COSTA RICA — In two of the last four boys’ soccer seasons (2014 and 2016), Scotch Plains-Fanwood has appeared in the state finals. During those campaigns, the team has practiced and played at its home of Wexler Field, while traveling throughout Union County and so forth.
But the foundation for those teams wasn’t laid in Scotch Plains; in fact, not even in the U.S. It was built on the small South American soccer hotbed of Costa Rica, and this year’s squad will too be getting its start in the mountainous and tropical country surrounded by the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps that’s a sign of good things to come in November.
The 2018-19 Scotch Plains-Fanwood varsity team begins a 10-day trip of competition and charity to Costa Rica next week. Traveling with a record 22 players, the Raiders will play international matches with Costa Rica’s professional youth teams, help underprivileged children, and partake in fun such as ziplining, volcano seeing, and village touring. Tom Breznitsky, entering his 44th season as head coach, hopes the trip prepares his team for a state championship season, which begins with practice on August 13.
"The things that we do are part of the reason why we have the success that we have," Breznitsky told TAPintoSPF.net. "Of course, there’s no question about the bonding and camaraderie that brings together the players on the team. I would say that it’s no coincidence that in 2014 and 2016, we played in the state final, unfortunately losing both times. Hopefully in 2018, we will play in the state final and not lose."
The Raiders have been taking trips across the globe for nearly 20 years now, with destinations including soccer-rich countries such as Brazil and Holland. The team has gone to Costa Rica every other season over the past seven years, after Breznitsky’s friend and longtime Kean University coach Tony Ochrimenko led him to the CR Sports Tours Agency. Coincidentally, following their last two Costa Rica ventures, SPF has played in a state final at Kean University four months after the trips.
It’s certainly no surprise that the Raiders enjoy tremendously successful seasons after their trips to the country. Among other things, this adventure allows the team to strengthen as a unit while playing against elite competition that they would rarely, if ever, see in the U.S.
In their last trip, the Raiders played against renowned clubs such as Liga Deportiva Alajuelense, Club Sport Herediano, and AD Municipál Líberia. This year, they will face the u17 and u15 teams of those clubs in addition to some others. The squads are comprised of prospects aspiring to one day play for their club’s first team or even the Costa Rican National Team — quarterfinalists in the 2014 World Cup.
Collectively, the Raiders will play nearly 10 matches in major stadiums across the regions of San José and Guanacaste. They will play their first few games in San José, then compete out west while touring the beaches of Guanacaste before returning to the capital city on the last leg of the trip, which costs each player about $1,700. Breznitsky compared the level of competition they'll face to that of an elite club in the U.S., such as the New York Red Bulls Academy.
“These are teams with young players that are going through the channels of that particular club with the hope of becoming a player for the professional, top-level team,” Breznitsky said. “Everyone on those teams is a quality player because they have the aspirations to play professional with the first team. Soccer most definitely is [the be-all, end-all] for those players, there’s no question about it.”
And regardless of the results, these matches will only strengthen the Raiders and prepares them for the high school teams they’ll face in the fall, none of which are afforded a luxury like this trip. Because of the trip, the Raiders will already have experience and comfort playing with each other once the season starts. Competition in Costa Rica may even make powerhouse rivals such as Westfield and Elizabeth look less daunting.
"When we start practice and tryouts, there’s really no need for us to go double sessions; when we start our scrimmages, we are in game mode," he said, also citing the benefits from playing in a summer league at Kean.
While the trip is heavily soccer-oriented, it's not all about the sport.
Though the soccer culture in Costa Rica is rich, most of its citizens aren't so much. According to the National Statistics and Census Institute, more than 1.1 million Costa Ricans live in poverty; the country’s total population is 4.8 million. Its people do not have access to the basics that most Americans take for granted.
That’s where Scotch Plains-Fanwood comes in. Players will be bringing tablets, pencils, clothes, and other essentials to schools that house underprivileged children. They'll also get a chance to spend time and play with the kids, which has been considered a life-changing experience by some of the program’s alumni. In a first-hand account of the 2016 trip, Ryan Peterson ‘17 said, “Each player will tell you this single hour was the best part of it.”
The Raiders' flight will depart from Newark Liberty and touchdown at Juan Santamaría International on Tuesday morning.