SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — There is no question that the strength of the 2019 Scotch Plains-Fanwood boys’ soccer team will be its defense.
While the Raiders might struggle to score at the blistering rate they managed during a stellar 20-1-1 campaign last year, the team’s stout ability to prevent the opponent from from finding the back of the net once again has SPF as legitimate Group 4 state title contenders this fall.
“If you don’t give up a goal, you can’t lose,” veteran Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Tom Breznitsky told TAPinto.net. “I think we might not see as high scoring on our end of it like we did last year, but you only need one goal if the other team has none. If your team has a good defense, you’re ahead of the ballgame there.”
Scotch Plains-Fanwood certainly is ahead of that defensive ballgame, which is the primary reason why the Raiders enter the season ranked fifth in the state, per NJ.com.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the Raiders defense is returning senior goal keeper Danny Coyle, who verbally committed to Division I Colgate in the offseason. Coyle, also one of four captains, boasts a 6-foot-5, 175-pound frame between the pipes and is regarded as one of the best keepers in the state. He totaled 42 saves last season while splitting time in the net with Eric Refinski, but will now take full command of the position.
“I’m expecting a big year out of him,” Breznitsky said. “Size-wise, he’s probably one of the biggest keepers in the state. Danny has all the credentials to be recruited and committed to a Division I program. We are certainly looking for a big year out of him. Our strength is our defense, and it starts with him.”
Coyle will be operating behind a four-man backline, which the Raiders utilized at times when protecting leads last year, but will move into full-time this fall.
The heart and soul of that backline will run through the two center backs, Joey Linder and Antonio Lomonte, who both have multi-year starting experience and will be nearly impenetrable to opponents. Lomonte, a senior, is entering his third year as a starter, while the junior Linder — regarded as one of the state’s premier defenders — has been starting since midway through his freshmen year, and as a sophomore last year, often marked the best strikers that the Raiders faced.
At the two outside back positions, there will be plenty more players in the mix competing for spots, such as Nick Tittanegro, Vinny Milano, Dean Kirian, CJ Bunin, and Eli Wolman.
Playing with four in the back as opposed to last year’s normal of three means the Raiders will be in a considerably different formation. Breznitsky has opted to utilize a 4-3-3 formation instead of the 3-5-2 used last year.
“I’m definitely glad that we went to a 4-3-3 this year,” said Coyle. “With the players that we have, I think we’ll be a very defensive-minded team and very strong in the back. I think we have a lot of depth on our backline, especially it being senior-oriented and with a lot of returning players. Those are more of the aggressive players and know how to play some soccer.”
“One of our goals this year is to still possess as much as we can, but to be a little more aggressive,” Coyle added. “I think in the 4-3-3, we can be a little more aggressive and forward with our press as opposed to with our 3-5-2.”
Breznitsky had the Raiders in a 3-5-2 during the first scrimmage, but switched to the 4-3-3 after evaluating the personnel and adjusting to what fit accordingly.
“Tried it in the first scrimmage, and I didn’t like it but was debating whether to do it,” Breznitsky said. “A lot of rookie coaches came up with what the 'fad' formation is. You can’t do that; you’ve got to come up with the formation that works with the guys that you have. We don’t have guys like the Ferraras anymore.”
The Ferraras — Alex and Michael, now at Rowan — helped makeup arguably the best midfield in New Jersey last year. But with their departure, the Raiders will now only use three mids, all of whom have extensive varsity experience. Owen Murphy, who was also integral last year, will headline the midfield this year. He will be joined by combinations of Alex Levy, Chris Vinci, and Miles Longo.
“I’m moving up in the midfield this year because we lost the Ferraras, but that really doesn’t take away from a lot of it,” said Murphy, also a captain. “We’re gonna move Levy up now, who has a very good soccer mentality as well. We’re just gonna do our thing. I’m gonna try to do my thing filling in for the Ferraras and what they did last year. If everyone just does it, we will be successful and I’ll guarantee it, because we have the personnel and the talent. It’s just merging it together and mixing right.”
Scoring has been a bit of a concern during the preseason, but the Raiders are hoping that the pieces up top will come together to finish out a championship-caliber team. Returners Ryan Widman and Alvaro Furfaro accounted for seven goals last year and bring experience on an attack that lost leading-scorer Zidan Abdella (17). Newcomer Nkem Okorie has impressed exceptionally in the preseason and figures to be a scoring force, as well.
"We’re still trying to find our guy who’s going to be the goal scorer and finds himself in the right places," said Murphy. "That’s going to be a challenge at first, but I think we’re going to figure it out."
Okorie is one of the players who made up last year's county champion JV squad, which has a heavy contingent that will contribute on this year's varsity. With that large influx, the Raiders will boast strong depth and feature a large combination of players every game.
"I’m most positive that this won’t be a team where the 11 starters play the entire game," Breznitsky said. "It’s a team where we’re going to need to use some more guys during the course of a match. And we have them."
This group has begun to gel and poses a lethal combination of depth, raw talent, and knowledge. Those traits might just be the winning formula to deliver something that, as crazy as it sounds for this storied program, nobody on this team has ever experienced — a championship.
“Considering that I’ve gone four years and have yet to win a county and state championship, my goal is to win championships and bring them back to where they belong," Murphy said. "Both the state and county championship belong in soccer town — which is Scotch Plains/Fanwood."