SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- 2020 hasn’t been particularly friendly to the Scotch Plains-Fanwood boys varsity soccer team.
A day after their first scrimmage in September, the team could not hold any activities for two weeks due to a positive case of COVID-19. Their first game back from the dead period was a 2-0 loss on the road against a formidable Union squad (3-1-1) on Tuesday, Oct 13. The Raiders (0-2) dropped their home opener to rival and soccer powerhouse Elizabeth (4-0-2) 1-0 on Thursday, Oct. 15.
In contrast, Elizabeth is picking up right where they left off last season. The Minutemen are now a combined 4-0 against the Raiders in the past two seasons, with their last loss to SPF occurring during the 2016-17 season.
With the Raiders’ second loss in three days, they are looking less like a premier soccer program in the state and are struggling to find the back of the net. While this may be the result of playing two of the top teams in Union County, the Raiders have often looked sloppy and disjointed on the field. Still, first-year Raiders head coach Alex Passucci is not worried about the team’s goal-scoring struggles.
“That's [scoring] the hardest thing to do,” Passucci said. “When you haven't been together too long, it takes a little time. It's a lot harder to create those clean opportunities, but, no, I don't feel that way at the moment. I think we'll find the back of the net.”
In the second half, Elizabeth had their way with the Raiders as junior midfielder Edward Ibarra capitalized on a turnover by recent Muhlenberg College commit, Nick Tittanegro for an easy goal into the top left corner. Elizabeth’s success in the second half came from their ability to punish the Raiders’ mistakes, something the Raiders had chances to do but failed to execute.
Halfway into the first period, the Raiders had the opportunity to score on an empty net following an error by senior goalkeeper Dylan Valencia. However, just as they did all game, Elizabeth stayed calm, won the ball, and avoided an early deficit.
“Composure,” Minutemen coach Jacques Gonzalez said. “You know that's one of the good things that our team shows. The kids don't panic at all depending on the circumstances that we’re facing, and they just have the patience to continue to move the ball around until the goal comes.”
As the game wore on, the Raiders had additional opportunities to score. Several free kicks outside the box offered the chance to tie the game. The Raiders failed to convert because either they sent the ball wide of the net or were thwarted by Valencia, who made several gutsy saves.
Despite Passucci expanding his bench, something he didn’t do as much against Union on Tuesday, the substitutions failed to light a spark to a team that desperately needs one. Even with all-state defender Joey Linder or returning varsity players in Eric Watt, Vinny Milano and Nkem Okorie, the team is missing something. The attack is in a rut and the Raiders continue to make untimely defensive errors and turnovers that, in order to make a championship run, cannot happen.
“It's only our second game, and we need to continue to work hard and take small steps. Then, hopefully, we can turn it around soon and get there a lot quicker than maybe some expect,” Passucci said. “We have another quality opponent Saturday and hopefully we get a result.”
The Raiders need to improve and they have the chance to turn things around in a matchup of winless teams, as they play the Summit Hilltoppers (0-3) at home this Saturday, Oct 17.