Some Chicago high school and club soccer stars made a spectacular statement on a national stage.
As detailed in the Aug. 3rd print edition of the Sun-Times, Naperville North graduate Zoe Swift punctuated her remarkable career with yet another astounding achievement. She scored two goals, including the game-winner in the 110th minute, as the Aurora-based Team Chicago Academy-Botafogo captured the women's U18 US national championship last Sunday afternoon in Overland Park, Kansas.
Projections and comparisons are not always fair, much less accurate, but it seems valid to infer from the results that Chicago soccer stood apart from the crowd this year. The bulk of the 19 players on Team Chicago are from the western suburbs. Sixteen of those players graduated this year. It was a ridiculously stacked lineup.
Five players on the team were Sun-Times first-team All-area performers: Swift, Plainfield North's Ashley Handwork, Neuqua Valley's Gianna Dal Pozzo, Carmel's Meegan Johnston and Waubonsie Valley's Rachele Armand. Three other players on the team made either the second or third team.
Credit Phil Nielsen, the Elite Academy Director who coached the team. At the national level, teams tend to play year-round. He took a group of disparate players, even though many were teammates and played against each other and, and molded them in just a couple of months.
"The ability to have chemistry on the field after three or four months apart comes down to a couple of things," Nielsen wrote from Denmark, where he took a group of his younger players for a tournament.
"Firstly, that we have a very clear playing concept that all the players understand and have bought into. Secondly, that the players are very talented and very serious players, so they can execute the game-plan pretty easily. They are fit and they have a great soccer-intelligence to go with their great technical abilities."
The Northfield-based FC United Select went 1-2 in its pool play. They played a crucial role in sharpening Team Chicago's resolve and determination after they surprised Botafogo in the Illinois State Cup final 2-1 in June.
"That was a wake up call," Dal Pozzo said. "Our coaches got on us, about our attitude and intensity, and said we couldn't expect to just go out there and play and win. In the last month, we really put in the time and the effort to develop team chemistry and play at a higher level."
Impressively, several of the players toggled back and forth from their summer college workouts and summer school schedules to play in the tournament. The emotional victory was deeply satisfying. "It was a great way to end our high school career," Handwork said.
The members of the national title team are, alphabetically listed, with their high schools in parenthesis:
Rachele Armand (Waubonsie Valley), Bryce Banuelos (York), Katie Ciesiulka (Neuqua Valley rising senior), Hope D'Addario (Neuqua Valley), Gianna Dal Pozzo (Neuqua Valley), Karla DiJohn (Waubonsie Valley), Megan Geldernick (Metea Valley), Ashley Handwork (Plainfield North), Heather Handwork (Plainfield North rising senior), Alexis Jakuszewski (Wheaton Warren South rising junior), Kaitlin Johnson (Rosary), Meegan Johston (Carmel), Brooke Ksiazek (Neuqua Valley), Dana Miller (Wheaton Warrenville South), Molly Piech (Rosary), Danielle Pitaro (Glenbard South), Jenna Romano (Waubonsie Valley), Zoe Swift (Naperville North) and Kendall Wilde (Waubonsie Valley)
Team Chicago was not the only team to make a statement. FC United Select finished last in its pool, but they had just a negative-1 goal differential in the three games, underlying how close they were. Graduated Rockford Boylan star Abby Reed (Indiana State) tied Swift with three goals for top individual goal scorers, even though she played one fewer game.
The Naperville-based NSA Jaguars, led by Naperville North standout rising junior Abbie Boswell, finished 0-2-1 in the U16 nationals.
In the U15 bracket, Oak Brook-based Eclipse Elite Black 97/98 defeated the Cleveland-program Ambassadors FC 4-1 in overtime to capture the national crown. Zoe Redei and Alissa Gorzak scored two goals apiece. Redei's first goal, in the 73rd minute, forced overtime. Don't expect to see this gifted group at the high school level. The team's entire roster plays for Eclipse exclusively.
On the men's side, in the U18 finals, the Lemont-based powerhouse Raiders FC Premier lost a 2-1 heartbreaker on penalty kicks against California-based West Coast FC. The Raiders dominated the title match, registering a nearly 4-1 advantage (22-6) on shots and a greater than 2-1 edge (8-3) in shots on goal. The Raiders recorded the most points and generated the greatest goal differential of the eight teams playing in the nationals.
Former Mather star Qudus Lawal, who led the Rangers to the 2011 Class 2A state championship, was a standout for the Raiders, as was Proviso East's graduated star Alexis Monteon. Playing in the same pool as the Raiders, the Naperville-based Galaxy finished 0-2-1. Graduated Naperville Central star Patrick Flynn, the Sun-Times Player of the Year who's about to launch his college career at DePaul, had three goals in the tournament, tied with Monteon for second highest.