The most anticipated regular season soccer match of the year between nationally ranked Libertyville and Waukegan lived up to the hype.
Thursday afternoon’s match for the North Suburban Conference title may have only ended in a 1-1 draw, but the countless twists and turns along the way left the capacity crowd extremely pleased with the match’s proceedings.
As the match at McAree field kicked off, both teams stuck to their respective styles.
Waukegan tried to utilize their speed, putting long balls over the top for their forwards to run onto, while Libertyville attempted to control possession with short passes, utilizing their strength to fend off the Waukegan defenders.
Neither team were able to generate many quality chances early, until Waukegan finally broke through 20 minutes into the match.
A corner kick from the Bulldogs was whipped into the box. Libertyville were unable to clear their lines and after a goalmouth scramble, Waukegan found the back of the net to give them a 1-0 lead.
Libertyville responded almost instantaneously, putting pressure on the Waukegan back line to generate multiple scoring opportunities.
But Waukegan was not to be intimidated by the second ranked team in the nation. The Bulldogs themselves responded with what looked like a clear cut goal, but Libertyville’s keeper Thomas Pearson came up with an incredible diving save to keep the Wildcats within striking distance.
Waukegan came into the second half with a 1-0 lead, but ran into in a spot of bother just five minutes into the second half when Noe Hernandez received his second yellow card of the match, putting Waukegan down to ten-men.
Libertyville took advantage of the opportunity, bombarding the Waukegan defense and not letting the Bulldogs maintain any possession.
After countless scoring chances, the Wildcats finally got their equalizer. A corner kick was cleared to the edge of the box, but the ball landed at Gregory Krikorian’s feet who rifled the shot into the back of the net.
That goal seemed to rejuvenate the Libertyville squad. The Wildcats pounced on the Bulldogs and just five minutes later, they earned a penalty kick to give them a chance to take the lead.
However, Waukegan keeper Marcos Garibay had other plans. Garibay dove to his right to saving the penalty, keeping the game level at one a piece.
Garibay said: “I just followed my instincts and I knew he was going to blast it. He’s a very good player but I knew I was going to save it.
Despite the missed opportunity, Libertyville did not hang their heads as they kept on pushing forward.
With the constant pressure on the Waukegan back line, it looked as though Libertyville would eventually pull out a game winning goal, but the Waukegan defense stood tall.
Waukegan fended off four straight corner kicks in the closing minutes of the match, which included a goal line clearance from Angel Saenz to preserve the 1-1 draw.
“This game gave us a great framework heading into the playoffs,” said Waukegan head coach Peter Valdez.
“The team kept composure under a variety of circumstances and I really liked their ability to adjust.”
With the draw, Waukegan and Libertyville were crowned co-conference champions of the NSC, a fitting way to end the season for two of the best teams in the state of Illinois.
Both teams will have a few tune-up matches before the playoffs begin. Waukegan will face Highland Park next while Libertyville will travel all the way to Tinley Park to face Andrew.