PALATINE -- Palatine lifted the league trophy for the first time since 2012 and ninth time in program history by beating Buffalo Grove 2-1 Thursday night at Chic Anderson Stadium in the 48th edition of the Mid-Suburban League Soccer Cup.
The visiting Bison (8-10-3) refused to give an inch against their undefeated hosts and took the Pirates (17-0-3) out of their high-powered attack and exquisite possession style with a near-perfect tactical plan that was undone by the magical touch of Sebastian Khoury.
The dynamic senior’s brace proved too much for the valiant Buffalo Grove squad, which fought hard for 80 minutes in the longest running conference championship series match in the state history.
"Any time you play a team led by Darren Llewellyn (Bison manager) you know he's going to make it very difficult for you," began Palatine manager Aaron Morris.
"With time to prepare, and the way we all know how Darren can break down an opponent, you find it's going to be a real struggle.
"(He) threw a real different formation at us and made it very difficult to for us to find our rhythm at all, especially in our attacking transitions. Some of that was on us, but it also was Buffalo Grove, who played well enough to win.”
"I don't know why, but I felt that we came out nervous during warm-ups," said Khoury, who was named the Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match. “It really took us awhile to find ourselves, especially in the first 20-25 minutes when they had almost all of the play. We were unable to possess and get into our attack."
"Yes, I agree," added Jordan Mok, the Pirates terrific senior captain whose work rate is second to none as he runs the show from the middle of the park. “For almost the entire first half we played nervous and not very composed with the ball in our runs, which made it very difficult to connect passes.”
Mok did not use as an excuse the loss of all-state candidate Karol Noga, who suffered an ACL injury in the regular-season league finale against Conant. Sadly, the senior is out of the playoff picture.
"Karol is such a huge part of our success," began Mok, who has his eye on Albany College (New York), Wingate University (North Carolina) and North Park (Chicago) as potential landing spots for next fall to attend school and continue his soccer career.
"Karol does so much for us in addition to his great leadership. He's big, strong, quick, can hold the ball really well, distribute, defend and has a great understanding of the game. Although he didn't play against Lake Zurich in our 4-2 win just after the Conant game, I think tonight it kind of hit us hard not having him out there."
While the new MSL champions continued their season-long run, Buffalo Grove lost its second match in a row. The Bison previously dropped a 2-1 match against Wheeling in its league finale.
"Wheeling has been coming on of late, but that loss kind of mirrors the way our season has gone, lots of ups and-downs," offered Llewellyn. “But with that said, I was confident if the boys came out tonight and stuck with our plan, we could spring a surprise on the best team in our conference this fall."
Llewellyn, who studies plenty of film of opponents, breaks his intel down into little snippets for his men to study. He devised a plan of constant pressure and movement with plenty of shifting on the outside within a 3-4-1-2 formation that could morph into another look depending on how Palatine responded.
"They are so quick, especially their outside backs," said Llewellyn. “Their awareness of each other is really something to be impressed with. It's almost like they've been playing for years together.
"It's great to watch just as a soccer fan, but it's a real challenge if you have to play against them. It was important for us to be organized, play within ourselves.”
A hope of striking early looked like it might come true for the Bison moments into the contest, Jorge Hernandez-Lopez burst forward to challenge keeper Alex Ganji on a 50-50 just inside his box.
When the two met, it looked as if Ganji may have clipped the onrushing Bison and sent him airborne. Perhaps the spill had too much flair for referee Mark Folta, who gave the visitors a throw after the ball went out of bounds and not a place at the spot.
"If there was VAR, I know it would have shown I was fouled inside the box," said Hernandez-Lopez, who added that he he and his teammates “had to put that play behind us right away and refocus."
"Maybe if Jorge doesn't add a little theatrical flair when he was hit by the keeper, it would have given us a PK,” Llewellyn said. “I don't know for sure. It looked from our angle like he was fouled, but the referee was pretty consistent on this type of stuff all night long."
The home-side responded immediately after this sequence. David Kozeav and Adian Atanassov earned a free kick for Mok, who drove his 30-yard effort wide.
