By Dave Owen
Hope springs eternal is both a motto and a trend in Chicago Prep Conference soccer.
But while Hope (Chicago/8-3-1, 6-0-1) continued its three-year undefeated dominance of the league with a 3-0 win Tuesday at Rochelle Zell, the Tigers (9-2-0, 5-1-0) have their own reasons for (lower case H) hope after a solid performance over the final 65 minutes of play.
“This (Hope) has been the best team in our conference the last few years,” Rochelle Zell junior defender Meira Lieberman said. “This prepares us. Now we know what we're capable of, and we know if we can play this tough against a team like this, we can beat every team. Even them, because now we know what to expect.”
While the Tigers found their footing, a pair of Hope corner kicks in the early going delivered the win.
Junior Mia Linares was on the finishing end of both first half goals, which came in the first 15 minutes of play to put Hope up 2-0.
If the quick Linares is a headache for defenders, the Rochelle Zell defense that has posted five shutouts this season was no snap for her to deal with either.
“We actually went to see Rochelle play earlier this year, because they're one of our biggest opponents,” she said. “I was really nervous, because I saw these girls are really good and know how to play.”
But Linares’ shook off the nerves and turned even a somewhat broken play on one corner kick into a 1-0 lead.
“The first goal I didn't know I was going to get it,” she said, “because we kind of messed up on the set piece. It was supposed to go to me, but we adjusted. We eventually got it, and then my friend Sofia (Pacheco) passed it to me.”
Pacheco’s presence on the field in a knee brace was another huge lift in talent and emotions for Hope.
“Kayla was injured for one year (knee),” Hope coach Jorge Linares said, “and this is the first game she came back.”
Said Mia Linares: “Her coming back and knowing I have her by my side, I was excited for her first game back and hoping everything went great.”
Mia Linares’ second goal minutes later was a family affair, and a bit of improvisation.
“I'm right footed, and I tried to get it with my left,” she said of her redirect of her sister Evey’s pass for a 2-0 lead. “I was so excited, because I didn't know it was going in.”
Rochelle Zell had its own big early offensive threat from standout junior Becca Berkeley (who has 21 goals this season) denied by a matter of inches.
“Early on we hit the crossbar with one of our shots (by Berkeley),” Tigers coach David Martinez said, “and if that one went in it would have changed how it went the rest of the game. That was tough on us.
“And then their number 10 (Mia Linares) getting the two goals in the half: our stabbing at the ball (on one of the corner kick crosses) led to her having an open shot, and she put the shot away (for a 1-0 lead).
“They clearly have plays for 10: that's their go-to player. Right away I recognized when she was holding back on the (first) corner that she was going to be doing something, so we started man marking her on those corners.
“They had three different plays (on set pieces), and they utilized her on each one.”
Lieberman summed up her team’s challenge early on, but also Rochelle Zell’s ability to then rise to the level of a top opponent.
“The first goal, we weren't really in our game and playing our game,” Lieberman said. “Then after that number 10 (Linares) was the main (problem). She just dribbled around everyone. And I think because we're not just to playing teams that have one or two top team-leaders, we were kind of lost.
“But besides that, I think we played a really tough game. Even though the score was 3-0 we stayed strong until the last minute. We kept a strong mindset, and now we know we're capable of playing teams like this and giving it our all to the end.”
A force in recent years in the Chicago Prep Conference, Hope has the added edge of senior experience this spring.
“We have 12 seniors,” coach Linares said, “and our goalkeeper (Helen Linares) got a full ride to Olivet Nazarene University (this fall).”
Rochelle Zell countered with a squad that includes seven freshmen.
“We're young,” Martinez said. “We have three seniors on our team, and two are starters.”
Down 2-0 late in the first half, the Tigers began to turn up the heat in the 40-degree late afternoon.
A Berkeley cross in the 34th minute was shot wide by freshman Eliana Shapira. Then one minute later, Elana Cohen (11 goals this spring) drew a foul and powered her ensuing 30-yard free kick just over the net.
Lieberman nicely cleared away a final Hope counterattack in the final seconds of the first half.
“Today Meira really stepped up back there (on defense),” Martinez said, “and Moriya (Mlotek) stepped up. And our 12th player Michaela (Halpern) in the defensive mid position really helped us stop Hope in their attack.
