It’s almost time for the first winter World Cup, and the first hosted by a Middle Eastern nation. Was assigning the event to Qatar dubious? Of course, but this is international soccer. And all those brand-new stadiums will glow so bright, the fact that they were built by migrant laborers will dim by comparison.
If you’re willing to overlook all the expected drama off the field, there’ll be plenty of it once the games kick off. And unlike the past two World Cup cycles, the United States men’s national team has qualified.
▶ There’s plenty for New Jersey soccer fans to be excited about, with Gregg Berhalter of Tenafly leading the way.
The godson of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, Berhalter played soccer alongside Claudio Reyna at St. Benedict’s Prep on a team that went 25-0 in 1990. He played three seasons at University of North Carolina and captained Team USA at the 1993 FIFA World Youth Championship in Australia. He made his senior debut at halftime of a 2-1 United States loss to host Saudi Arabia on Oct. 19, 1994.
Berhalter has 44 caps for the United States, appearing in 14 World Cup qualifiers and the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. He is the first men’s national team coach to have represented the United States at a World Cup. 
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▶ Turning to the players on the field, goalkeeper Matt Turner is a perfect example of a late bloomer who is peaking at the right time.
Growing up in Park Ridge playing baseball and basketball, Turner didn’t get into soccer until his freshman year at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, following his older sisters, Michelle Turner and Kelly Covello.
The next in a decades-long line of New Jersey goalkeepers, Turner stopped a penalty kick to keep the shutout in his USMNT debut, a 7-0 victory against Trinidad & Tobago in January 2021. He made 102 appearances over six seasons for the New England Revolution, and was named MVP in 2020.
He transferred to Arsenal in the English Premier League in late June, and has made four appearances. He would become the fourth goalkeeper from New Jersey to appear in a World Cup, following Jimmy Douglas (East Newark; 1930), Tony Meola of Kearny (1990 and 1994) and North Brunswick’s Tim Howard (2010 and 2014). 
▶ Brenden Aaronson of Medford, a 22-year-old midfielder, was also called in as part of the second-youngest USMNT World Cup roster. Aaronson transferred to FC Salzburg in Germany for the highest transfer fee ever paid for a homegrown MLS player in October 2020. He now plays for Leeds in England alongside former Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams.
The United States begins the World Cup against Wales on Nov. 21, and will also face England and Iran in Group B.
But if you’re looking for other teams to cheer on, or just want to impress colleagues with your sweeping soccer knowledge, a few New Jersey fans with eyes abroad argued on behalf of their favorite squads:
Born in Makala in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, Ricardo Daher emigrated to New Jersey at age 10. He owns the Brazilian Meat Boutique, a grocery store and meat shop in Long Branch.
“Brazil holds the most World Cup titles (five). We also have one of the best players in the world, Neymar,” Daher says. “Neymar plus 10 will carry Brazil. The players are very good, very fit. The starting 11 is very healthy, where a lot of other star soccer players won’t be attending the World Cup because they’re injured. I think the team is going to play for Neymar. (Coach) Tite likes to concentrate the team into one player. We did that with Ronaldinho in 2002, Romário in 1994, and we won. I’m sure the team will be built around Neymar, and he will dictate the style of play. He’ll get the ball, being the No. 10, passing and trying to finish. If he stays healthy, our chances are very high.”
Javier Montiel was born in Argentina, raised in Paraguay, and moved to the United States in 2001. His wife, Maida Morales, grew up in Costa Rica and emigrated in 1996. They opened Division Cafe, a Costa Rican restaurant, in Somerville nine years ago.
“I support Argentina,” Montiel says. “But in the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica made a historic run, (beating Italy and Uruguay to win the group). They’re a tiny point on the map, but the world got to see their potential. We’re excited to see them again in this World Cup, and we hope they make it even farther.”
Steve Cukar grew up in Boonton Township and played sweeper at Mountain Lakes High School. He is a Spanish teacher and the boys soccer coach at West Morris High School. He is also boys’ director at PESA, an East Hanover-based soccer club.
“It’s the culture that goes behind such a little country competing in such a big event,” Cukar says. “They’re an underdog story. They’re always counted out, always overlooked. They came in third in ’98, second in 2018, but we’re never (predicted) in the top six or seven (teams) to win it. But that’s fine. We love that we’re overlooked. Since the independence of the country from Yugoslavia in the early ’90s, we’ve continued to put together an awesome product, a team that’s easy to support.
“One of the unifying factors for Croatia after the war was soccer. When Croatia plays, everything stops. There’s no work, no school. You get together with your friends and support your country through and through. Our dads and moms came to the United States when it was still Yugoslavia, because of the Communist regime. When the flag is flown and the anthem plays, it means so much to them because they knew what it was like to not have freedom. Ever since we were little kids, 3 years old, 4 years old, we would stop what we’re doing, sit and watch the game with our parents. Some things don’t change. The pride our family has for that flag, it just means the world.”
Cesar Hernandez migrated from Mexico at age 8. He launched a food truck six years ago, and his Vineland restaurant, Julio’s on Main, celebrates its fourth anniversary in April.
“Soccer in Mexico, that’s what the country runs on. Nine out of 10 males play soccer on the weekend, and they take it seriously, like they’re all going to the World Cup,” Hernandez says. “I do remember my uncles down in Mexico playing in leagues. It was their passion. They probably invested more in their tacos (soccer cleats) to make sure they show off in their recreational leagues. Sundays, when the guys go out and play, that’s their escape from reality for that 90-minute match.
“Every time the national team plays, you’ve got to watch. I’ve been to a Mexico-USA soccer match in Philly, and it was crazy. The stadium was divided. I wore some Mexico stuff, and you do get heckled. Their fandom is over the top. When your national team plays, if it doesn’t pump you up or give you that little adrenaline rush, you don’t have a pulse. That’s your team. I want to believe for the two weeks the Cup is going on, all that (divisiveness) gets forgotten. But I want to see the good in people.”
Moussa Ait Moussa grew up in Kentira, Morocco, about 40 kilometers north of the capital, Rabat. He emigrated to New Brunswick in 1987 to attend Rutgers University. He and his wife, Catherine, met and married in Philadelphia. They returned to East Brunswick, opening Sandy’s Luncheonette in 1998 and added Moroccan and Mediterraneanrestaurant Casablanca, two doors down, in 2018.
“I played soccer all my life,” Ait Moussa says. “I still like to play soccer, but my knees won’t allow it. We played soccer in the beach, soccer on the street. It’s always soccer, soccer, soccer. We should be one of the best in the world. But unfortunately, we’re not. Morocco beat Portugal to advance to the second round in 2018. It was a very exciting time. We had parades in the streets just for going to the second round.”
Owen Valkema is the third-generation owner of Holland American Bakery in Sussex, which opened in 1954. His family owned a bakery in the Netherlands, and emigrated to the United States after World War II.
“My dad, Sam Valkema, used to take us to Cosmos soccer games at the Meadowlands back in the ’80s,” Valkema says. “My dad’s 84, but he’s making deals with people, if I’m still alive, we’re going to a World Cup game (in the United States) in four years. I think it’s good to keep your family heritage alive. I root for Holland, no matter who they’re playing. But when Holland plays against the U.S., am I more American or more Dutch? It’s that split feeling, the country you came from and the country you’re a citizen of.”

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