenge to America’s first soccer dynasty didn’t appear until after the Scottish-Americans formed in 1894. The Scots and Harrison’s strong side dubbed the West Hudsons became natural rivals for ONT by the early 1900s, solidifying the area’s claim as “the cradle of American soccer.”
International soccer arrived during the game’s infancy, too, as the first “unofficial” United States international against Canada was played at Clark Field (now Tops Diner parking lot) on Thanksgiving Day, 1885. The Canadians won, but the following Thanksgiving’s rematch resulted in an American victory—both the 1885 and 1886 squads were chock full of area boys, thus establishing local service to the national team. In 1916, when the United States national team went on its first official tour to Scandinavia, three Kearny lads traveled including John “Rabbit” Heminsley of the Scottish-Americans.
By 1916, the Scots had established themselves as a top American team, competing for the National Association Football League, the old AFA Cup and the brand new United States Football Association Open Cup. The Scottish-American FC won the AFA Cup at Newark’s Bartell’s Park on April 18, 1915, courtesy of an Archie Stark goal. Stark's brother, Tommy, anchored the Scots backline, and both brothers appeared for the United States vs. Canada at New York’s Ebbet’s Field in 1925. Archie scored four goals in a 6-1 triumph.
The Starks and other West Hudson greats like Davey “The Little Giant” Brown, Jimmy Douglas and Tom Florie starred in the country’s first great professional league, the American Soccer League (1921-1931). The ASL included a combination of imported stars from Britain and homegrown talent, and while the Scottish Americans didn’t field a team in the league, several of its “alumni” became ASL legends. For example, in 1950, Archie Stark was voted the best player of the half century and was the very first person inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Douglas and Florie represented the USA in the inaugural World Cup in 1930; Florie captained the side and Douglas recored the competition’s first-ever shutout as the USMNT goalkeeper.
The original ASL unfortunately folded in 1931 in the throes of the Great Depression, but the Scottish-Americans fielded a team in ASL II. Fittingly, the Scots new beginning as a semi-professional side coincided with a move to their new headquarters on Patterson Street. It was during this period that the Scots experienced great soccer success, winning the league title five times in a row between 1937 and 1941. The Club became the base for senior and junior teams throughout the 1930s through till today.
Throughout the middle part of the 20th century soccer continued to thrive in Kearny, although some have called those decades “lost” or labelled them “the dark ages.” The Scots Club continued to field strong teams in various leagues. The late 1960s was a heyday of Scottish soccer and many young men immigrated to Kearny to not only play for the Scots, but to raise families in town.
Jim Harkes settled in Kearny in the 1960s, played for the Scots, and met his future wife at a Club social. Harkes and other Scots Club fathers like Charlie McEwan, Tom Mara, Pat Brannigan and Sonny McKeown formed the Thistle Soccer Club there, which would become one of the first northern New Jersey super clubs, in order to pass on the game they loved.
“The spirit of community was here, and in any society great athletes come from places, whether its a local gym, a YMCA, whatever it is, a small functional place for the kids—the Scots Club was the epicenter for us,” commented Gerry McKeown, Sonny’s son and current coach at the Players Development Academy and scout for id2.
John Harkes remembered changing before Thistle matches in the club’s basement and returning after big wins to soda and a bag of chips in the St. Andrew’s Room. A letter jacket still hangs in that room commemorating Thistle SC’s 1981 club state championship. During the 1970s and 1980s Kearny High School won state championship after state championship, establishing itself as the premier high school soccer program in the state and beyond. Coach John Millar’s 1984 squad finished a perfect 25-0 and the top-ranked team in the country.
All the success mystified outsiders as they wondered if it was due to some sort of magic, or if there was something in the water supply. Jim Harkes recalled, “People would ask: Where’s this Kearny? What’s happening there? Is there some kind of magic there? Is there something in the water?”
Those questions would only ring louder when three Thistle SC youth players represented the United States at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos led the USMNT to its first World Cup since 1950, and then again played prominent roles when the USA hosted its first Cup in 1994. By the late 1980s and early 1990s Kearny had rightfully earned the nickname “Soccertown, USA.”
There was no magic, though. There wasn’t anything added to the water supply. It was places like the Scots Club, Thistle SC, Kearny High and the unrivaled street soccer scene at The Courts in Harrison or at Emerson Courts in Kearny.
These places created the mystical village that can be called America’s Soccer Brigadoon. The 1947 Broadway musical concludes with a love song, perhaps one that can be applied to the enduring love of soccer cultivated by the Scots Club.
Lonely men around me trying not to cry;
Till the day you found me, there among them was I.
I saw a man who had never known a love that was all his own.
I thought as I thanked all the stars in the sky:
There but for you go I.