Next, sophomore Sebastian Lopez tricked his way into being fouled at the near flag. Another Mok free kick led to a corner which the Bison defended nicely.
It wasn't until the 12th minute that Khoury had a touch. Meanwhile, the Bison enjoyed the run of play, building slowly out of the back while targeting Dennis Likhovid and Denys Grabchuk up-top or finding Hernandez-Lopez running through the middle.
"We knew, even with as good as an attacking team like Palatine, that we could defend because of the great plan Llewellyn put together for us,” said Likhovid. “I wasn't sure if we could possess and move the ball around very much. But our great defending helped us have a lot of the ball tonight."
Grabchuk was sent through by Hernandez-Lopez, but drove his attempt wide at 18 minutes. That was followed immediately by a lovely 1-2 from Likhovid and Hernandez-Lopez which ended with the Pirates center back duo of Andrew Kania and Karan Toor cleaning things up in front of their keeper.
"On a night when we were not as sharp as we could have been in certain parts of our game, the one constant, as it's been all season was the play of Kania, and Toor, who were just outstanding," said Morris.
The Pirates came to life slowly. though their time on the ball was not up to Morris’ liking. It did however begin to put a few worries into the stingy Bison.
Kozeav had a go on frame at 23 minutes, and the Pirates earned themselves a pair of deep throws from Mok, which once again were cleared out of the area.
"Mikita (Bialiutsiy) was a monster out there for us tonight," said Llewellyn. “He used his size to win a ton of balls in the air, and he was really disciplined in his movement in and out of the area.”
Bialiutsiy and Jonathan Maradkel were stationed just in front of the back three of the Bison.
"We stressed not to chase the ball when they approached," said Llewellyn. “Because when you do that against a team like Palatine, they just rip you apart with quick passes and movement from side-to-side. That's when the trouble starts.”
The Bison' approach of staying compact and hanging low during the Pirates initial possession, then pressuring, seemed to be the perfect formula for success until the 31st minute. That’s when a hopeful pass from keeper Anthony Ciolek to one of his backline mates was poached by the ever-present Khoury.
Once in control, the crafty senior had Ciolek all to himself. With a sublime touch to his left. he drew the senior keeper out of position and then steered in the opener.
"Sometime(s) you have to be a little lucky in this sport. For us, it was a lucky gift that we really needed at the time," said Khoury.
Brimming with confidence and with the Pirates faithful in absolute bliss, Palatine's attack found the inspiration it needed and went about finding another goal.
Ciolek elevated over a crowd in his box to bring down a well-aimed free kick from Mok at 33 minutes, before Khoury unloaded a 35-yard cracker that exploded late as it skimmed the bar.
"We were not at our best in the first 20-25 minutes of this game," said Mok. “They outplayed us during that time and at times in the second half as well. We persevered, got that (first) goal from Sebastian, which really helped us settle down for the rest of the night.
"It was important for us to keep our heads about us after their late goal, which is something we've struggled with from time-to-time during the season. I felt we did very well with that in the second half," said Likhovid.
During the intermission break, in traditional Mid-Suburban League style, the 2023 all-conference players were introduced and the divisional players of the year were honored.
Likhovid was recognized in the East Division; and Noga was chosen in the West.
The early stages of the second period were spent in the Bison end. A side half-volley from Karan Toor off a corner set up a solid 5-6 minutes of play from the Pirates.
Lopez tricked his way in-close, only to have his attempt blocked just outside the spot.
Another deep long-throw was parried out of the area. The Bison collected another second ball, something the visitors did quite well with on this night.
"We did a good job winning those first, and second balls, while still keeping up with our pressure against them," said Llewellyn.
That pressure and the Pirates touch, though easily among the most impressive seen in and around the area this fall, betrayed the home-side. Palatine was off with its last touch, which stymied its attack.
"We were sloppy with our possession, but credit Buffalo Grove for that,” said Morris. “Not to make any excuses or to take anything away from how great Buffalo Grove performed, but I really sensed there was some nervousness from our boys tonight."
