GURNEE — The adage is wrong. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.
After growing up together playing club soccer with and against each other, many players from Warren and Libertyville are so familiar with one another “they know each other’s favorite ice cream,” Libertyville coach Kevin Thunholm said.
But when the North Suburban Conference rivals annually square off, those bonds are temporarily kicked to the curb. They are replaced by an 80-minute adrenaline-fueled battle for points in the conference standings.
“You can give them a hug after the game,” Warren senior Lucas Ahonen said. “During the game, it’s all about the three points.”
Sure, there were missed quality opportunities both teams wish they had back Thursday night at Warren’s O’Plaine Campus, and of course nobody is crazy about a tie. But the pros far outweighed the cons for Libertyville and Warren in a 1-1 draw in the league opener for both teams.
Because ultimately — especially for two teams laced with a slew of new varsity players — early season games are always more about performance than results.
“It’s growth, and it was a fun game,” Warren coach Jason Ahonen said. “Take away our lack of experience, and it’s about seeing growth every game. As long as we see that, we’re moving in the right direction.”
The typical momentum swings of a good rivalry game were present throughout. Libertyville (3-2-1, 0-0-1) and Warren (3-3-1, 0-0-1) each found four or five truly dangerous shots on frame apiece.
Libertyville took the first 10 minutes of the game with Noah Finnema and Matthew Underwood both sending shots just wide from distance. Warren answered, forcing a stop from Wildcats keeper Andy Hauser and a goal-line clear in the 15th minute.
Warren keeper Colton Holmes smothered a short shot taken near the post by Libertyville’s Nick Snow four minutes later. In the 24th minute, Libertyville’s Mateo Portillo sent a cross from Oliver Allen just over the bar.
Ahonen cracked a shot from inside the box that Hauser saved in the 38th minute. When the clock hit 0:00, the fans and teams were looking at a scoreless tie. A year ago, the match finished 0-0.
Finnema liked the Wildcats flashes of possession soccer in the first half and beyond.
“At the start of the year we tried to kick it long more, but now we’re starting to possess it better,” Finnema said. “Every game, that’s been progressing. We’re getting better.”
It was Warren’s Michael Yang who ended a scoring drought of more than 120 minutes between the rivals that spanned over two conference games.
Yang, a JV player last year, scored the first varsity goal of his career in the 42nd minute. The senior received a feed from Jack Elkinton on the right side, took a touch and used a burst of quickness to get around a defender. Yang then blasted a shot from 14 yards that tore a path inside the far post to give Warren a 1-0 lead.
There’s a fortune to be made for the person who can figure out how to bottle and sell the exhilaration that players, fans and coaches feel when a goal is scored. Yang's off-the-chart level of excitement was the best part of his and his teammates’ night.
After he watched his shot find the back netting, Yang streaked wildly to the track, pursued gleefully by a band of teammates bent on hugging him.
“I loved his celebration after the goal,” Lucas Ahonen said. “When he scored that goal, I just loved his passion.
“When we’ve scored first in games it’s all good. When we don’t score first, it’s been more challenging, just because we’re a young team, and we’re not used to battling back. It was too bad we conceded (a tying goal) but to take a point from one of the hardest games in our conference, that’s huge.”
The Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater leads Warren with three goals and three assists in the early season, and the senior will need to carry a heavy offensive load all season. Watching Yang bury a goal was also a sight for sore eyes for his dad.
“Without having a pure goal-scorer, it’s scoring by committee,” coach Ahonen said. “(Yang) has always been physically gifted, and his speed is what put him on our varsity roster. On angles we always tell them to shoot for the second post, and that’s what he did. And I always feel great any time a guy scores his first varsity goal.”
No one present in Gurnee was surprised when Libertyville answered with solid attacking pressure. Allen turned the corner at the end line on the left side and forced a good save from Holmes in the 50th minute. Four ticks of the big hand later, Finnema grabbed the spotlight.
