SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — Entering the season, Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Tom Breznitsky and his Raiders were open about the challenges that this year’s team might have in scoring goals. Up until Thursday, however, the offense had yet to cost the Raiders.
After remaining unbeaten through the first six games of the season, the Raiders’ scoring struggles caught up with them for the first time and proved costly against Elizabeth in a game with heavy implications for the top seed in the upcoming Union County Tournament (UCT). Though Scotch Plains-Fanwood mounted 18 total shots compared to Elizabeth’s 19 — not to mention multiple threatening but ultimately stalled runs — the Minutemen were able to finish twice and hand the Raiders their first defeat of the season, 2-0, Thursday afternoon at Wexler Field.
Mathew Giraldo broke the ice with a first half goal and Andrew Gamero added insurance in the second half for the Minutemen.
Elizabeth was also the last team to beat Scotch Plains-Fanwood heading into this match, having taken the North 2, Group 4 title from the Raiders last November in what was SPF’s only defeat of the 2018 season. In fact, the Raiders have not beaten Elizabeth outright since Sept. 15, 2016 — Breznitsky’s 700th career victory.
“Coming into the season, to be perfectly honest with you, I said that I thought we were going to be strong defensively — and I still feel we are, although we’re banged up a little bit; but I’m looking for offense,” Breznitsky said after Thursday’s contest. “We have seven, eight, nine different guys scoring. To have that one guy is what seems to be lacking.”
Elizabeth is now 6-0-1 on the season, and likely to receive the top seed in next Wednesday’s UCT seedings meeting. Prior to Thursday, both the Raiders (4-1-2) and Minutemen were the only two likely candidates for the No. 1 seed, having both been unbeaten against Union County teams. Elizabeth's lone non-win was a tie against North Bergen, while the Raiders have now tied Union County squads Summit and Plainfield in addition to this loss against Elizabeth.
After Elizabeth had jumped ahead, Scotch Plains-Fanwood appeared primed to strike back and rally as they have so much early this season. It was not to be, however, as one bad hop here, wide shot there, and questionable calls sprinkled in ultimately denied the Raiders a chance to put the ball in the net.
Owen Murphy led the team with four shots on target, while Alex Levy and Alvaro Furfaro each fired off three apiece. In total, nine different Raiders got off at least one shot on goal.
Especially in the later stages of the second half, the Raiders applied tremendous pressure on goal and nearly struck on at least three occasions with point-blank headers. As it has most of the season, Scotch Plains-Fanwood played the ball out wide in the flanks and was able to put together multiple crosses — but all of those chances were also unable to yield that elusive goal. Some mistakes in the offensive third also proved costly for the Raiders.
Elizabeth goalkeeper Stephen Valencia made nine saves for the shutout.
“We have done a very, very poor job of finishing,” Breznitsky said. “It is, without a doubt, a weakness. You can say we were very, very unlucky today.”
While Elizabeth had nearly the same amount of opportunities, what separated the Minutemen was their ability to finish. As is usually the case with an Elizabeth team, the Minutemen are fast, quick, and physical on the attacking third, and became only the second team this season to score multiple times on the Raiders' stout defense.
After the Minutemen unleashed a healthy number of shots in the first half, Giraldo was the first to find twine, breaking the deadlock with eight minutes left before halftime by finishing a ball from Homero Sanango. Then about midway through the second half, Gamero was there to finish a feed from Emiliano Caballero to extend the Minutemen lead to 2-0.
Giraldo, a sophomore forward, would go on to unleash a game-high of eight shots on goal.
“Two mistakes gave them the goals — it’s as simple as that,” Breznitsky said. “Yeah, they’ve got some guys who like to pull the hammer and shoot the ball. A little bit more so than our guys.”
"That [shooting the ball] is a definite area we need to improve upon," the coach added.