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John “Harp” O'Connell

Sport: Soccer

Born: April 14, 1919

Died: July 25, 1988

Town: Bayonne

John O’Connell was born April 14, 1919 in Bayonne. He was nicknamed “Harp” and his younger brother, Ed, was nicknamed “Click.” Both were standouts in Hudson County soccer circles as a teenagers. During World War II, Ed survived the D-Day invasion and Battle of the Bulge. John also served in the military. The two brothers played professionally in the American Soccer League during the 1940s, with John earning MVP honors in 1948 and 1949 as a member of the New York Americans.

The addition of John—who was moved from fullback to forward—and goalkeeper Stan Chesney transformed the A’s into a regional power. The Americans already boasted one of the ASL’s most dynamic scorers in Jack Hynes. The team finished in a three-way tie for first in the ASL in 1948–49. They won a playoff against Brooklyn Hispano, earning the right to face the Philadelphia Nationals in the season finale. The Nats were led by Walt Bahr, whose sons Chris and Matt became NFL placekickers.

The title game was scheduled as the opener for an exhibition match featuring Belfast Celtic. With the score tied 3–3 at the end of regulation, it was suspended so the crowd could watch the Celtic club play a team of All-Stars (which included John and a few more A’s teammates). It resumed afterwards but neither the Americans nor Nationals could break the tie. As darkness fell, the championship was awarded to Philadelphia based on earning more corner kicks.

In January 1949, the Americans flew from Newark Airport to Cuba for a three-match friendly series. It marked the first time in 15 years that a professional soccer team had traveled outside the country to play.

John began his career as a defender and played the same position in his mid-30s. In between, he was a potent scorer and playmaking forward. He played for the U.S. national team four times between 1949 and 1954, but was unable to play in the 1950 World Cup because he was on active duty in Korea. He had participated in an international warm-up tournament on Randall's Island in late May, but was unavailable to make the trip to Brazil that summer. John's teammate, Hynes, was a key man in the qualifying victories that propelled the US into the Olympics (where they scored an epic upset over England) but Hynes was booted off the team before the Summer Games for his criticism of the way Team USA had been selected.

After John’s discharge he returned to the Americans and was part of a team assembled by ASL president Jim McGuire that traveled to Scotland in 1952 representing the United States. John took the field in front of 107,000 fans (for many decades a record crowd to see a U.S. soccer team) for just his second international match. The Scots built a 5–0 led and won 6–0 after John deflected a shot into his own net. Two days later, he played against a group of Irish all-stars in Dublin, with the U.S. losing, 4–0.

Back in the U.S., John helped the A’s win the ASL championship in 1953–54. That spring, the club also won the National Challenge Cup, which is now known as the U.S. Open Cup. In the two-match final, the Americans tied the Kutis Soccer Club in St. Louis and then won the second leg 2–0 at Randall’s Island, taking the title on a 3–1 aggregate score.

John’s final two appearances for the U.S. came in a pair of defeats (4–0 and 3–1) in 1954 at the hands of Mexico in World Cup qualifiers. Americans teammate Terry Springthorpe was also on the U.S. squad, along with Seton Hall star Billy Sheppell, who joined the team on the eve of its trip to Mexico City.

John married Julia Dileo, a graduate of Bayonne High, who was six years his junior. She worked in the Hudson County Courthouse for many years. They had four children. John passed away in 1988.

 

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