Portillo, who sent in a flurry of corners and dangerous free kicks in the second half, lined up a restart 28 yards on the left side. Holmes stopped the shot in a crowded goalmouth, but the ball fell to the goal line. From there, Finnema stepped forward and deposited it to tie the game.
A loose ball near the goal line for a striker is like blood in the water to a shark, and Finnema capitalized.
“That’s the life of a striker, right?” he said. “I think the keeper got a hand on it, and then I got between two guys and got my body on it.”
For their scoring contributions in Thursday’s dogfight, Yang and Finnema sahred the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match honor.
Thunholm liked his boys’ response after falling behind.
“When we got down, I was afraid they were going to rush it a little bit,” Thunholm said. “But they stayed composed, came back and put one in.
“We changed things up today to play more offensively. We had more guys up and more opportunities, and we've just got to finish them off. But we’re 90 percent juniors and sophomores so they're learning. It was a fun game. It was just what we expected.”
Scoring goals in September can be a universally tall order at the high school level. But patience is a virtue …
“For some teams it’s a struggle at the beginning of the season, but they find it at the right time,” Finnema said. “It’s early.”
The teams traded a few free kicks to the 60th minute. Snow tracked back hard to thwart Ahonen at the end line on the left side in the 61st minute. A Portillo free kick sparked a sequence in the box that ended with a Libertyville shot hitting the crossbar in the 64th.
Holmes smothered a shot at the post with Finnema and Allen pressuring, soon after. Libertyville’s most impressive stretch of play likely came in the game’s final 15 minutes. The Wildcats’ possession game in the final third was on full display and kept Warren largely in a defensive crouch to the final buzzer.
“The last few games we didn’t finish off the games well,” Finnema said. “Other teams have been all over us at the ends of games, but tonight was completely different.”
Thunholm applauded his boys’ play.
“Noah played well up-top, and Nicky Dawson played holding mid, where he doesn’t usually play, and he did a nice job on Lucas (Ahonen),” Thunholm said. “And my backline is so solid, and they all deserve mention.”
Libertyville’s backs -- Snow, Max Doshi, Henry Bownas and Ben Goldberg -- have shined. And a strong defense always makes life easier on the other end of the field.
“It helps me, because … I can just worry about my job,” Finnema said. “And they’re all juniors, so next year they’ll be even better.”
Despite Libertyville’s suffocating final 15 minutes, Warren kept the Wildcats from scoring. Both teams’ backlines played tremendous soccer Thursday.
“I trust (Warren defender) Chris Crowson with my life back there,” Lucas Ahonen said. “Chris has been my guy since I was four years old. He’s just a tank and such an athlete. You don’t feel comfortable getting pushed in your box, but you feel a lot more comfortable when you’ve got a guy like Chris back there.”
The Ahonens agree on that point.
“Chris had another good game, and I thought (midfield) Charlie Crowson had his best game yet,” Jason Ahonen said. “I thought Gunnar Zajac looked very good today; our whole backline looked good today. Whether it was Abraham Castejon or Jordan Dufour coming in — every minute they get, they’re getting stronger and better.”
GK: Andy Hauser
D: Max Doshi
D: Nick Snow
D: Ben Goldberg
D: Henry Bownas
MF: Matthew Underwood
MF: Nicky Dawson
MF: Mateo Portillo
F: Oliver Allen
F: Lukas Krzeminski
F: Noah Finnema
GK: Colton Holmes
D: Gunnar Zajac
D: Abraham Castrejon
D: Angel Benitez
MF: Chris Crowson
MF: Diego Torres
MF: Jack Elkinton
MF: Lucas Ahonen
MF: Charlie Crowson
MF: Michael Yang
F: Christian Albarran
Chicagoland Soccer Men of the Match: Michael Yang, sr., MF, Warren;
Noah Finnema, jr., F, Libertyville
Warren: Michael Yang (Jack Elkinton), 42 minutes
Libertyville: Noah Finnema (Mateo Portillo), 54 minutes
Tag(s): Metea Valley