The scene took Rob McCourt back to his childhood days: hundreds of fans turned into thousands rubbing shoulders as night fell on a chilly November night at Kearny High School. Years ago, McCourt, the head coach of men’s soccer at Monmouth University, had played on the same field in front of countless soccer-loving enthusiasts.
And the state championship semifinals game between Elizabeth and Kearny at one of New Jersey’s largest high school football stadiums also lived up to the state’s legacy — intense rivalry, two red cards and gripping drama where penalty shootouts decided the winner.
“IIf the movie Soccertown, USA was made a few years later, this game would definitely have been a part of it,” McCourt said.
Kearny, along with cities like Harrison, Elizabeth and Newark, helped build New Jersey’s reputation as a football capital in the 1970s and 1980s by producing football stars like Tab Ramos, a Harrison and Kearny resident who attended and was elected to three World Cups 2005 to the National Soccer Hall of Fame; Claudio Reyna, a native of Livingston who was captain of the US national team and is now athletic director of Austin FC; and Gregg Berhalter, an Englewood Native and former player who is the head coach of the men’s national team.
And that only scratches the surface.
Soccer fever hit New Jersey hard in the 1970s, thanks in large part to Cosmos, the North American Soccer League marquee and a team of international superstars. With legends Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer on the list, Cosmos Giants Stadium was regularly packed with over 60,000 spectators.
Today, New Jersey retains its reputation as a football capital, he said Scott Aimetti, who played at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge in the late 1980s before playing at Villanova University.
“New Jersey has an excellent reputation nationally,” said Aimetti. “What separates New Jersey from others is the grit factor — the way New Jersey teams compete and the guts they have. When everyone’s technically the same, it takes that competitive nature, it takes guts, it takes that fight that kid from New Jersey has. That’s the reputation that sets New Jersey apart from any other.”
In these north Jersey towns, football is still a way of life, even as other sports have gained prominence. Growing up, McCourt and his friends would play soccer on the way to school and during lunch, and would run to the playground after school to play some more games.
“It’s a part of life in Kearny,” said Bill Galka, Kearny High’s longtime boys soccer coach. “It was a magical time being in Kearny and seeing all the great players in front of me. If you talk to my friends, their fathers and their older brothers and sisters played. It’s a tradition in Kearny that’s passed on. The makeup of the city is different, but it’s still there and still going strong.”
The list of prominent New Jersey public and private high school teams seems to grow longer every year. St. Benedict’s in Newark has been one of the top teams nationwide over the past decade, while other private schools, such as Delbarton in Morris Township, Seton Hall Prep in West Orange and Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, have achieved national recognition. Kearny, West Orange, and Clifton High Schools were top-notch teams, and Delran and Washington Township helped South Jersey stand out from the crowd.
Meanwhile, New Jersey still produces iconic players. Mason Toye, 2016 The Star-Ledgers Player of the Year, is a forward for Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact. Branden Aaronson, a native of Medford, is a member of the US Men’s National Team. Alex Borto left Gill St Bernard’s at Gladstone after his sophomore year in 2019 to play for Fulham in the English Premier League in London.
Dozens of New Jersey high school players transfer to Division 1 collegiate programs each season.
“In terms of developing elite players at the collegiate level, New Jersey still produces so many,” said Doug Nevins, West Orange boys’ soccer coach. “New Jersey has always been a football hub because of places like Kearny and people like (former Columbia coach) Gene Chyzowych. They were ahead of the game. They had knowledge of the game that the rest of the country didn’t have.”
Many of the top-flight high schools play with celebrity opponents from out of state, who discover there’s a reason New Jersey has a national reputation.
“We play ACC schools, we play Big East schools,” McCourt said. “We went down and beat North Carolina. We beat UConn in the NCAA tournament. They know we’re well trained and we have a coaching staff here that’s made up of Jersey boys. Jersey players are kids with personality who aren’t afraid of the moment.”
The melting pot of cultures in New Jersey has played a role in football’s growth. Scottish immigrants fueled Kearny’s footballing community in the ’70s and ’80s and the game now has an even more diverse makeup.
“It’s still the same as we grew up, it’s just different immigrants,” McCourt said. “The state tournament that year was probably as exciting as some of the state tournaments we had when we were in high school. When we played our national games, we probably had between 5,000 and 10,000 fans for each game. It was an absolutely crazy environment.”
And that goes for places across the state: soccer is part of New Jersey’s sporting DNA.
“Football culture is getting better in the rest of the country because MLS is improving, (but) our kids are growing up in football homes, a lot of them,” Nevins said. “I am truly blessed in my city that we have children from Central America, South America, the Islands, Africa, Europe and American children. They all grow up in football homes.”
Added Domenick Raimo, who played at Delran in the early 2000s: “There is such a high level of knowledge about football here. New Jersey is certainly still a hotbed.”
Brian Deakyne is a high school sportscaster who covers boys’ soccer, girls’ basketball, and girls’ lacrosse statewide.
This article originally appeared in Jersey’s Best Summer 2022. For in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great, log in here.