Shepard free kicks sink Reavis Rams hang tough, but can’t overcome troublesome trend
By Steve Millar
BURBANK – There is one issue that Reavis coach Mark Gniadek has identified as his team’s biggest problem early in the season: defending set pieces.
On Wednesday night, the Rams’ weakness happened to play right into a major strength for Shepard. The Astros have size and strength that makes them tough to defend in the box, as well as some strong-legged players who can score from afar.
Shepard put all that in action on a cold, rainy night. The Astros scored on a pair of free kicks and held off a late comeback bid from the Rams for a 2-1 win in a South Suburban Conference Red Division game.
“Set pieces have been getting us,” Gniadek said. “We’ve given up eight goals total, and I think six of them have been on set pieces. That just comes with experience. We have three new guys in the back, and they just need to gain that experience to be ready to handle those situations.”
Reavis fell to 0-2-1, 0-2-1, but not without a fight.
Down 2-0 late, the Rams made it interesting when junior forward Pedro Guzman took a long pass from sophomore midfielder Julian Menchaca. Guzman dribbled around charging Shepard goalkeeper Fernando Aurajo and ripped a shot inside the left post with seven minutes left to play.
“It was a great long ball, and it just came right to my feet,” Guzman said. “I was able to get around the goalie and just put it in. It was my first goal of the season, so I was excited.”
The Rams had a couple more chances up to the final seconds when they got a corner kick and senior midfielder Diego Porras fired high as the buzzer sounded.
“We gave it all we had,” Guzman said. “The set pieces really hurt us. We need to focus on defending those. Once we get that figured out, we’ll be able to stop them from scoring more goals.”
A pair of senior defenders hooked up on the offensive end to get Shepard (2-0-0, 2-0-0) on the board first in the 24th minute.
On a free kick from 40 yards, Adam Critchett played a ball into the box that connected with Abderrahmane Elhoumaidi.
Chicagoland Soccer’s Man of the Match quickly turned and fired a line-drive shot into the net.
“I knew that Adam was going to have a really good delivery, so I just wanted to make sure I got in the mix,” Elhoumaidi said. “It came to my feet, and I was just able to turn and shoot it in.”
Shepard first-year coach Zeno Toscas depends on Elhoumaidi to be a rock as his team’s center defender, but he knows he can also utilize the senior in the Astros’ attack.
“He’s got an unbelievable shot, as well,” Toscas said. “He’s the complete package. He loves to sit back and defend, but if we need him, he can step up and rip a shot.”
Shepard is the two-time defending South Suburban Conference Red Division champion but lost a big chunk of last season’s team to graduation. Toscas knew Wednesday’s game was a vital one in the Astros’ bid for a three-peat.
“We came here,” Toscas said. “The conditions weren’t ideal. We knew Reavis is a good team, and this was a big game. We knew we had to come here and defend our title.”
Elhoumaidi made his presence felt in the backfield as well, thwarting a major Reavis scoring chance in the closing moments of the first half.
Rams senior midfielder Diego Porras came up with a steal and played a quick pass to Guzman, who was briefly wide open in the middle of the box with less than 10 seconds left in the half.
Elhoumaidi, though, slid over and knocked the ball away before Guzman could fire a shot.
“Everything starts from the goalkeeper and the defenders forward,” Elhoumaidi said. “I definitely want to do my part in the back and be vocal to help lead my team.”
The Astros made it 2-0 in the 54th minute when senior midfielder Brian Kopec took a free kick from just outside the box and ripped a low line drive inside the right post.
That continued another troubling trend for Reavis.
“Specifically, the first 10-15 minutes of the second half have gotten us,” Gniadek said. “We gave up two goals against Eisenhower then, two goals against T.F. United then, and then the one today. We just have to come out stronger in the second half.
“When we start rolling, we click. We have a solid squad.”
Gniadek was pleased with his team’s tenacity in spite of being down multiple goals and in spite of the weather. It was pouring rain throughout the entire game with temperatures in the mid 30s.
“We’re out here playing in terrible conditions, and they kept fighting,” Gniadek said. “We got one at the end and that gives you a glimmer of hope. These guys fought. I’m proud of them.”
Going forward, Gniadek wants to see his defenders continue to learn and improve. He’s confident that senior Alex Froylan, a three-year starter at center back, can lead the way.
“Alex is awesome,” Gniadek said. “He covers up other people’s mistakes. It’s not like those guys are making a lot of mistakes, but in a varsity game one mistake can lead to a goal; and that can cost you a game. Those guys are giving it their all, though. They’re fighting.”
Junior goalkeeper Kamil Staszel made four saves for Reavis.
Gniadek believes he has a squad that’s still capable of having a highly successful season.
“We just need to continue to build some chemistry,” he said. “The fight’s there. The talent’s there.
“Not having our summer camp, not having a full preseason, not being a normal regular season, it takes time to build that chemistry. We’re just a couple set pieces away from our record looking completely different.”
Guzman expects the Rams’ relentless nature to help them down the road.
“Even when we start out on a bad note, we always seem to come back,” he said. “We fight through it. I think that’s what’s good about our team. Now, we just need to bring that energy from the start.”