Said Lieberman: “We have a strong defense this year because everyone on our defensive line is strong with the ball. We trust each other, and we all know how to play different positions in the defense. That's why we work well together. We've learned more than ever how we shift with each other, but we can always improve.”
At the offensive end, Berkeley, a Chicagoland Soccer Little All-Stater, has been a force all year.
“She’s been great,” Martinez said. “She knows that while we don’t rely on her to do everything herself, she can produce as a playmaker getting the crosses in and also have her shots to help make us successful.
“It's a tough balance having that on her shoulders, but she realizes she has other players around she can rely on. She can't get all the shots herself, so she relies on one-twos and other girls sending her the ball. She's one of our captains and has really stepped up.”
Berkeley credited her teammates’ role in her big scoring numbers.
“I just think me and a lot of people in the middle and even the outsides, we all work really well together,” she said.
And the new influx of talent the Tigers have this spring has added to the fun.
“I love having new people on the field,” Berkeley said. “It's cool to show we have younger kids that can do just as well as people that are older. And it shows we have potential for the coming years too.”
The potential for a second half comeback was at the top of Rochelle Zell’s minds Tuesday, but Hope had other plans.
Continued pressure included two Mia Linares shots in the first 11 minutes that were thwarted by nice Talia Scholder saves; the second came on a low rocket grabbed at the Tigers goalkeeper’s knees.
Lieberman then nicely denied a Mia Linares chance in the box at 27:20 left, drawing a foul for a Tigers free kick. Then Mlotek and Issy Wolle teamed up to deny another Mia Linares threat one-minute later.
“It’s just trusting each other more as the season has gone on,” Lieberman said. “We've been switching around positions, and I think people have learned to adapt. We're a team that when we're told something we can figure it out in a short amount of time.”
Offensively, Rochelle Zell tried to carve into its 2-0 deficit with a Mlotek 25-yard liner just wide left with 26 minutes left and a Berkeley left-side rush and cross that was cleared from the box with 14:30 to go.
But other brewing chances often were snuffed out early by the Hope goalkeeper.
“We tried to send the ball,” Martinez said, “but their keeper (Helen Linares) was playing high up and kept stealing everything we were sending to the offensive third.”
Hope kept up its offensive. With 10:15 to go, a Pacheco left-side cross spun away from Scholder’s grasp and resulted in a Rebecka Romero shot off the right post. Scholder then made the save on a rebound try.
Then with 8:49 to go, Pacheco capped her big return to the field by taking a pass, bursting into the box and lining a shot inside the left post for a 3-0 Hope lead.
Despite the defeat, the test of facing a formidable foe was a good learning experience for the Tigers.
“They were the conference tournament champions last year,” Berkeley said. “They are a really strong possession team; they passed the ball really well. All of them connect passes well and have strong kicks. We put up a really good fight and also played well, but it didn't happen for us.
“It definitely makes us realize the things we need to practice, pay attention to and get better at,” Berkeley added. “I personally think it's better to play teams that are challenging to us, because it makes us work hard and pushes us to our limits. And we know what to expect when we go into the (Chicago Prep) tournament next week.”
Martinez is also looking forward to benefits from the quality match.
“We learned what we need to do, with marking and positioning especially,” Martinez said. “A credit to their coach. He's got a really talented team, and they move the ball around nicely.
“I think we know what we need to do going into the conference tournament. We have a game Thursday against DePaul, and hopefully we can execute some of the things we've been talking about, winning balls in the air and being strong on 50/50 balls.
“Then the conference tournament starts next week, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see this (Hope) team again.”
GK: Helen Linares
D: Evey Linares
D: Crystal Cervantes
D: Judith Marca
D: Kassandra Chavez
M: Zackira Clark
M: Rebecka Romero
M: Jocelyn Ochoa
M: Jazmine Diaz
F: Eden Willis
F: Mia Linares
GK: Talia Scholder
D: Issy Wolle
D: Meira Lieberman
D: Moriya Mlotek
D: Eliana Halivni
M: Michaela Halpern
M: Brooke Goldberg
M: Kate Isaacson
M: Hannah Melman
F: Becca Berkeley
F: Elaina Cohen
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Mia Linares, jr. F, Hope
H- Mia Linares (Sofia Pacheco assist), 9’
H- Linares (Evey Linares), 14’
H- Pacheco, 72’