HARRISON, N.J. — Just two blocks from Red Bull Arena, located behind the Harrison Public Library and next to the town’s post office is a little piece of soccer heaven.
There, fenced in and right up against Frank E. Rodgers Street in Harrison’s downtown sits the soccer courts, a public artificial grass surface complete with goals.
It is here that the legendary careers of John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos — three of the most influential players in the history of the American game — began.
The trio formed the nucleus of the 1994 World Cup team and helped usher in a new era of the sport in America. They also all hail from the area surrounding Harrison and spent afternoons and weekends there playing “on the courts.”
“I went to high school, over there,” Tab Ramos said, pointing to Holy Cross School across the street. “At recess time, I used to play kickball in that corner over there when one day, someone walked up to me and said that I should play soccer.”
For Ramos and teammates Harkes and Meola, life came full circle as they returned to the courts on Monday night along with former MLS players Alexi Lalas, Chris da Silva, Giovanni Savarese and Mike Petke as well as NASL legend Shep Messing. The Legends, as the team was called, played select high school talent from Harrison.
The celebrity game was part of MLS All-Star week, which culminates Wednesday night when the MLS All-Stars take on Manchester United at Red Bull Arena (8:30 pm ET; ESPN2/TSN/TeleFutura).
Ramos remembers the early days well. He’d go to the field and watch small-sided games, dreaming that one day he’d be old enough to play. Then as he got older, Ramos ventured from outside the fence to inside.
“It was winner stay on, so the games were competitive because you wanted to keep playing and there were so many guys out there that if you lost, you might not get on again,” Ramos said. “So as a younger player, you didn’t want to be the one who let your teammates down, so you tried and worked extra hard to stay out there.”
The story was similar for Meola, who also remembers the competitive nature of the games played out on the courts. Players lined up to get on the field, sometimes as many as 50 of them, and the former MLS goalkeeper said being there on that field was something he didn’t want to give up.
“If you got here, you didn’t want to give up your spot on the court,” Meola told MLSsoccer.com. “You fought and played your hardest to keep your spot. That makes every kick count, it makes it more competitive. You didn’t want to get off the court.”
Meola shot his first adidas commercial on the courts, a testament to what those pickup games meant to him.
“We need more places like this in this country, places where kids can come here and just play,” Meola said. “Here, the kids come to play and it is just that, them playing the game. It is soccer, pure and simple.”
As a former national team defender, Lalas had heard of this spot in Harrison but had never been.
“I went to Rutgers and my background there gave me an inkling about all of this, the history here,” Lalas told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s amazing everything that came out of here, I got a taste of it tonight how the game is played. Here in Harrison.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer