SCOREBOARD Union City boys’ soccer team is soaring high

Off to a flying 5-1 start in early going
SOARING AHEAD – The Union City boys’ soccer team has enjoyed a 5-1 start to the 2017 season. Pictured from left are team captain Francisco Sandoval, head coach Bill Shapiro and team captain Julio Flores.
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SOARING AHEAD – The Union City boys’ soccer team has enjoyed a 5-1 start to the 2017 season. Pictured from left are team captain Francisco Sandoval, head coach Bill Shapiro and team captain Julio Flores.

During the offseason of the high school soccer season, Union City High School head coach Bill Shapiro had some concerns about the state of the Soaring Eagles.
“We were such an unknown entity,” Shapiro said. “We had only three kids coming back with any real varsity experience. We had a bunch of new guys moving in and JV [junior varsity] guys stepping up. We had no goalie and only one defender back. Everyone was basically brand new, so it was tough to predict what was going to happen.”
So Shapiro was preparing himself for a tough 2017 campaign.
“I thought we were going to take our lumps early and get better by the end of the season,” Shapiro said.
But as the summer wound down, Shapiro started to notice something.
“We knew we had a lot of talent,” Shapiro said. “We did well in our summer leagues in Cliffside Park and a tournament in Harrison. When we looked around, my assistants and I said, ‘We have some talent.’ There was also chemistry, which is very big in soccer.”
Chemistry may be an overblown factor in a lot of sports, but in soccer, it’s beyond crucial – especially at a school like Union City, where you have practically a melting pot of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.
Shapiro once dubbed his program as “the United Nations of high school soccer.”
It’s true. You find kids with backgrounds from practically every South American country and Caribbean province. Sometimes, you find kids from European heritage.
So chemistry is not something to take lightly in Union City. Without togetherness and camaraderie, a team might find its way on the slippery slope to oblivion.
Shapiro saw something special with his team.
“I wondered how well we would work together,” Shapiro said.
He didn’t have to wait too long.
Just seven seconds into the Soaring Eagles’ first game of the season against North Bergen, senior forward Nelson Luna scored a goal.
“It happened so fast that my assistant coach missed it,” Shapiro said. “And honestly, we haven’t taken our foot off the pedal since. It’s a great thing to be a part of.”
The Soaring Eagles defeated North Bergen, 2-0, to start the year, then came back and shocked state-ranked St. Peter’s Prep, 3-1. The Marauders were the No. 10 team in all of New Jersey at the time of the Union City win.
The Soaring Eagles have won three more times, all via shutout clean sheets, since the Prep win, with the lone loss coming to the state’s No. 6 team in Kearny.
But they have five wins, four coming by way of a whitewash. And the 5-1 record has a lot of people, especially in local circles, talking about the Soaring Eagles as being possible contenders to earn the Hudson County Tournament title that they won two years ago.
Only this time, it’s a little more shocking, because of the huge losses the program suffered due to graduation last June.
The victory over St. Peter’s Prep early on set the tone for the Soaring Eagles.
“We played incredibly,” Shapiro said. “The backline was sensational. They worked incredibly hard and it’s paying off.”
It’s obvious that Shapiro likes to use “incredible” when describing his team, because they have been nothing short of incredible thus far.
A lot of the Soaring Eagles’ success lies within the play of sophomore goalkeeper Mark Kerekes, a transfer from Queens, N.Y.
Kerekes has all the tools to be a great one. He has been working well with senior Daniel Viera, who moved from the field as a defender to become a goalkeeper last spring.
“We had a conversation with Daniel last spring and asked him if he would consider becoming a goalkeeper,” Shapiro said. “He’s tall, about 6-foot-2, and has a huge wing span. He just took to goalkeeping and was willing to do whatever the team needed. The two goalies are now good friends and they’re inseparable. That’s a testament to the kind of kid Daniel is.”
The team has four defenders, two seniors and two sophomores. Seniors Michael Hernandez and Francisco Sandoval, one of the team’s captains, are two of the defenders, with sophomores Alan Ubuilla and Elmer Castro joining them.
The center midfielder is sophomore Balla Diaite, a native of Senegal who speaks four languages.
“He’s probably our best all around player,” Shapiro said of Diaite. “He’s a very imposing figure. He wins every header.”
Sophomore Jonathan Romero is another midfielder.
“He’s a very tricky lefty,” Shapiro said. “He’s the smallest kid on the team. He’s maybe 5-foot-2 and plays as if he’s 6-foot-1. No one has ever told him that he’s small. He goes in on tackles with no fear.”
Junior Daniel Sierra is another midfielder. He’s currently the Soaring Eagles’ leading goal scorer with five.
“He’s probably our most talented offensive player,” Shapiro said. “He had two goals against Prep. He’s just kind of exploded out of nowhere.”
Junior Julio Flores rounds out the midfield contingent. He’s another of the Soaring Eagles’ captains.
“He played last year and scored 14 goals for us,” Shapiro said. “He also led us in assists with 12. He’s a huge part of the team.”
The aforementioned Luna, a newcomer to Union City from Ecuador, has fit in well, scoring three goals thus far along the forward line.
“He’s incredibly skilled,” Shapiro said. “He’s our best attacking option one-on-one.”
Sophomore Milton Viera (no relation to net minder Daniel) is also on the forward line and has tallied three goals this season..
“He’s probably our hardest working kid,” Shapiro said. “No matter what it is, he’s working hard. He always asks if there’s anything he can do to help the team. He’s built like a football running back and then just outruns people. He’s a good physical presence against any defender.”
Senior Uriel Ubuilla, the older brother of Alan, is the resident utility player.
“I can put him anywhere on the field,” Shapiro said. “He’s like a Swiss Army player. He can play any position and does it well. He also plays better off the bench.”
Senior Enrique Chicas can play anywhere in the midfield.
“He’s a very skilled player,” Shapiro said. “He does some great things with the ball and when he does it in practice, we stop and watch him. If he’s feeling it, it’s like the ball is glued to his foot.”
Needless to say, Shapiro is pleased with his team’s performance thus far.
“We’ve already exceeded expectations,” Shapiro said. “We have some really hard working kids. The atmosphere around these kids is so incredibly positive. These kids work hard and we’re now getting results. I think a lot of it is a testament to our team captains. They dedicated themselves to getting the team to captains’ practices and workouts. They wanted to go out the right way. The leadership has bled down to the rest of the team and sparked the idea of a positive culture. It’s really a great sight to see.”
And definitely incredible.

Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.