JERSEY CITY — Forty minutes had transpired in the spirited Hudson County Boys’ Soccer Tournament semifinal matchup against neighboring rival Harrison and Kearny head coach Bill Galka was not a happy man.
The top-seeded Kardinals trailed their long-time nemesis, 2-1, at halftime at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium, and Galka had to make sure that his players got the message about their poor performance.
“I just thought we were flat,” Galka said. “We had a poor first half for whatever reason. We had poor energy. Our concentration level was low. The first half was just not acceptable. We had to do better.”
The message was heard loud and clear.
“I think at halftime, we had our heads down,” said Kardinal midfielder extraordinaire Juan Escandon. “We said that we were going to win as a team or lose as a team, but we had to play better.”
Sure enough, Escandon made sure that his teammates played better. He also wanted to make sure that the Kardinals didn’t fall to a similar fate as a year ago, when they lost to Union City in the county semifinals.
“It was a big thing for us when we lost last year,” Escandon said. “We wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen again.”
Escandon, who scored the Kardinals’ goal in the first half, made brilliant plays in open space to collect assists to two second half goals, leading the undefeated Kardinals (12-0-2) to an exciting 3-2 win over the Blue Tide to advance to the county championship game against St. Peter’s Prep this weekend with the time of the game, the date and the location to be determined, more than likely Saturday morning at Harrison High School.
Escandon made a great play to feed Marcos Hidalgo in the 55th minute to first tie the game at 2-2 and then made another sensational play to feed Ryan Silva for what proved to be the game winning goal with just five minutes remaining in regulation.
Escandon said that he was helped by a slight position change to begin the second half.
“I was moved to the wing and that enabled me to do more,” Escandon said. “I had more space with the ball. I was getting better touches.”
Galka downplayed the switch in strategy.
“Wherever you play Jose, he’s going to be good,” Galka said. “We took advantage of our matchups. When he gets the ball, he’s able to put people in the right positions and puts the ball through. It’s a pleasure to watch.”
Galka said that both second half goals were impressive.
“Marcos did a good job of getting the ball back from Jose and it was a good finish,” Galka said. “Silva also finished the play well. We had to take advantage of our chances. In the second half, we showed a lot of drive and desire and beat a good team.”
Escandon said that the Kardinals’ mental approach was solid after the halftime break.
“I think we had the right mentality, especially playing Harrison,” Escandon said. “We were not going to lose to them. Even though I was being marked closely, I was able to get my touches together and fed my teammates. We had to take advantage of our chances.”
The Kardinals drew first blood in the seventh minute, when Escandon fired a direct free kick that was deflected in front of Blue Tide goalkeeper Joshua Tapia and made it into the back of the net. The goal gave the Kardinals the emotional lift and the early lead.
But the good feeling was extremely short lived.
Just 40 seconds later, Blue Tide senior forward Deydiry Chamba made a great run after getting a pass from Maicol Diaz and knocked it past Kearny net minder Bryan Noristz for the game-tying goal.
The game remained that way until four minutes remained in the first half, when Blue Tide ace striker Omar Sowe was taken down in the penalty area and was awarded a penalty kick. Sowe knocked it to the lower left of the goal for his 22nd goal of the season and the Blue Tide had that 2-1 lead going into the break.
But Harrison head coach Mike Rusek knew that the Kardinals, who came into the game as the No. 3 ranked team in the state, would not go down without a fight.
“We felt that the game had momentum shifts and Kearny got the momentum in the second half,” Rusek said. “They capitalized on it. We broke down a few times and they beat us. We were never really down all game, but once we got down, they were in the driver’s seat. We knew that we couldn’t sit on a one-goal lead for 40 minutes. We knew that the game would shift. We made a few mistakes and that was the difference.”
Even in defeat, Rusek was proud of his team’s effort.
“This game was like a boxing match with two boxers going at it,” Rusek said. “I think there’s the initial disappointment of the loss, but we hope to hit the state tournament with a goal of being undefeated in November. That’s what we want to do, make a run in the state tournament. I think we’ll take a lot from this game.”
There was one major problem with the game _ namely the location. If the game was played at a local setting, either Harvey Field, Kearny High or Harrison High, there would have been a packed house. Instead, the game was played before perhaps 250 people _ tops.
Kearny gets no advantage of being the tournament’s top seed. The Kardinals had one home game, then had to play this game at a neutral site. What else did they get for being No. 1 seed? The right to wear white jerseys for the entire tourney? Gee, there’s some reward.
There was no added excitement, the buzz, the electricity that comes with the Kearny-Harrison rivalry. If this game was played on the western side of the Hackensack River, there might have been thousands more who would have come to watch.
“We would have been willing to go to Kearny to play,” Rusek said. “This game belonged in Kearny or Harrison.”