Commentary

Breaking down Northwestern's victory

Updated: May 26, 2009, 8:32 PM ET
By Sheldon Shealer | ESPNRISE.com

Eight minutes of offensive brilliance gave Northwestern (Rock Hill, S.C.) a 3-1 victory over Irmo (Columbia, S.C.) in Saturday's highly anticipated Class 4A boys' soccer state final before a capacity crowd of more than 8,000 at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.

Northwestern finishes the season 24-0-0 and ranked No. 1 in the ESPNRISE.com FAB 50. Irmo's season is over at 23-1-0.

Others have recapped the match:

The Rock Hill Herald

The State (Columbia)

We'll look at the matchups and situations that led to this outcome.

All four goals were scored in the second half, with Northwestern surging to a 3-0 lead between the 54th and 62nd minutes. Sophomore Ricardo Garbanzo scored Northwestern's first two goals, one an athletic scissors kick on a ball that bounced off the goal post in the 54th minute, the second a follow-up on a rebound in the 61st minute. Enzo Martinez gave Northwestern a 3-0 cushion in the 62nd minute for his 182nd -- and final -- high school goal. Zach Acree converted a penalty kick for Irmo in the 63rd minute, which ended the scoring.

Both coaches -- Northwestern's Dom Wren and Irmo's Phil Savitz -- agreed the first half was a bit sloppy. Northwestern did not show any ability to string together passes and played a lot of long balls that were easily handled by Irmo's backs. Irmo played a more controlled brand of soccer in the first half but could not capitalize on any of its few chances.

"Both teams canceled each other out," Wren said. "Both teams did not want to push it. Usually that lasts for 10 to 15 minutes, but in this match it lasted the entire first half."

"Neither team found any rhythm," Savitz said. "It was 0-0 at halftime, and we had a little better of the play. It wasn't a disappointing first half, but we should have capitalized. Usually when teams make mistakes against Northwestern, Northwestern makes them pay and when teams make mistakes against Irmo, Irmo makes them pay. We didn't make them pay when we had the chance."

Irmo's best scoring chances came in the seventh, 20th and 36th minutes. Northwestern's Jeremy Dobbins broke up a nice combination play between Irmo's Kyle McEwan and Taylor Varney in the seventh minute. Varney struck a shot that prompted Northwestern keeper Ryan Foster to dive to his right, but the attempt went just wide of the goal. Late in the first half, Foster made a point-blank save to preserve the first-half shutout.

The rest of the action centered around the head official reaching into his pocket to pull out a card. In fact, five yellow cards were issued in the first 29 minutes of the match.

The second half belonged to Northwestern.

"At halftime I said we were not playing Northwestern soccer," Wren said. "Win or lose, I didn't care, but we were going to do it playing Northwestern soccer -- get the ball on the floor and create."

Savitz said: "After halftime, it looked like [Northwestern] raised their level a notch or two and we didn't match it. They scored that first goal, and I was OK with that. Somebody's going to score first, and I thought it would be a wake-up call. Goals follow goals in soccer. [Northwestern] did a better job reacting to that first goal. I really believe after the third goal we showed a lot of life. But it can't happen that way."

The matchups:

Northwestern's Enzo Martinez vs. Irmo's Kyle Hubbard: Hubbard, a senior, drew the man-marking assignment on the state's all-time leading scorer, and for 60 minutes Hubbard had the upper hand. Hubbard limited Martinez's chances while shadowing him all over the field. In the 62nd minute, however, Martinez sprang for a breakaway, made a quick touch to his right to avoid the charging goalkeeper, and calmly placed a slow-moving roller into the back of the net for Northwestern's final goal and a 3-0 lead. Irmo's coach summed up the matchup this way: "That was one of the best shutdown marks ever," he said. "But Enzo wore Hubbard down. [Enzo is] so quick, and it takes so much energy and attention to stay with him."

Northwestern's midfield vs. Irmo's midfield: Alexis Martinez, younger brother of Enzo, showed why he is one of the nation's top 2010 prospects. His poise on the ball and creativity kept Irmo's midfielders guessing with little success. Alexis had a second-half shot that bounced off the post and directly to Ricardo Garbanzo leading to the first goal of the match. Also, Northwestern's Javier Bonilla, a defensive mid, broke up several Irmo attacks. "Javier was our man of the match," Wren said. "He played his best game of the season. We put him back there to protect the back four, and he played like a true stopper."

Irmo's Billy Padula vs. Northwestern's Shawn Ferguson: OK, they did not go head-to-head, so to speak. Padula is Irmo's long-throw-in specialist. He is capable of creating dangerous chances on throws anywhere on the Irmo attacking side of the field. Ferguson, Northwestern's 6-foot-5 defender, was the answer to Padula's long throws on several occasions, heading balls out of danger. "Ferguson won a lot of balls in the back," Savitz said. "Everything we did [offensively], they had a good answer."

Right place, right time: Not once, but twice sophomore Ricardo Garbanzo was left unmarked inside the Irmo penalty box. The first time the standout sophomore made an athletic play on the ball to give Northwestern a 1-0 lead. His second goal came seven minutes later as the Trojans took control of the match.

With Saturday's outcome, Northwestern finishes as the FAB 50 spring season No. 1 and the overall No. 1 for the 2008-09 school year (combining all three polls -- fall, winter and spring).

So where does this place Northwestern in the realm of soccer programs in South Carolina history?

Savitz, Irmo's coach, is the best source given he's been coaching soccer for 29 years and his teams have played for 20 state titles in South Carolina.

"I think you have to look at it in eras because the game has changed so much," Savitz said. "[Irmo] won titles in 2000, 2003 and 2004, and I'm not sure any of those teams could beat Northwestern. Spring Valley [in 2007] was really good. But there has not been a team in the 2000s that is as quick, as dynamic or has the firepower and aura of Northwestern."

Sheldon Shealer covers youth soccer for ESPNRISE.com. He can be reached at Sheldon.Shealer@espn.com .