By Patrick Z. McGavin
NAPERVILLE — Great players have a talent for walking into any new situation and letting their talent and skill take hold.
Positions are malleable, situations are in flux. Anya Gulbrandsen plays with verve, style and a sharp focus.
She has the panache and ability to dominate from any position on the field.
The normal midfielder moved to the top of the Oswego East formation to juice up the attack.
“I haven’t played there for a while, so this was a little bit experimental. But I like it, because it is a different point of view,” Gulbrandsen said.
“I have only people on my back versus when I am on the wing. It has been very interesting.”
Gulbrandsen scored two textbook and beautiful first half goals to lead the Wolves’ to a 2-0 victory over York in the teams' final Naperville Invitational consolation game Saturday morning at Naperville North.
Oswego East (9-5-1) salvaged a difficult and disappointing tournament run with the victory over the Dukes (10-2-1), who are ranked 17th in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25.
In contrast, last season the Wolves defeated ranked programs St. Charles North and Benet in group play and advanced to the championship bracket.
York went 2-2-0 in the tournament, playing in what was clearly the most challenging group stage with no. 11 Naperville Central and no. 13 Geneva.
The three teams went 1-1-0: York beat Naperville Central and lost to Geneva; and the host Redhawks beat Geneva to advance on criteria.
“The Naperville Invitational is such a high-level competition, with great teams,” York forward Finley Ewald said. “Coming into it, I am not sure if we were doubting ourselves, but we definitely proved that we can play with anyone right away.
“We had a great game with Central, and then had some tired legs against Geneva, which happens when you play so many games in a row. Oswego East was also a really good team.”
The Wolves feature two elite, Big Ten recruits and Chicagoland Soccer All-Staters at the center of their attack — Wisconsin commit Gulbrandsen and Iowa recruit Erika Smiley.
They were the two leading scorers on the historic Wolves team of a year ago that won the program’s first regional championship and took the Southwest Prairie Conference title with an unblemished record.
Mobile, wiry and very quick, Smiley is angular and superb with the ball.
In the 10th minute, she got to the left-side of the end line and drilled a cross that Gulbrandsen finished with a decisive left-footed half volley from about five yards.
“I love when Erika is on the wing. She’s left-footed, and you end up getting most of your touches with her outside foot. She always makes the great cross,” Gulbrandsen said.
Smiley took advantage of the early Wolves build-up, using her size and speed to create the compelling early chance.
“Honestly, it was not just me,” Smiley said. “It is a team sport. Our team showed up, and they got me the ball.
“We have been working a lot in practice, and something we were able to do today is just possessing the ball. Getting the ball out left, I’m a lefty, and that always comes in handy. Anya made the great finish.”
Oswego East sensed the slightly frantic and off-kilter movements of York and sustained their early pressure.
With Gulbrandsen pushing the pace and accelerating in space, Oswego East struck again in the 20th minute.
With the ball played out wide, right outside back Emma Rosenthal hammered a terrific ball from about 34 yards that curved toward the streaking Gulbrandsen.
York keeper Daly Wangler came out to challenge the play.
Gulbrandsen was the first to the ball, and smashed home the header from about eight yards for the stunning two-goal lead.
“That was a perfect ball,” Gulbrandsen said. “It would have been bad if I didn’t put that away.
“We have been trying to get out ahead of her service balls the entire season.”
Impressively, the Wolves were not content with the early goal.
Morgan Hoffman, another converted midfielder, worked exceptionally well off of Gulbrandsen at the right forward spot.
Hoffman was a driving factor in creating space for Gulbrandsen. Her speed and activity with the ball opened up avenues to operate.
“After the first goal, we kept going, pushing and wanting to get as many goals we could, and as early as we could, and then just try to lock them down,” Hoffman said.
If the shot creation of Smiley and Rosenthal and the presence of Gulbrandsen shaped the early narrative, the athletic and active play of keeper Sam McPhee framed the discourse defensively.
McPhee was alert and dynamic, coming hard off her line, cutting off angles and reacting to the Dukes’ run of play.
McPhee made a great leaping deflection off a hard left-footed blast from freshman midfielder Tatum Mailander from 24 yards in the 21st minute.
“The defense did so well today, and the communication between all of them was very good,” McPhee said.
“Our heads were all in the game from the second we stopped on the field. The back has been good with handling pressure, and they trust me with the ball at my feet. So we didn’t really have any problems there, and we stayed composed.”
Ewald had a primary York opportunity in the 29th minute with a free kick from 26 yards that sailed just over the top of the bar.
She had another good look from about 28 yards in the 33rd minute.
The Gulbrandsen goals not only pushed the Wolves out front. York was caught in a trap it fought fruitlessly to extricate itself from.
“I think the first 15 minutes, or until they scored the first goal, that was the first time they were really in our half,” Ewald said.
“They caught us off guard, and we weren’t really ready for this early Saturday morning game. We’re coming off a hard week with three tough games. Those early goals definitely took us out of the game mentally.”
The Dukes controlled, even dominated, much of the second half action, but McPhee commanded her defensive third. She finished with nine saves.
Every time the Dukes seriously threatened, McPhee was there to pounce on the ball. Rosenthal was also superb on defense. She made a couple of great clearances and shut down space in the final third.
“Sam has kept us in a lot of games,” Gulbrandsen said. “Our goal is to keep scoring and have our defense hold them.
“She is the last line of our defense, and pretty much 100 percent of the time we count on her.”
York’s aggression was intense and consistent.
The Dukes can point to how hard they played until the final moments, even generating a corner kick in the 79th minute.
“I am really proud of this team and how we put it together in the second half,” Ewald said.
The early Oswego East lead proved insurmountable.
Gulbrandsen supplied the fire, McPhee the steel.
The combination worked.
“I think with some of the changes, everything is working out really well,” said Gulbrandsen, who earned the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor for her outstanding play.
Oswego East got what it wanted – a high-level victory over a ranked team.
“I really think we needed this game, and I feel confident going into the state tournament because we are a really good team,” Smiley said.
“When we play together, I honestly feel like we are competitive in every game. It’s just making sure that we have each other’s backs every day.”
Both teams were represented on the all-tournament team.
Oswego East's Gulbrandsen was a second team choice.
York's Mailander, one of only two freshmen on the 38-person list, was a second team selection. Senior teammate Finley Ewald was an honorable mention pick.
GK: Sam McPhee
D: Veronica Hamilton
D: Jocelyn Cruz
D: Emma Klosterman
D: Emma Rosenthal
MF: Erika Smiley
MF: Lana Bomstad
MF: Cathie Sloan
MF: Ashley Gumm
F: Anya Gulbrandsen
F: Morgan Hoffman
GK: Daly Wangler
D: Tess Macgregor
D: Mia Barton
D: Abby DeMichele
D: Mia Pretzie
MF: Natalie DeSimone
MF: Allison Sheehan
MF: Maureen Buhrfiend
MF: Tutum Mailander
F: Rylee Adams
F: Finley Ewald
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Anya Gulbrandsen, jr., F, Oswego East
Oswego East—Anya Gulbrandsen (Erika Smiley), 10th minute
Oswego East—Gulbrandsen (Emma Rosenthal), 20th minute