Palatine delighted its fans with a nice flurry just before the hour. Kozeav headed his attempt onto the roof of the Bison net after a deep throw by Mok.
Moments later, a superb crossfield early ball from Khoury to Austin Eckels led to a Pirates corner.
Jerry Afonrinwo, who impressed Llewellyn with his speed on the ball and pure athleticism, roared past a pair of Bison players up the left side.
Once clear of his opponents, the junior placed a lovely ball onto the foot of Khoury, who darted out of the shadows.
Khoury turned on a dime, made space for himself and then carried to the near endline. From there, he fired an impossible-angle shot that nestled in the far inside corner for his 10th goal of the season.
"No. 6 (Afonrinwo) made that whole play with a fantastic run up the side. But that shot from no. 11 (Khoury) was really something else. It seemed like that was where he wanted to put that ball," said an amazed Llewellyn.
"Jerry did all the work,” said Khoury, who tried but could not diminish his truly brilliant finish. “He gave me a great ball. After that, I just made a quick cut to get free, before taking my shot."
Adrian Atanassov forced Ciolek to save his left-footed effort two minutes after the Pirates doubled their advantage. Then Khoury's free kick sent through a Bison wall was also taken in with confidence by Ciolek.
At 80 minutes, Denys Grabchuk was brought down in the box 0.4 seconds from time. Likhoved claimed his 16th goal of the season to end the hopes of an 11th clean sheet on the season for Palatine and its keepers Ganji and Charlie Rebollar.
Buffalo Grove was bolstered by its performance.
"We were good enough to win tonight, so we know we can play with anyone from here on out," said Hernandez-Lopez, whose team will now prepare for its regional opener with Mundelein (10-8-4) Tuesday at Stevenson.
Palatine kept rolling along.
"This team has a lot of pride, and we always play for each other and with confidence,” said Mok. “Tonight we were off our game a little bit, but it was good for us to play in a game like this. It's a reminder that we have to really be at our best from here on out."
"What a great test for us tonight before our regional opener before a packed stadium,' began Morris.
"Buffalo Grove plays the game the right way, and we needed to be focused for the entire 80 minutes, or they would have made us pay.
"There's a sense of relief for me right now. The message was simple to the boys afterward, and that was I am so proud of them.
"Tonight was just another stepping stone for us. We have another set of goals that we'll begin to go after, but we'll need to clean some things up before regionals.
"This wasn't our brand of soccer tonight, but the guys fought hard for each other and got the result we came here for."
Next up for the Pirates, the no. 2 seed in the Fremd Sectional, will be Waukegan, which beat Highland Park 3-1 in a play-in game Friday. The regional semifinal will be played Tuesday at the Warren Township High School venue in Gurnee.
In Soccer Cup history, Palatine trails cross-town rival Fremd in appearances 17-11, but edged closer in championship rings at 10-9 following its victory Thursday.
Buffalo Grove (3-4-1-2)
G- Anthony Ciolek
D- Roberto Arellano
D- Arian Garcia
D- Philip Aniecko
M- Juan Aparicio-Bahena
M- Alejandro Malagon
M- Jonathan Maradkel
M- Jorge Hernandez-Lopez
M- Mikita Bialiutsiy
F- Dennis Likhovid
F- Denys Grabchuk
G- Alex Ganji
D- Damien Drzewiecki
D- Karan Toor
D- Andrew Kania
D- Jerry Afonrinwo
M- Adrian Atanassov
M- Jordan Mok
M- Orlando Angelina
F- Sebastian Lopez
F- Sebastian Khoury
F- David Kozeav
Chicagoland Soccer Man of the Match: Sebastian Khoury, sr., F, Palatine
Referee: Mark Folta
Palatine: Khoury (unassisted), 31'
Palatine: Khoury (Afonrinwo), 60'
Buffalo Grove: Likhovid (PK), 80'
Shots on goal
Buffalo Grove: 2
Buffalo Grove: 6
Buffalo Grove: 0
Buffalo Grove: 2
Buffalo Grove: 11
Buffalo Grove: 2