Red Bull Arena soccer match snubs Kearny

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-10-33-25-amIt was five years ago when there was a big press conference at Red Bull Arena, announcing a goodwill gesture by the New York Red Bulls, allowing local soccer giants Harrison and Kearny to play their annual rivalry game at the magnificent new soccer facility.

Imagine the excitement. Perhaps the two most historic and respected high school soccer programs in the state facing off in the shiny new Mecca of local soccer. What a great thrill it was for the players involved, but it was also a day for local soccer enthusiasts. It was a doubleheader, first the girls’ teams of the two schools, followed by the highly anticipated boys’ showdown.

For the first matchup at Red Bull Arena, almost 4,000 fans attended.

Needless to say, the excitement was overwhelming, as Kearny’s boys came away with a thrilling 2-1 victory, highlighted by the goal of the century, a 60-yard blast from Junior Batista.

It marked Kearny’s first win over Harrison since 2006. Harrison won the two prior meetings in that time span.

Everyone involved thought it was a thrilling day for local soccer. I wrote that the game “capped what was truly a magical afternoon at Red Bull Arena, the first-ever high school matches played at the local soccer palace.

More than 4,000 avid local fans attended the game (with the Kearny-Harrison girls’ contest as a prelim) and created electricity that is not found in high school soccer matches. Even the two schools’ respective marching bands were wailing away in attendance. There were chants all day, dancing in the stands. It was phenomenal to witness.”

Even the participants thought that the day was unbelievable.

“All you do now is think about winning the game and we’re all disappointed,” Harrison head coach Mike Rusek said after that game. “But there will be a time we can look back and throw up a smile, thinking about this game and this atmosphere. It was a great crowd.”

“The fans were crazy,” Batista said. “There was nothing like this before. I can’t even describe this. It was truly amazing.”

There were hints that there would be a Kearny-Harrison game at Red Bull Arena after it was built in 2010, but those chances went by the wayside, when the Red Bulls decided that they didn’t want their playing pitch to be damaged by the high school players.

So it was postponed twice, but then finally played _ and it turned out to be well worth the wait.

Here was the sentiment at the time.

“It’s going to be a great day for Harrison, for Kearny, for everyone,” said Rusek, who is a native of Kearny and a Kearny High alumnus. “I just think it’s a great way for the Red Bulls to give a commitment to both towns. I know everyone is looking forward to it.”

Kearny head coach Bill Galka was also excited about that first opportunity five years ago.

“It’s a great feeling to finally get a chance to play here,” Galka said. “Everyone is excited about it. It’s a great thing for soccer in this area and for the players, it’s an experience that will sit with them for the rest of their lives. Family, friends, soccer people are all looking toward this game. It’s always a good game and it should be this time. It’s always an important game, but it has the added excitement of being in the best professional stadium in this country.”

Two other times, including last fall, the doubleheader took place once again _ with similar enthusiasm and unfortunately for Harrison, similar results. Kearny won both the boys’ and the girls’ games both times.

Now, there’s a doubleheader at Red Bull Arena slated for this coming Saturday, Sept. 17.

Sure, Harrison will be playing _ but Kearny will not.

Shockingly and embarrassingly, the powers-that-be at Harrison have decided to take it upon themselves to exclude Kearny from the festivities and invited other schools to participate.

So the Harrison girls will play Secaucus, followed by the Harrison boys facing Union City.

Wow, doesn’t that just excite you from the bowels of your existence? Everyone and their mother wants to see Harrison-Union City, don’t they? Make plans for that one. Stop all you’re planning to do and make sure you get to Red Bull for that one, right?

So how does this happen? How does Harrison get the right to determine who plays in the game, especially after it was believed that the game was the best thing for BOTH communities?

A quick contact with Red Bull officials came up with “The event is a Town of Harrison match,” said a Red Bulls spokesman. “We have always left the opponent for the games up to the Town of Harrison and they made the decision to include Secaucus and Union City.”

Oh, how sweet? Then what was all that community goodwill baloney between the two towns five years ago, complete with a press conference and glad hands. Heck, even the Red Bulls said that they were going to make annual donations to both towns. Each town was set to receive $5,000 from the Red Bulls. At last check, Kearny is still waiting to receive any monies from the club.

But this game of goodwill became Harrison’s game just like that? Apparently so.

“We selected Secaucus for the girls’ match at Red Bull because my girls’ coaching staff wanted to play a team that they could compete with,” Harrison athletic director Kim McDonough Huaranga said in a statement. “When we decided to change the girls’ opponent, we also decided to change the boys’ opponent. We usually see Kearny in county tournament play and didn’t think it was necessary to potentially play them twice in one season. With limited independent games on our schedule, we thought we would choose another team this year and went with Union City.”

Here’s the problem. No one bothered to contact Kearny and tell them that they weren’t playing at Red Bull Arena this year. Sorry, Kearny, but you’re not wanted.

“I absolutely felt like the game was also Kearny’s,” said Kearny athletic director John Millar. “When we set it up, it was supposed to be a yearly thing, an annual program. Red Bull saw how important the rivalry was to the soccer community that they decided to put the game in Red Bull Arena. Both schools were supposed to participate in it. No one said anything to us. We were never told once that we weren’t playing there.”

I can see the girls’ game being changed. The girls’ game between Kearny and Harrison had become non-competitive, with the Kearny girls dominating. No slap to coach Raphael Viana’s team, but they couldn’t keep up with the Kardinals.

But the boys’ game? C’mon now. Last year’s game was 5-1 in favor of Kearny, but it only got a little out of hand in the second half. The other two games were incredibly competitive.

Millar is someone who has both played and coached in the rivalry.

“This game goes beyond our kids, but they’re obviously first,” Millar said. “This game is so much bigger than the two teams playing. It’s two communities who have played for over 50 years. It’s about local bragging rights and such. There is no other rivalry in the game of high school soccer in the state of New Jersey than Kearny-Harrison.

Added Millar, “I remember the days of playing in JFK Stadium (in Harrison) and Harvey Field (in Kea rny). People who have moved away from the area come back for the game. It’s two local towns competing against each other. It’s really like having the chance to play baseball at Yankee Stadium, then telling you that you can’t play.”

Harrison assistant superintendent and director of personnel James P. Doran said that he didn’t know that “there was any controversy” involved with excluding Kearny from the Red Bull Arena game.

“This was not done to slight Kearny,” Doran said. “We’ve had good relations with Kearny. This is only coming to my attention now. I like the Kearny-Harrison rivalry. But the Red Bulls were open to whomever Harrison wanted to play. We will have to take a look at it in the future. If we made a mistake to Kearny, we’ll apologize and extend the invitation for next year. It’s something that we have to take a look at.”

There were rumors floating around that the real reason why Kearny was left out was because Millar refused to include Harrison in the Hudson County Bowling Tournament last winter. And Harrison had a good chance of winning the title.

Imagine that? Bowling? It would come down to bowling as the reason why close to 5,000 local fans were deprived of the best soccer rivalry in the state. It’s unheard of. It’s also too comical to even comprehend.

Millar disputed that idea, stating as bowling chairman of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League (HCIAL), he oversaw a tournament that included league members. Harrison is a member of the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference (NJIC).

“Let’s hope that we can find a way moving forward that we find a way to have this corrected,” Millar said. “All we have to do is sit down and converse and make it happen.”

But it’s not happening this year. Harrison is playing Union City. You can be rest assured right now that there won’t be 4,000 people at Red Bull Arena for Saturday’s doubleheader, but tickets are still available at the Red Bulls box office.

You can be rest assured that the people in attendance won’t be from Kearny.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”