BERWYN -- For more than an hour, Morton clung to a one-goal lead.
The host Mustangs, who are ranked second in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, needed to hang on for only two final minutes to secure a clean-sheet against no. 19 Lyons.
Then they committed a foul directly 28 yards in front of their goal.
It was the chance Lyons midfielder Haris Sarajlija had been waiting for.
“The wall was directly in front of me but the goalie was in the middle of the net, so I saw the far post was open,” Sarajlija said. “All summer I’ve been working on far-post free kicks.
“I call it my specialty. I just went for it.”
Sarajlija’s wicked blast went over the Morton wall and swerved under the crossbar and inside the left post with 2:10 remaining in the match.
It was Sarajlija’s seventh goal of the season and it gave the underdog Lions a 1-1 draw in the final game of the two-day Morton Premier Invitational.
“It doesn’t happen by accident,” Lyons coach Paul Labbato said. “He’s got a lot in the way of feeling the way he’s going to hit a ball. And he gets them up and down, which is what you need to be able to do. It looks like it’s going over, and it dips down at the last minute.”
So how does Sarajlija bend it like Beckham? Countless hours of practice.
“He’s a soccer junkie,” Labbato said. “He works on his craft.
“These are things he does. He loves taking a bag of balls and trying to hit spots on the goal. He’s probably been doing that since he was little.”
Sarajlija has been doing it a lot recently. His preparation is meticulous. Every scenario and every angle in contemplated.
“This summer I actually got two of my goalies, and I just begged them every morning,” Sarajlija said. “There is a perfect grass field near my home and every single morning when I could, I just went out and got at least 200 shots a day. It’s paying off.”
Sarajlija’s strike, his second on a free kick this season, didn’t give the Lions (7-3-2) a victory, but it was a big lift after Friday’s 1-0 loss to Benet. Tying Morton (8-0-2) felt like a win.
“We absolutely needed this tie in the scenario that we were in,” Labbato said. “We were down a goal, we looked at the clock and when it was 10 minutes, we brought an extra guy up-top and sometimes that works out.”
Labbato just wishes the Lions would work things out sooner. They’ve been plagued by slow starts.
“We’ve sadly been a second half team,” Labbato said. “We’d like to put together a full 80. We’ve been very good in the second half, especially the past couple weeks.
“They understand what’s at stake, and we haven’t come back on anyone yet. This is the first chance to come back and tie a team and make it feel like we accomplished it.”
“It feels great,” he said. “It gives us some motivation for tomorrow. We play Taft at the Body Armor finals.
“It would have been worse if we had come off a loss. It feels really great because Morton is a serious team. That’s a state championship-type of game.”
Morton understands it is going to get everyone’s best shot. While Lyons felt as if it had won, the Mustangs suffered with the opposite outlook.
“You give them credit on the shot, but we shouldn’t have given up the foul in that position on the field,” Morton coach Jim Bageanis said. “We know the clock is coming down.
“We should have forced them to make a play instead of giving them a set piece. We paid for it.
“We are taking it as a defeat, because we need to be smarter than that. Hopefully we learned from it.”
Sarajlija’s goal was not a fluke, nor was the opportunity the only one the Lions had down the stretch. They were the more aggressive team.
“We gave them a ton of corners and a ton of throw-ins,” Bageanis said. “It was a matter of time.
“But give them credit. We were having trouble creating stuff today.”
Indeed, the Mustangs mustered only five shots. The only one on frame was Jonathan Almaguer’s penalty kick, which he rifled inside the left post with 17:13 left in the first half.
“I think Lyons Township defensively had a very good mindset,” Almaguer said. “Their center backs were physical and playing very well.
“Props to Lyons Township, I think they are a really good team and good luck to them for the rest of the season.”
The two teams could meet again in the playoffs. Both anticipate being better by then, especially offensively. Morton has been without UIC-bound star forward Max Aquino, who suffered a sprained knee in the Mustangs’ third game of the season. Bageanis said he expects him back by the end of September.
Lyons wants to be more efficient in the final third.
“Defensively I thought we were great,” Labbato said. “We didn’t give up many shots.
“We took their dangerous aspects out of their game and made it a little bit more predictable in spots. I thought that really helped us. But overall, we have to work on our attack, and we have to settle and play a lot more on the ground.
“Both teams would be a whole lot more dangerous if we can just work the ball on the ground.”
But it was clear which side got the bigger boost from Saturday’s draw.
“We tied them, but I believe we could have won that game,”
Sarajlija said. “It shows us all that, no matter what, when playoffs come, we can go as far as we want.”
GK: Tyler Balon
D: Colin Sullivan
D: Daniel Svelnis
D: Zach Morgan
M: Declan Kracker
M: Jimmy Brejcha
M: Mason Burda
M: Haris Sarajlija
M: Declin Bourjaily
M: Austin Wisniewski
F: Owen Suda
GK: Diego Vargas
D: Rafael Ramirez
D: Josh Trujillo
D: Ivan Ramirez
D: Christian Valadez
M: Jonathan Almaguer
M: Caleb Mendoza
M: Sergio Villegas
M: Yahir Aguilar
M: Alexis Meza Dominguez
F: Xavier Avila
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Haris Sarajlija, sr., MF, Lyons
Morton: Jonathan Almaguer (PK), 23’
Lyons: Haris Sarajlija, (free kick), 78’