HARRISON — His given birth name is Alejandro Romero Gamarra. But in international soccer circles, he is certainly not identified by that name.
No, he’s more readily recognized as Kaku, the Argentine midfielder who exploded onto the scene as a teenager in Argentina’s top professional division three years ago.
Now, only 23, but a veteran of five professional seasons, Kaku has come north to America and has signed on with the New York Red Bulls to make a major mark on Major League Soccer.
The Red Bulls held their media day last week in anticipation of this Saturday’s season opener against the Portland Timbers at 7 p.m.
Kaku, already given the distinction of the number 10 jersey usually given to star center-midfielders (for example, Kearny’s Tab Ramos had his No. 10 retired by the MetroStars when he played for the club), sat before a press gathering and handled questions like a veteran through an interpreter.
“I’m happy to be here,” said Kaku, who has earned the classification of being the team’s designated international player. “I’ve been finding out that MLS is getting bigger (two more expansion franchises this season). The MLS is getting better known in Argentina. It’s a good league. Since I’ve been here, everyone has been welcoming and made me feel more comfortable. There’s a lot of prestige here and I want to be a champion.”
The Red Bulls invested a lot in Kaku, paying $6.5 million in a transfer fee to Huracan in order to sign Kaku to an undisclosed multi-year contract.
The team is hopeful that not only Kaku will help the Red Bulls have a winning team this season, but it will also stimulate even more interest from the local Argentine fan base in Harrison, Kearny and Newark.
As the 2018 season kicks off, the Red Bulls have a very young roster. Only three of the players are over 30 years old _ namely goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles, forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and defender Aurélien Collin.
Long gone are the days of spending millions on aging superstars like Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Amado Guevara. Those were gambles that didn’t exactly work out well for the Red Bulls, who are in their 23rd year of operation, but have yet to capture the elusive MLS Cup.
So this time around, the ownership decided to sink their allocated funds into a superstar on the rise, a energetic young player who will help on both the pitch and the box office.
“I think I will fit in well with the club,” Kaku said. “I do like the fast style of play, but I think I will fit in. I would like to play at Red Bull Arena as soon as possible. I want to show everyone why the Red Bulls chose me to be here.”
Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett recognized that the team had to make some necessary changes after the team lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year to eventual MLS Cup champion Toronto FC.
One of those changes was bringing in a young, exciting superstar in Kaku, one who could develop into becoming the face of the franchise for years to come.
“He’s only 22, but he’s already had many years of playing the top game in Argentina,” Hamlett said. “His ability to change the game is special. The way he handles the ball is special. That’s what attracted him to us. Combine his willingness to work against the ball with his age and experience and Kaku clicks all of the boxes.”
Hamlett liked the makeup of his team.
“We are excited about the players we’ve brought in,” Hamlett said. “We feel very confident that we’ve brought the right players in.”
Head coach Jesse Marsch enters his fourth season _ and with that becomes the longest tenured coach in the history of the franchise.
“I do think we’re under the radar, but I think every year we’re a little underestimated,” Marsch said. “I think it somehow puts a chip on our shoulder and gives us a chance to prove ourselves. I like that position. I like being the underdog.”
Robles, who worked his way up the ladder from backup goalkeeper to one of the finest net minders in the league, relishes the idea of being the team captain _ a rarity for a goalie.
“It’s a big privilege,” Robles said. “When I stand before the guys, the objectives remain the same. I think the effort I give, in training and in games, will show that I try to be the best teammate I can be. I try to be the guy who is encouraging and caring.”
Marsch loved the idea of making Robles the new captain.
“He’s a natural fit,” Marsch said. “He cares about who he is. He has a work ethic like no one else. He’s the first guy out there and is out there taking shots an hour after training has ended. Things really haven’t changed much. He’s already taken on the captain’s role before the season starts. He can stand in front of the group and make everyone feel secure. He’s going to do the right things both on and off the field. I’m excited he’s captain. I’m proud of him. He’s prepared to handle the role.”
Bradley Wright-Phillips, the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer with 86, 17 coming last season, is also excited to be back for a sixth season with the Red Bulls.
“It’s been a long time,” Wright-Phillips said. “I’m the oldest guy on the team now. When I came here, I wanted to win the MLS Cup. I think that’s the message for the whole team. The demands are high here. I definitely feel like it’s something we owe to our fans. I can’t wait to start again. It’s a good group.”
There was a time when Morristown native Connor Lade was the young gun on the Red Bulls. Now, at age 28, it’s not so more. Lade is one of the more experienced veterans.
“I still feel like one of the young guys,” Lade said. “Now I’m one of the vets. I’m just excited to still be here and see all the changes the club has made. I think I’m going to embrace my role and be more of a leader and develop those younger teammates. We have a lot of good young players. It’s really exciting. I think we can be building something special.”
Sure looks like something special with Kaku leading the way. It all begins Saturday night at Red Bull Arena. Dress warmly.
Argentine superstar Kaku was introduced to the New York media as the newest member of the New York Red Bulls at last week’s media day festivities at Red Bull Arena in Harrison. Photo by Jim Hague
New Jersey native Connor Lade has become one of the oldest members of the Red Bulls’ roster at age 28. Photo by Jim Hague