Harrison, a New Jersey Town with Deep Soccer Roots, Welcomes Red Bulls

When Giants Stadium in New Jersey was torn down, three teams lost their home field. The New York Giants and Jets will simply move to the adjacent Meadowlands Stadium, their new home for the 2010 season. And the New York Red Bulls will move ten miles south, to Harrison, just outside of Newark.

One of the best ways to get to Harrison is on the PATH train. If you’re coming from New York it’s the second to last stop before reaching Newark.

Harrison is divided by the PATH rail line and Interstate 280. The south side, where the arena is, still has signs of the town's former factory industry, which has long since become blighted.

From the PATH train platform you can pretty much see the entire town. Harrison is just over one square mile in size. In one direction you’ll see the close-knit neighborhood of one- and two-family homes. In the other direction you’ll see a construction site surrounding a shiny new silver oval, also known as Red Bull Arena.

Harrison may seem like an unlikely place to build the $200 million, 25,000 seat arena. But Joeseph Bubeanas, the town’s recreation coordinator, can tell you the Red Bulls couldn’t have chosen a better community.

“They live and die soccer. Some towns are more related to basketball, track, whatever. Harrison’s always been the hub of soccer,” Bubeanas says.

In fact, Bubeanas says Harrison and its neighboring town of Kearny have the most successful and contentious high-school soccer rivalries in the country, earning the most statewide and national titles and producing three of the top players in the world.

Three of the country's top soccer players trained at the fields here and people still come from the surrounding area to play.

Walking from the PATH train north on Frank E. Rodgers Blvd., you’ll pass one of the town's public soccer fields. Michael Raphael, a lifelong Harrison resident, regularly stops by for pickup games. He says the pitch is rarely vacant.

“They play soccer 24/7. Like through the snow, the rain, you name it, holidays--they’re here everyday. You see the same people over and over. It’s like a community,” Raphael says.

Harrison’s soccer roots run deep. The town was founded in the mid-19th century by Scottish and Irish immigrants who brought their love of the “beautiful game” with them. That tradition has been carried on by the town’s later immigrant groups of Southern and Eastern Europeans and championed by the current influx of South and Central Americans.

A popular spot for locals to watch soccer games in Harrison is the sports bar B-52’s. It’s about 10 blocks north of the PATH station, and owner Paul Franko has made it a shrine to international soccer stars.

Franko says the people of Harrison have supported Major League Soccer since it arrived in New Jersey in 1996. He says now, with the Red Bulls in town, he expects a good local crowd on game nights.

“You may have a game on a Wednesday night that if you didn’t have a soccer game, you wouldn’t get out of the house. But, oh, the Red Bulls are playing Wednesday, so they may get out, and those days I’m going to get business out of it,” Franko says.

The team had a disappointing season last year. After making the MLS cup final in 2008, the Red Bulls ended the 2009 season in last place. But for Harrison residents like William Lopez, the lure of the arena could turn that around.

“I should go there for the first game. It’s something new in Harrison,” Lopez says.

Or maybe the second game. Today the Red Bulls are playing a friendly against the Brazilian team Santos FC. It’s too late for tickets, though. The game is already sold out. Bar owner Paul Franko says he hopes to see more sellout crowds in the future. He just hopes the Red Bulls improve. He’s seen too many fans leave his bar disappointed.

"They have to get better," Franko says. They have to become competitive."

There are still another 15 home games against MLS teams. Arena management hasn’t decided just yet if the stadium will be used for anything other than soccer.