When the 2018 high school boys’ soccer season kicked off a few weeks ago, there was a ton of optimism and a lot of positive vibes coming from the Soaring Eagles of Union City High School.
After all, the Soaring Eagles had a lot of their key personnel returning from last season. They were also fortunate to have two talented players return to their roster after a stint playing academy soccer – which in this opinion is slowly destroying the state of high school soccer in New Jersey.
So there were a lot of reasons why veteran head coach Bill Shapiro had a good feeling about his team, even if they were still relatively young.
“I really thought that we could play with anyone,” Shapiro said.
It was proven early on when the Soaring Eagles went toe-to-toe with the defending overall NJSIAA Group IV state champion Kearny, only to fall by a single goal in an emotional 2-1 setback at Kearny – on a day where Kearny honored the life of former All-State player Adrian Velazquez, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident five months ago.
The Soaring Eagles showed that they were even more for real a few days later when they knocked off perennial HCIAL contender St. Peter’s Prep in overtime.
“We have a good nucleus back from last year and a good group of young kids,” Shapiro said. “It’s good for our future. I really think we can be a dangerous team.”
But then the Soaring Eagles suffered a couple of unexplained losses. They fell to Somers High School of upstate New York and then lost to Dickinson in a league match.
“After we lost to Dickinson, it was probably the most quiet bus ride back home,” Shapiro said. “I spoke to them and we were all in agreement that we had to be a little hungrier. We have to take advantage of the chances when we’re given them. We have to put teams away when we have them down. We have to take those losses and learn from them. If we don’t take advantage of the chances we get, we’re going to lose. My hope is that the kids all learned from it. Because the potential is there for this to be a very good team.”
Leading the returnees is senior captain and midfielder Daniel Altamura, who has been a member of the Union City varsity squad for all four years and has been a starter for the Soaring Eagles for the last three seasons.
“Daniel is the most gifted player we have,” Shapiro said of Altamura, who had eight goals and 15 assists for the Soaring Eagles a year ago. “He’s very dangerous with the ball.”
The Soaring Eagles have a lot of talent in the midfield, with junior captain Jonathan Romero also in the midfield. Romero stands out, even if he only stands about 5-foot-2, and that’s when he’s standing on a couple of milk crates and copies of the Manhattan Yellow Pages.
“The kids all call him ‘Nino,’ because he looks like a little boy,” Shapiro said. “He might be only 5-foot-2, but no one told him that, because he plays like he’s 6-3. He’s tough and wise beyond his years.”
Juniors Olman Banegas and Kevin Guerrero round out the midfield.
“Olman is incredibly fast,” Shapiro said. “He’s constantly running up and down the wing after the ball. He’s so talented with the ball that he’s made us dangerous on the wing. Kevin is dangerous taking people up and down the field and carries the ball up and down the wing.”
The goalkeeper is junior Mark Kerekes, who has the distinction of being the only Hungarian player to play for the Soaring Eagles. Traditionally, the Union City soccer team has been Hudson County’s version of the United Nations, with players from all different races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Kerekes represents Hungary. He’s also an excellent net minder.
“We’ve always been pretty lucky with having solid goalies, but Mark is one of the best,” Shapiro said of the newcomer who transferred from New York. “He’s getting better and better and works really hard. He’s a good shot stopper who can punt the ball 70 yards.”
The Soaring Eagles utilize the “four-across” defensive formation. Senior Randol Ramirez is a center back who played for the Soaring Eagles as a freshman, left to play for an academy soccer program for two years, but has now returned to Union City. Junior Balla Diaite, a native of Senegal, is one of the best defenders in the county. Senior Elmer Castro and freshman Mauricio Flores are the other two members of the backline.
Shapiro just loves what Castro brings to the team.
“He’s probably one of the hardest working kids that came out of the program,” Shapiro said. “He’s never missed a workout. His work ethic is tremendous, like the work ethic of a professional.”
Shapiro said that he had no hesitation playing a freshman in a key position.
“We brought Mauricio in during the summer and he was head and shoulders better than everyone else,” Shapiro said. “He’s like a leader back there and he’s only 13 years old.”
The forward line features sophomore Gabriel Velazquez and senior Erick Chicas. Velazquez was the leading scorer on the freshman team last year, scoring 26 goals.
“He’s a big target for us,” Shapiro said. “He’s about 6-foot-1, so he does a lot of the dirty work.”
Chicas’ story is amazing. He’s scored nine goals in the first six games of the season. No one else on the team has more than two.
Junior Axel Hernandez is the Soaring Eagles’ utility man.
“We use him all over in a lot of different spots,” Shapiro said. “Depending on the game and the opposition, he could play three positions, maybe four. He’s that valuable.”
So the Soaring Eagles will continue to march on with one goal in mind – getting a trophy at the end of the season.
“I think this is a team that is much better than last year,” Shapiro said. “If we put in the time, we should be a good team. I have to hope that they’ve learned from a few losses. In the past, it was my fault, because we weren’t battle tested. We are now. And we have the talent. It’s all there.”
Let’s see if everything is in place come November. – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.