Varela’s two goals leads Kearny to big 3-1 win over Harrison at Red Bull Arena; Return to Red Bull proves fruitful for Kards in Harrison High School Classic

HARRISON – Before the start of the high school soccer season two weeks ago, Kearny, the defending overall NJSIAA Group IV state champion, had to be concerned about a possible lack of scoring production, brought about by the untimely return of New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year Jose Escandon to his native Ecuador.

Escandon took his 22 goals and 17 assists with him back to his native land. Escandon had another year of eligibility remaining with the Kardinals, but the family had to return to Ecuador due to family commitments.

The loss of a player of Escandon’s talents could have been devastating to most programs, but for senior forward Rodrigo Varela, it was a chance to step up and be a goal-scoring striker that Varela always thought he could be.

“Jose was a big part of the team last year, no question,” Varela said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I knew I had to do something to help lead this team. I knew I needed to score a few goals.”

The ability to find the back of the net began last Monday, when Varela scored two goals and added an assist in a 5-0 win over Dickinson. That was just a precursor for what was going to follow.

The Kards’ next contest was the long-awaited return to Red Bull Arena to face neighboring rival and nemesis Harrison as part of the Harrison High School Series.

For the prior two years, Kearny was kept away from the contest for some reason, but was invited to return this season.

That opportunity lit a fire under Varela.

“I always wanted to play here,” Varela said. “I dreamed about playing here. It’s a beautiful place. My family and friends are here to watch this. It pumped me up so much.”

That was quite evident, as Varela scored two goals, one in each half, leading the Kardinals (4-0) to an emotional 3-1 victory over the Blue Tide (4-1) at the state’s premier soccer palace Saturday afternoon.

The victory extended the Kards’ unbeaten streak to 25 straight games, dating back to 2016. The Kardinals did not suffer a single loss last year in winning the overall Group IV state crown, posting a 19-0-5 record, the program’s first undefeated state title since 1984. The state championship was the school’s 10th since the playoff system was adopted in 1974.

Varela, who scored only two goals all of last season, got the Kardinals going in the 11th minute of Saturday’s battle for local supremacy.

Varela collected the ball from about 30 yards out, secured the ball to his right foot and unleashed a picture-perfect shot that eluded Harrison senior net minder Eduardo Nelson.

“He’s done tremendously well,” Kearny head coach Bill Galka said of Varela. “I can’t say that I’m surprised with what he’s done, because we always knew that he had it in him. We were always hoping that he could get the chance to be a goal scorer for us. He’s been able to finish lately.”

Getting the early goal seemed to invigorate the Kardinals, who played stellar defense from the outset, collapsing and containing the Blue Tide’s All-State striker Omar Sowe, limiting his chances to score.

“We have a good experienced defense,” Galka said of defenders Nickolas Fiallos, Gerson Ruiz, Rafael Bernardino, Ferbris Gonzalez and even the versatile Ryan Silva did an outstanding job of controlling Sowe. “He’s obviously their most dangerous guy, so we had to pay special attention to him. We always had to be conscious of where he was. The guys all know him. He’s a tremendous player. We’re solid back there. They all played well. They have great communication back there.”

Fiallos, at center back, was masterful in maintaining the flow of the game. It was almost like having a coach on the field.

Sowe, who scored 37 goals last year and had seven in three games this season, had his best chance to score with 15 minutes remaining, when he took a pass from younger brother Mustapha and bounced it off the left post. The elder Sowe also had a good chance in the first half when he broke behind the Kardinal defense, but fired a shot wide of the goal.

“Unfortunately, so far this year, we haven’t had anyone other than Omar who could step up and score a goal,” said Harrison head coach Mike Rusek. “If they shut Omar down, then we’re just not going to score a goal. It’s frustrating for all of us. He’s already putting the offense on his shoulders, but he still needs time to find others to come up with the attack. Right now, we’re not in the position to do anything.”

Varela got his second goal of the game with 31:02 remaining in regulation, when he took a long pass from Matthew Escobar and made a move to goal.

“Getting that second goal was really big,” Galka said. “I thought we had an opportunity to get the second goal earlier, but getting it there really put the pressure on.”

Silva, who scored 17 goals last year, pushed the lead to 3-0 with 7:31 remaining on a pretty goal. He collected a pass from Miguel Zapata, then passed the ball to himself before knocking it past Nelson for the three-goal lead that sealed the Blue Tide’s fate.

Harrison finally broke into the scoring column when Steven Espinoza took a pass from Omar Sowe and put it past reserve Kardinal goalie Marcelo Medrano with 3:27 remaining to close out the scoring.

Gabriel Santos was in goal for most of the game for the Kardinals.

The day belonged to the new Kearny soccer star in Varela.

“This is like a dream come true,” Varela said. “I always wanted the chance to play here and now I get that chance and I score two goals? It’s really a great feeling and brings my confidence up so much.”

In the preliminary game at Red Bull Arena Saturday, the Harrison girls team lost to Newark West Side, 7-0.




There was a mad scramble in front of the goal between Harrison and Kearny at Red Bull Arena, a game that was won by Kearny, 3-1. Photo by Jim Hague


Harrison’s Omar Sowe (10) is double teamed by Ferbris Gonzalez (4) and Ryan Silva (9) during the Kearny-Harrison soccer match Saturday at Red Bull Arena. Photo by Jim Hague




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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.”