Kearny’s Escandon earns place with all-time soccer elite

Jose Escandon was a good soccer player in his native Ecuador, moving up the ranks quickly to earn a spot with the prestigious academy program of Portillo Cuenca. At the age of just 13 years old, Escandon was all set to earn a tryout to become a professional soccer player in Ecuador.

But then his family decided to leave Ecuador and come to the United States, settling in Kearny.

“It was a very tough situation for me to come here then,” Escandon said. “I had to get used to a totally different country and learn a new language.”

However, if Escandon had to move, then there wasn’t a better place for him to arrive at than the place known by the moniker of “Soccertown, USA,” namely Kearny.

“Having soccer here in Kearny helped me a lot,” Escandon said. “I was able to communicate better with the guys I played soccer with. Soccer really helped me get comfortable here. I knew about Kearny being ‘Soccertown.’ I could see it right away when we came here.”

When Escandon enrolled at Kearny High School a little more than two years ago, he didn’t know if he was going to be able to fit in. After all, he was a newcomer to a new land, arriving in a spot that had a famous nickname strictly for its production of soccer players, some even gaining recognition on the national and worldwide stages.

“I played on the freshman team and got called up to varsity at the end of the season,” Escandon said. “Even sitting on the bench was a good experience for me. I learned how varsity soccer worked. It was a whole new level for me.”

Veteran Kearny head coach Bill Galka wasn’t too aware of Escandon when he first came to the school. But Galka quickly realized that the diminutive Escandon was something special.

“We knew we had a talented player right away,” Galka said. “I really didn’t know him too well. Sometimes, when you get a freshman, it takes some time to get noticed. We were hoping that he could become a good player for us.”

Galka said that he was never concerned with Escandon’s slight stature. He stands about 5-foot-2 and weighs about 120 pounds _ much like Galka when he was a standout player at Kearny in the 1980s.

“Is size a factor? Not really,” Galka said. “We never judge a player by his size. I personally have a soft spot for those who don’t have the size. But Jose knew how to play the game.”

“I definitely hear it all the time,” Escandon said. “It’s true that I’m a small guy, but in soccer, size doesn’t matter. I just work harder to prove everyone wrong.”

Galka said that Escandon gained valuable experience playing club soccer for the famed Kearny United program that is run and coached by Jimmy Harkes, the brother of John Harkes, the national soccer star who was instrumental in Kearny gaining the “Soccertown, USA” name when Harkes played for the United States National Team in three World Cups in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Jimmy Harkes trains those kids well and gets them ready to play in high school,” Galka said. “We knew that Jose had the kind of ability to do well on the high school level.”

Escandon played on the wing as a sophomore for the Kardinals.

“It wasn’t my natural position,” said Escandon, who had always been a center midfielder prior to last year’s Kearny team. “But I had to just keep working hard and I knew I’d get my chance.”

Escandon had eight goals and five assists as a starter on the Kearny varsity in 2016.

When the 2017 season began, Escandon was moved to his familiar center midfield slot.

“Coach Galka put me in the right spot,” Escandon said. “I worked better there.”

Did he ever!

Escandon scored 22 goals and added 17 assists for the Kardinals, who posted an undefeated season, winning the Hudson County Tournament title, the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV title and last Sunday, the Kardinals defeated Princeton, 3-1, to capture the overall Group IV championship, the school’s first outright state title since 2002. It capped the

Kardinals’ first undefeated season since 1984.

In the championship game, Escandon scored two goals, one on a blast from about 25 yards out and the other on a direct free kick. It was the capper to what was a brilliant season, a campaign for the memory books.

For his efforts, Escandon has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week, the final honoree of the 2017 fall scholastic sports season.

Escandon was quick to credit his teammates for his success.

“I couldn’t have been able to do it without them,” Escandon said. “They all helped me tremendously. They helped me to find open space and get me the ball.”

But Escandon had to be the one to finish _ and he did so with such a flourish. Despite his size or lack thereof, Escandon possesses a cannon-like shot. He also shoots the ball with such impeccable accuracy, especially on his free kick opportunities.

“I’ve never seen a kid shoot the ball that well,” Galka said. “He scored 10 on free kicks from 25 yards out and in. It’s unheard of. He’s a sniper. Every time he shoots the ball within a certain range, it’s dead on. I’ve never seen anyone have so much control with where he wants to shoot the ball.”

Galka said that Escandon did more this season than he could have ever dreamed.

“He definitely exceeded expectations,” Galka said. “Everyone has expectations before a season, but it’s very hard to go past those expectations. Jose did. For someone of his talent, he’s very unselfish. I think he enjoys making a pass more than scoring a goal. He knows when to pass. He just has a great love of the game. He’s very composed and handles himself well.”

Galka was asked if Escandon has earned a place with the legendary names of the past, players like John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, Sergio Ulloa, Miguel Abreu and Michael Millar.

“I would put him right in there,” Galka said. “How could you not? Teams came in knowing that if you wanted to beat Kearny, you had to take Jose out. And no one could do it. It didn’t matter, physically, mentally, he just got up every time he was taken out and played on. No one could take him out of his game.

Escandon thrives on just being able to get up and keep playing at a high level.

“I think I’ve always been that way,” Escandon said. “I’ve always motivated myself to strike the ball hard. I practice on my shooting a lot. I think free kicks are my strength. I practice them all the time. I just want to make sure that something special is going to happen.”

It sure did, especially under the lights at Kean University last Sunday.

“It’s a great feeling to know that I had a great game in the state championship,” Escandon said. “I think that just got me more motivated to do well. It makes my parents and my family proud.”

When Escandon scored his first goal, he made like an archer, reaching into his imaginary backpack and pulled out an imaginary arrow to fire into the sky.

“I did that for the fans who never leave my side,” Escandon said.

When he scored the second time, he raised up four fingers, two on each hand. It was for his parents, dad Teodore and mom Susana, and his younger brothers, Christian (13) and Pedro (8).

“Christian plays good soccer,” Escandon said. “He’s going to be a very good player.”
Pedro is a little less fortunate. He has cerebral palsy.

“He’s my inspiration all the time,” Escandon said. “He inspires me to play harder. He’s the angel of our house.”

Galka knows that he will hopefully get another year with Escandon leading the way for the Kardinals. Stranger things have happened, with youth academies gobbling up the best players all the time. It will be hard for Escandon _ rumored to be selected as the New Jersey Player of the Year by NJ.com _ to stay away from the lure of academy soccer.

“I can’t wait to play here next year and try to get another state championship,” Escandon said. “I want to be able to share another one with my friends and family. We’ll have to see what happens. But I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life.”

And it’s safe to say that no soccer fan from Kearny will ever forget Escandon’s contributions to this year’s state championship team, because it was truly a season to remember _ and one that gives Escandon legendary status forever in “Soccertown, USA.”

Special thanks

Galka wanted to give a special thank you to all the hundreds of people who came out to root for the Kardinals in their quest to win a state championship.

“The support, the turnout we had for every state playoff game was just incredible,” Galka said. “We couldn’t have done it without their tremendous support. There were so many people there from Kearny at the state championship game. They were great.”

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer