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Game story: Leyden has bittersweet start to new season

By Patrick Z. McGavin , 08/23/23, 4:00PM CDT


Taft PK holds up for 1-0 victory

CHICAGO — The finishing touch can be the most elusive skill at the beginning of the season.

Leyden was eager and ready to get off to the right start during its traditional opening game of the year against city power Taft.

The pieces were there. The team looked fast, fluid and ready to pounce.

“This was the first of many games, and I thought we played pretty well for our first game,” defender Fabian Rodriguez said.

The Eagles’ possession game and forward attack looked sharp — to a point. The hardest part of the scoring sequence — the closing touch — proved elusive

Leyden suffered a disappointing 1-0 loss in a sharply contested and well-played game at Reed-Dunning Park before a crowd of about 100 on the Northwest Side on Tuesday night.

Midfielder Bartosz Wojda scored the game-winner on a penalty kick in the 35th minute.

The play was set up by a counter and deep push by forward Idris Bachir that ended with him being pushed from behind by a trailing Eagles’ defender.

“They were dangerous, but I also feel like we had our chances,” Rodriguez said. 

“It’s just that final pass we have to work on. Overall, I thought we played well.”

In the frenetic back and forth preceding the goal, Leyden forward Jesus Ramos just missed wide left on a half volley.

Taft (2-0-0) seized the momentum and unleashed greater numbers off the counter.

Wojda buried the penalty into the right corner.

“On the penalty, I did the classic stutter step that we practice a lot,” Wojda said. 

“These are important situations because you are not going to get a lot of opportunities, and you have to be able to put them away.”

Wojda earned the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match for his excellent play.

Taft had an earlier goal nullified by an offsides call.

Taft's Eagles, who reached the city tournament championship game last year, also had the advantage of an earlier game. Taft opened its defense of the Chicago Public League Premier Division Northwest title with a win over Prosser on opening night. The Eagles won the division via a tiebreaker over Young.

Wojda also scored in the 3-0 victory Monday.

“We have a lot of returning guys, but we also have a lot of players without any varsity experience, including two freshmen who play a lot,” Taft coach Jeff Lucco said.

“Playing yesterday was good, because we needed to see what we have.”

Leyden returns six starters and several key rotation players from a topsy-turvy season.

The Eagles finished 10-9-4. The campaign was marked by huge runs — good and bad. The team started 0-5-1 and then reeled off a 10-1-3 burst.

Coach Mark Valintis is working to combine the mix of returning and new players.

“You could definitely see tonight which guys were in their first varsity game,” Valintis said. “Their touch was heavy, their passes were off.

“Part of that was them being new, and part of it was Taft playing really hard and putting us under pressure across the field and not letting us have time.”

Despite the setback, the evidence was clear -- Leyden is a team of intriguing pieces.

Ariel Diaz, a captain with Rodriguez and Angel Perez, helped create extended possession with the ball.

His creativity and juice off the bounce or dribble helped the Eagles push numbers.

“Coming into the game, we knew Taft was going to be a very tough opponent,” Diaz said.

“We wanted to win, and we weren’t able to get it. I think there were moments where we did show some signs of good soccer. Hopefully we can build that for future games.”

In the run of play, the Eagles’ defense was solid, sharp and able to withstand the considerable pressure exerted by Taft

Junior keeper Daniel Llanos impressed with seven saves. He made a great leaping stab to push the ball over the bar in the 67th minute.

Rodriguez, Ryan Pikor, Yadier DeLaCruz and Duvan Trujillo shut down air space and largely denied deep penetration.

With Taft at its most dangerous, like a rocket ball by forward Ethan Kazberuk in the 67th minute from about nine yards, Llanos was there for the quick reaction and recovery.

Taft defeated Leyden 2-0 in the first game of the season last year.

The Eagles reached a regional final, where they lost to Niles North in overtime.

The team is likely to battle Lane, Solorio, Washington and Young for the title of the best team in the city.

“Not to take anything away from Prosser, but tonight our guys saw that this is what high school soccer is all about, and you have to be able to match the intensity of the other team,” Lucco said.

“It was fast-paced, and I think we showed when we have the ball we can be pretty good. Coming away with two wins in our first two games is really good.”

Leyden battled until the very end. In the 78th minute, midfielder Oliver Salgado had a good look from 14 yards on the right wing.

His ball was deflected by a rushing Taft player.

“Right now, we don’t really have that striker or big scorer, but we are working on it,” Salgado said.

“I think we just need to work on our passing in the final third, because when we were on top, we were missing that final touch.”

As the Eagles showed last year, the start is not always predictive of how a season plays out.

The strong points the team looks to build off, generating chances, creating set pieces and corner kicks, is a promising sign.

“Ever since the summer, we have been working really hard, and I think this game showed there was a spark,” Perez said.

“We had some really good plays in the game, we just couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net. I think with more practice, we are going to be a better team.”

Time is everything in the game, capturing the perfect rhythm and precision and getting to the point where the next touch is the magical one.

A strong showing against a quality opponent is the right way to begin.

“It was a good first game,” Valintis said. 

“It’s never good to lose, but it’s always good for these kids to figure out what lies ahead for the next few months.”

Starting lineups

GK: Daniel Llanos
D: Fabian Rodriguez
D: Yadier DeLaCruz
D: Ryan Pikor
D: Duvan Trujillo
MF: Angel Perez
MF: Ariel Diaz
MF: Olivier Salgado
MF: Brandon Delgado
MF: Rafa Nozka
F: Jesus Ramos

GK: Alberto Alizo
D: Matthew Gruszka
D: Damian Giczewski
D: Michael Sturgulewski
MF: Adrian Grden
MF: Jair Duenas
MF: Bartosz Wojda
MF: Daniel Korniat
MF: Filip Zero
F: Ethan Kazberuk
F: Kurmanbek Madaripov

Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Bartosz Wojda, jr., MF, Taft

Scoring summary

First half
Taft: Bartosz Wojda (penalty kick), 35’

Second half
No scoring