The Union City High School boys’ soccer team enjoyed a memorable season in 2011, upsetting Kearny en route to a berth in the Hudson County Tournament finale and a spot in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.
However, there was a bit of a problem that the Soaring Eagles had to deal with after the successful season was over.
“We had 18 seniors that graduated,” said fourth-year head coach Bill Shapiro. “We had only four returning players. It was the first time that we made it to the county finals and we felt like we belonged. But we knew that if we were going to be good again, it was going to be a bit of a challenge.”
Shapiro said that there was a sense of determination after the loss to St. Peter’s Prep in last year’s county championship.
“It motivated us to get there again,” Shapiro said.
So Shapiro held a team meeting after the season was over and realized one fact.
“We had a meeting with the returning players and there weren’t a lot of people in the room,” Shapiro said. “It wasn’t that big of a meeting. We knew what we had coming back and we knew what we had in the JV [junior varsity] and freshman levels.”
As practice for the 2012 season began, Shapiro didn’t care that there was a depleted roster.
“We didn’t want to use it as an excuse or a crutch,” Shapiro said. “We were going to be good again. No one took us seriously last year in the county tournament. It’s always Prep or Kearny or Harrison. We were kind of an afterthought. We made a good run, got to the championship game. We were going to try to make it there again.”
So Shapiro focused on using the returning players in prominent roles and filled in the other slots.
“We were going to make all four of them midfielders,” Shapiro said. “We figured that was our strength and we were going to develop our strength.”
Shapiro also decided to change the Soaring Eagles’ strategy by using five midfielders and just three defenders.
Senior Daniel Garcia, who was an All-Hudson County selection last season, was being asked to be the anchor of the squad from his center midfield position.
“He’s our captain and he’s the epitome of what you want in a captain,” Shapiro said. “He’s a stand-up kid. I can’t say enough about what Garcia did to get this team ready during the summer. He was the one who made sure to get the others to come to workouts. He organized a lot of it on his own.”
Garcia scored 12 goals last season and led the team in assists.
Carlos Vasquez is another of the “Fab Four” returnees and is also a mainstay in the center midfield.
Senior Mateo Restrepo is another returning player who was also asked to strengthen the team in the midfield. Junior Saul Gutierrez is the fourth of the “Fab Four” and a great ball handler and playmaker.
Shapiro knew that if the Soaring Eagles were going to be a factor this season, he needed big-time play from those midfielders.
“I knew we had talent there,” Shapiro said. “When you have talented kids that can all play together, you need to keep them together. That’s our strength.”
The other midfield slot has been shared by junior Diego Fernandez, who has been injured of late, as well as senior Ericcson Ramirez and sophomore Eric Romero.
Shapiro also didn’t flinch by putting three freshmen on the varsity squad right away.
“It’s a perfect time for them to come in and make an impact,” Shapiro said. “They fit perfectly where they’re needed. We have a bunch of guys who can pay different positions, so that helps.”
Forward Andrew Nino is one of the freshmen seeing playing time right away.
“He’s a technically sound player,” Shapiro said. “The only thing holding him back is his size.”
Nino stands only 5-foot and weighs 100 pounds, so he has the perfect last name.
“It bodes well for the future,” Shapiro said. “Having them gain this experience now really means a lot.”
Before the season, Shapiro thought he had a team that could be competitive at best.
“I thought we had a shot to be around .500,” Shapiro said. “I didn’t have high expectations.”
However, the Soaring Eagles have meshed well together and own a 7-2-2 record at the halfway mark of the season.
“I think it’s a testament to the four kids who came back,” Shapiro said. “They’ve led the way.”
Restrepo has been outstanding, scoring 11 goals thus far.
“He’s a very talented kid and has been finding ways to score this year,” Shapiro said.
Senior Willy Romero has been the mainstay in the net. The goalkeeper, who spent most of last year with the junior varsity, has been solid in goal, collecting three shutouts.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Shapiro said. “We’ve been blessed to have an athletic kid step in and do the job in goal. He’s refining his tools.”
The three defenders are senior Wilman Hernandez and juniors Erick Castro and Kelvin Martinez.
Castro is the player to watch among the trio of defenders.
“He has a tremendous shot, a missile-type shot,” Shapiro said. “He’s very accurate with that shot. He scored a goal against North Bergen from 45 yards out and takes all of our free kicks.”
The forwards are senior Kevin Herrera, who is a first-year soccer player and has seven goals thus far, and transfer Moaid Ali Garbouh, who is a native of Egypt.
“He’s probably our hardest working kid,” Shapiro said. “We had training in August and it was during Ramadan, when he was fasting and couldn’t eat or drink. But he didn’t stop working and I don’t know how he did it. He’s fitting in well and even learning a ton about how to speak Spanish.”
The Soaring Eagles are certainly overachieving this season, but they appear to be headed to be among Hudson County’s very best once again. It may be an almost totally different squad, but the results have been the same.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch,” Shapiro said. “I didn’t know if they would have the same level of talent, but we’ve absolutely had a carryover from last year to this year. We feel that we still belong among the best.”
The Soaring Eagles have definitely earned their place among the elite in Hudson County. It should be interesting to see how they fare the rest of the way.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.