California State University, Northridge has solidified itself as a training ground for high-quality soccer players. Since Major League Soccer’s (MLS) inaugural draft, 15 Matadors have been selected.
In that first draft in 1996, the Los Angeles Galaxy selected CSUN’s all-time leading goal scorer and former United States National Team forward, Joey Kirk.
Kirk ’87 (Physical Education) — one of the greatest to ever set foot on the pitch for the Matadors — will be inducted into the Matador Hall of Fame on July 24.
The numbers speak for themselves: Kirk scored 30 goals and 77 points in a single season. His 59 career goals and 162 career points are school records that have stood for three decades. He is also second all-time at CSUN with 44 career assists, 17 of which came during his 30-goal senior season.
“I don’t see anyone knocking Joey off that platform anytime soon,” said Thor Lee, Kirk’s teammate from 1984-87. Lee was drafted four spots ahead of Kirk in the ’96 MLS draft. “He had a lot of pride and the attitude and skills to back it up.”
Lee, who often went up against Kirk at practice, said Kirk would compete at all times and helped him shape his game.
“I will always fondly remember the fierce attitude we trained with whenever I was going up against Joey at practice,” Lee said. “A lot of trash talking was part of the effort, and our mutual disgust in losing any battle big or small kept a healthy rivalry.”
Former CSUN men’s soccer head coach Marwan Ass’ad (1983-98), who was inducted into the Matador Hall of Fame in 2009, said he believes Kirk was the best player he ever coached.
“Joey would score from close, far, from the sides, on crosses, everywhere,” said Ass’ad. “Joey would have been a soccer major if CSUN offered it — he was unbelievable.”
However, there was much more to Kirk than scoring goals and dishing up assists to teammates.
While most boys in the 1970s idolized Terry Bradshaw in football, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in basketball or Pete Rose in baseball, Kirk’s hero was soccer icon Pelé, who at the time played for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League and was the only notable soccer star playing in the U.S.
Kirk, born and raised in Granada Hills, grew up in a time when soccer was still in its infancy in the U.S., in terms of popularity.
“When I was in elementary school, I wrote that I wanted to be a soccer player when I grew up,” Kirk said. “But the teacher gave [the paper] back to me because she didn’t know what that was.”
Kirk credits his parents for playing a big role in his decision to play soccer in middle school. Inspired by Kirk’s involvement with the sport, his mother, Barbara, started the soccer program at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills.
After winning the CIF-Southern Section 3A championship during his senior season at Alemany, Kirk took his talents to Northridge and immediately made an impact on the field.
He expected a bright future at CSUN after following up his five-goal, five-assist freshman season with 14 goals and 12 assists in his sophomore year.
Fighting Through Adversity
Kirk’s prolific career almost crashed right after taking off.
Lingering knee pain after the end of his sophomore season prompted Kirk to visit a doctor in the spring of 1985 to get it checked out.
“I was sitting in a doctor’s office on Ventura Boulevard with my mother when the doctor showed me an X-ray of a large mass by my knee,” Kirk said. “After meeting with the doctor, I was told they would do a biopsy to figure out what kind of tumor it was — and that I should forget about playing soccer again.”
Luckily, the tumor wasn’t cancerous.
Doctors were able to remove the tumor, but instead of filling the area with bone chips — which meant the tumor had a 60 percent chance of returning — Kirk chose to let doctors fill the area with a cement mixture, which would limit his mobility but decrease the chance of the tumor coming back.
After the operation, doctors advised Kirk to wait at least a year before he started running again. Instead, Kirk was back playing soccer three months later for a local club team.
He wasn’t able to play for CSUN in the 1985 season, but stayed connected with soccer by sitting next to Ass’ad during games and learning more about the intricacies of the game.
“Joey was able to learn a lot. We talked about the game and discussed what was happening on the field,” Ass’ad said. “When he came back from surgery, he took everything to another level.”
Kirk recalled riding his bike 20 miles a day to strengthen his knee and getting into a number of arguments with people who thought he was crazy for trying to come back to the field as early as he did.
“I just always believed my career wasn’t over. I worked extremely hard to overcome all the ‘no’s’ people told me,” Kirk said. “I blocked out the tumor and told myself I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it.”
Once he had blocked the tumor from his memory, Kirk was back in full force during his junior year — his 13 goals and 12 assists in 1986 helped the Matadors finish with a stellar 15-3-2 record.
In Kirk’s senior year, 1987, he upped the ante by scoring 30 goals and helping the team to a 19-win season — its most wins in school history — and its first-ever trip to the NCAA Division II national championship game. CSUN lost 2-0 to Southern Connecticut State.
That season the Matadors scored 78 goals, while only allowing 20, and on three separate occasions they beat teams by a score of 8-1.
“I would put our ’86 and ’87 teams against any college team in the country,” Kirk said.
Ass’ad recalled home games in 1987 when more than 3,000 people showed up to watch the team play.
“We were unstoppable from October to November of ’87,” Ass’ad said. “The team just clicked around Joey — we moved the ball well, won big and scored so many goals.”
Red, White and Blue
On June 12, 1987, Kirk became the first Matador to play a game for the U.S. men’s national team.
From 1987-88, Kirk made 15 appearances for the national team — the most by any Matador — and traveled around the world, from South Korea to Guatemala.
“Being on the U.S. national team was an incredible honor and a complete compliment to CSUN,” Kirk said. “My dad was a Marine, so he served in one way and I served in another. I remember closing my eyes during the national anthem and thinking about the journey I took to get there.”
The Next Level and Beyond
After his senior season, Kirk achieved his boyhood dream of playing professional soccer when he joined the California Kickers of the Western Soccer Alliance in the summer of 1987.
Kirk, who played professionally for 13 years with 11 different teams, found his greatest success with indoor soccer — from 1990-95, he scored 180 goals in 177 games with the Milwaukee Wave and Detroit Rockers.
The Los Angeles Galaxy selected Kirk in the sixth round of the inaugural 1996 MLS draft in February. However, Kirk suffered an injury a couple months later and was unable to play with the team. Kirk signed with the Sacramento Knights of the Continental Indoor Soccer League and scored 10 goals in 12 appearances.
Since retiring from professional soccer in 1999, he has stayed involved in the sport, this time as a coach. Today, he coaches Beach Futbol Club, a club soccer organization that helps develop players.
Kirk said his proudest moment playing soccer was simply being able to play the sport he loved for so long. Now, the team and university to which he gave so much will return the favor.
“I feel truly blessed and honored to be inducted into the Matador Hall of Fame,” he said. Everyone who played in the ’80s played a role in getting the CSUN soccer program on the map.”