SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — The goal was going to come at some point. Zidan Abdella knew it. Thomas Rodriguez knew it. Everyone else on Scotch Plains-Fanwood believed it would, too.
Head coach Tom Breznitsky said every state final season he’s coached, there’s always been one tournament game in which his Raiders have had to get through, despite being the better team. This was that game, and the Raiders’ persistence paid off after 72 minutes of scoreless soccer.
Zidan Abdella severed a scoreless deadlock in the 72nd minute with a header off a free kick to send top-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood (19-0-2) towards a 2-0 win over gritty No. 8 Plainfield in Thursday’s sectional quarterfinal. Thomas Rodriguez added insurance three minutes later with another goal to punch the Raiders’ ticket to a showdown with No. 13 North Hunterdon in the semifinal Monday afternoon.
Joey Linder assisted on both goals.
“Throughout the entire game, I felt that we were going to get a goal at some point, and everything was going to go smoothly,” Rodriguez told TAPinto.net. “It played out really well, and it was perfect timing. It was at the end of the game, and it felt like last minute goals, so that was great.”
There really was never a doubt that Scotch Plains-Fanwood was the better team. However, despite owning a 13-3 advantage in shots, the Raiders — buoyed by questionable officiating seemingly in favor of a scrappy Plainfield squad — just couldn’t find the net. But their fortunes changed as the ominous shadows of overtime loomed over Wexler Field.
With eight minutes left, the Raiders were awarded a free kick after a Plainfield foul on SPF’s offensive side of the midfield line. Linder sent the kick and booted a perfect ball high into the box. Before the ball touched the ground, Abdella leaped and flicked it towards the goal with the back of his head. The shot sailed centimeters above Plainfield keeper Anderson Lopez’s hands, then met with the net to finally breaking the ice.
“I honestly, at that point, was very hungry for a goal,” Abdella said. “I just did a quick movement, found myself open, and tried to get me head on it. … I try to get to any ball I can, it was a well-placed ball in a dangerous area, and I got my head on it.”
“I think we were definitely the better team,” the senior added. “We played better, and they were great competition… But in the end, we got the two [goals] needed for victory.”
Riding high off the momentum from Abdella’s score, Scotch Plains-Fanwood made sure to give itself some insurance.
Three minutes later, Linder was again a catalyst. He played a ball to Thomas Rodriguez just in front of the goal line, and the freshman finished it beyond the reach of Lopez, securing the Raiders’ eighth trip to the sectional semifinal this decade.
“It helped us kind of stop parking the bus so we could actually feel good going forward, since we have two goals,” Rodriguez said. “We were all set.”
Plainfield was its typical aggressive, fast-paced self throughout the match, and did threaten multiple times early on. But Danny Coyle saved all three shots he saw for the clean sheet, while Joey Linder also prevented a ball from finding twine with a kick save in front of an empty net 13 minutes in.
Plainfield also committed 15 fouls, one of which led directly to Abdella’s goal.
But while Plainfield made it interesting at times, Breznitsky had been in this situation before and knew exactly what this game was. There was a deeper meaning to the match than it just being a tight contest against a team the Raiders were looking to beat for a third time this season.
In his 44 years of coaching, Breznitsky has been to 14 state finals. He said in all of those runs, there’s been a game just like this one – one in which his team just simply has to get by, despite having the ability to win handily.
“I’ve always said, when you make a run for a state championship, there’s always a game that you’ve gotta get by,” Breznitsky said. “The team that you beat may not be better than you, but in all my 14 times that we’ve gone to a state final, I can recollect a game from those six [tournament matches] that you have to win that you should’ve gotten by, but struggled.”
Perhaps that suggests good fortune in the coming weeks.