When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in a teeny town called North Arlington at the very southern tip of Bergen County. It wasn’t the palatial-estate, in-ground-pool, Real-Housewives-of-New-Jersey Bergen County. It was working class and confined, with a giant hill that was scary to bike down and tree roots that thrust the sidewalks a foot in the air.
North Arlington sits wedged between the Passaic River and a landfill. A big chunk of its 2.6-square-mile territory is covered by a sprawling cemetery — the final resting place for about 300,000 people, including my grandparents.
North Arlington was a static childhood routine. It was my where my mom grew up, where my grandparents lived, where we sat in my grandpa’s La-Z- Boys and watched Nickelodeon before we had cable at our own house. I never really considered the town before —
Except for one truly amazing thing: North Arlington was next to Kearny and Kearny was sacred.
As a seven-year-old watching the World Cup at Giants Stadium and writing book reports about Alexi Lalas, Kearny was to me what La Masia, the Ajax Youth Academy, Academia Sporting or the Santos Reserves must be to kids elsewhere in the world — football factories worth fantasizing about.
Incredibly, three Kearny contemporaries starred for the US Men’s National Team: John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos. A town of 40,000 had three more national team players than New York City, more than most states. Unbelievable.
I remembered how I imagined Kearny as some sacred place — even though we drove through all the time — while listening to the new podcast American Fiasco, the tale of how the promising and exciting USMNT crumbled and collapsed at the 1998 World Cup. The series devotes nearly two episodes to the downfall of Harkes, who had an affair with Eric Wynalda’s wife and got kicked off the team by Steve Sampson.
The Harkes narrative (the part about him being an amazing player, not the part about him being an genuine asshole) reminded me of my favorite trivia fact, that one about Ramos, Meola and Ramos all coming from Kearny. The one that made me think maybe a couple of my rec-league teammates and I would someday play together for the USA.
It also reminded me of how exceptional New Jersey soccer has historically been. Consider this:
Harkes and Ramos played together at Thistle FC, a club team in Kearny. In high school, Ramos played high school soccer for St. Benedict’s Prep. A few years later, Claudio Reyna attended St. Benedict’s, where he was teammates with Gregg Berhalter. Harkes went to Kearny High, where he was two years above Tony Meola. Those have to be two of the best high school lineups in US history.
Meanwhile, Alexi Lalas was playing down the Turnpike at Rutgers, Tim Howard was toddling around North Brunswick and Michael Bradley was being born in Princeton.
Give us Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic and we’d have the Team of the Century.