VILLA PARK — Morton is no stranger to opponents playing against them with heightened intensity, born of the chance to knock off one of Illinois’ perennial power programs.
Rivals on both sides of the West Suburban Conference are specifically motivated to beat a Morton team chasing its 12th-consecutive Gold Division title. So, it wasn’t all that surprising that Willowbrook brought the thunder against Morton to start Tuesday’s conference game Tuesday.
“It was an even game and (Willowbrook) might have had a little bit of the better of play for the first 20 minutes,” Morton coach Jim Bageanis said.
Ah, but the thing about Morton that every opponent knows is that the Mustangs are too skilled, quick, and athletic to play for too long without throwing a counter-punch and/or haymakers. And that’s what happened after Morton acclimated to Willowbrook’s early spunk.
“They came out hard in the first 15 or 20 minutes, and we were a little shaky,” Morton captain and defender Ivan Ramirez said. “They were playing physical, and we just had to be smart about it. We had to be just as physical and still match our ball play. We’re pretty creative up-top. As the game went on, I think that's what we did.”
Morton’s eventual 3-0 win saw goals come off the feet of Rafael Ramirez and Pedro Loza, and head of Enrique Ayala. What made two of those goals more noteworthy is that Ayala and Loza came in off the bench to score them.
Morton played without injured Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater Max Aquino, who suffered a leg injury in a 4-2 win over Young on Aug. 29. But it didn’t matter because the Mustangs’ depth wore down Willowbrook.
“It’s next man up,” Ramirez said. “We have confidence in our bench, because it’s a really good bench with a lot of good players that can come in and out. You don’t see a difference.”
Ranked second in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, Morton (4-0-0, 1-0-0) saw Willowbrook (2-3-1, 0-1-0) play physical and fast from the outset. The host began piling up free kicks on Morton’s half of the field. The Warriors had the game’s first quality scoring chance in the 15th minutes, when Vinni DaSilva sent a diagonal shot from left to right inside the box that smacked the post on the right side before Morton cleared it.
The Mustangs slowly began activating their attack, which always features ball movement and skill, in the face of Willowbrook’s spirited play.
“I wasn't expecting all that physicality, and it was just tough,” left outside midfielder Sergio Villegas said. “But we just had to use our bodies back and try not to foul. Then we started to play the gaps with our passing. We kept passing, found gaps and ran through it. We just have to know teams are going to go hard at us, and we have to be prepared for it.”
Morton’s Jonathan Almaguer matched Willowbrook’s DaSilva in the 35th minute when his free kick from 25 yards tore a path through the air space over leaping Willowbrook keeper Diego Villegas before hitting the crossbar and bounding out.
In the game’s next minute, however, Morton ended the game’s scoring drought.
Sergio Villegas was in the thick of things throughout the game, and he assisted on Morton’s first goal. He sent the ball across the box from deep on the left side. It met Rafael Ramirez, who connected from 16 yards on the far side.
“Sergio is just a crafty player,” Bageanis said. “He's got some speed, and he's got the skill to beat you. And he's just a pest on that outside and doesn't let people get by him. He's a natural defender. He's fast enough to get up, and he's got a pretty heavy shot. I thought he had a good all-around game for us.”
For his relentless play on the outside and for keying the goal that broke the ice for Morton, Villegas was named Chicagoland Soccer’s Man of the Match.
“I liked our creativity tonight and especially Sergio. He was taking their fullback the whole game, and he was able to get that assists and our first goal,” Ivan Ramirez said.
With his boys leading 1-0 at halftime, Bageanis switched things up.
“That was the first team that was really, really, really hands-on and physical with us,” Bageanis said. “We made a few formation changes with personnel, and in the second half we played with a 4-4-2 instead of a 4-5-1 and I think their backs struggled to handle two of our guys up-top. Then we settled in and started to move the ball, and I think we wore them down a little bit, too.”
Five minutes into the second half, Morton’s Alexis Meza-Dominguez cracked a shot from eight yards on the right side that Willowbrook keeper Villegas got a hand on and deflected toward yjr far post. That’s where Ayala got his head on it to give Morton a 2-0 lead.
Morton kept the pressure on. Meza-Dominguez found space to fire a good chance just wide in the 48th minute, and the Willowbrook keeper charged off his line to stuff another Meza-Dominguez offering one minute later.
Morton went up 3-0 when Loza beat a pair of defenders with several nifty moves with the ball at his feet at the 18 and then poked a slow-roller past Willowbrook’s charging goalkeeper to end the evening’s scoring.
Bageanis applauded the work put in by Almaguer and Caleb Mendoza “and then always our guy in the back, Ivan Ramirez,” Bageanis said. “He's always composed, never panics.
“And I thought our goalie played well. We started a sophomore today, Diego Vargas. It was his first varsity game, and it looked like he was comfortable back there.”
The Morton skipper likes the potential he’s seen through four games.
“We're very dynamic offensively, and we can score,” Bageanis said “This year we’ve also got some guys that can win the ball in the air. We also have guys that are good in one-on-one situations on the outside who can do damage. And we’ve got a lot of players that have pretty good shots, that are pretty accurate. So, we might not take as many shots as in years past but when we hit them, they’re usually good, quality shots.”
Ivan Ramirez, a co-captain along with fellow senior Josh Trujillo, said his program’s goal — like it every year for Illinois’ top teams — is to win a state title. Morton took its only state title in 2011 and has since placed second (2019), third (2015), and fourth (2021).
Ramirez sees the potential in this year’s team to make another run to the Final Four in Hoffman Estates.
“I’d like to see us start games stronger, but we always have confidence in our attack and they have confidence that we’ll hold things down in the back,” Ramirez said.
“We have a lot of seniors this year, and I think our chemistry is better than last year because we've been together two or three years now. That helps a lot.”
GK: Diego Vargas
D: Ivan Ramirez
D: Josh Trujillo
D: Rafael Ramirez
D: Christian Valadez
MF: Carlos Tafoya
MF: Alexis Meza-Dominguez
MF: Sergio Villegas
MF: Yahir Aguilar
MF: Caleb Mendoza
F: Jonathan Almaguer
GK: Diego Villegas
D: Adrian Gesiki
D: Evan Havorth
D: Dean Soltys
D: Oscar Ruiz
MF: Carlos Garcia
MF: Armando Martinez
MF: Vinni DaSilva
MF: Brayden Dotson
F: Kamil Kurpacha
F: Lucas Bohm
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Sergio Villegas, sr., MF, Morton
Morton — Rafael Ramirez (Sergio Villegas), 36’
Morton — Enrique Ayala (Alexis Meza-Dominguez), 45’
Morton — Pedro Loza (unassisted), 62’