It was a big day in the soccer world on Saturday, April, 21st. No, I am not talking Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in El Clásico (spanish for "The Classic" for those who struggled in spanish like me) as the two world super powers of La Liga took a backseat to Lakeside Field's Chicago Cup. The stakes were high as Fox Soccer Channel was on hand to cover the event and put an awkward spotlight on the currently injured Lepe Seetane. Seriously, how uncomfortable does that look for Mr. Seetane just standing on the sideline opposite of the benches with a camera in his face. Also, the Fox Soccer crew looked more like they were reporting for the The Daily Northwestern than a worldwide station, but hey, at least they were there.
Anyhow, the local derbies kicked off with the DePaul Blue Demons taking on the host Northwestern Wildcats. Last fall, DePaul (6-11-2) upset Northwestern (11-5-5) by a shocking score of 4-0 over at Wish Field, below the Fullerton "L" stop, providing NU with the wake up call they needed to propel them to the Big Ten crown. Northwestern went 8-0-3 after the DePaul loss until finally falling to Akron in the NCAA tournament. So, despite this being a Spring game, NU came into the match with something to prove, not to mention former NU Director of Operations, Mark Plotkin returning to Lakeside Field now as a DePaul assistant coach donning the royal blue and scarlet he once sported as a player for the Blue Demons. The 'Cats reversed fortune this time around downing the Blue Demons 3-0 on goals from Connor Holloway, Reed Losee, and Chris Ritter. I spoke with DePaul 1st Team All-Big East midfielder, Antonio Aguilar, after the game and he told me that Ritter really dominated the game offensively from his roaming center/right midfielder position dissecting the Blue Demon defense by picking his moments and playing penetrating balls along with tallying a goal of his own.
With the Northwestern victory, they would advance to the championship game later that night facing the winner of the second match of the day which featured an undermanned University of Illinois-Chicago Flames team, 9-7-3 last season, against a Loyola Ramblers squad that went 7-12-2 overall, but got hot at the right time winning the Horizon League tournament championship to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Ramblers snuck by the Flames on Saturday by a goal to set up a date with the Wildcats for Sheridan Road bragging rights.
Watching the championship match of the prestigious Chicago Cup, it was clear that Northwestern was the better side, but Loyola, never an easy opponent no matter if there is a talent disparity as there was Saturday, played the 'Cats to a 0-0 tie in regulation resulting in a Penalty Kick shootout (recapped below). In the first half, Northwestern had numerous chances to go ahead but could not finish. I thought left back Scott Lakin looked particularly dangerous using his speed to attack down the left flank sending in multiple crosses inside the six that nearly put the 'Cats on the scoreboard. Lakin can really be an asset for the Wildcats in the 4-4-2/diamond midfield formation with the freedom it gives the outside backs if he can consistently get up and down the field and send in accurate crosses. Lakin also got my unofficial vote for the Sportsmanship award with a nice tap of the ball out of bounds with a Loyola player down. I'm a real advocate of sportsmanship these days since FIFA 2012 is promoting it by making you automatically kick it back to the other team when there's an injury in the video game, something former assistant coach Rich Nassif used to, very admirably I might add, do manually.
Throughout the game, Ritter was again, making the game look easy being technically smooth and using great field vision to create opportunities. Rising Senior Captain and centerback, Jarrett Baughman looked composed as well leading the defense to an impressive 6th shutout in six games this spring. Baughman paired with sophomore Nikko Boxall provide NU with a very formidable duo for a defensive unit that once again looks like it will be near the top in the Big Ten. Baughman also played a little center forward at the end of the game in an attempt to pick up a last minute tally in a 3-4-3 formation. Lenahan, I imagine, was also using the moment to practice situational play for next fall for when they are down a goal. In this game, going down a goal was never much of a concern as Loyola mustered very few opportunities sans a cool looking flip throw that bounced inside the six. Coach Lenahan very easily could have put a hologram of goalkeeper Tyler Miller back there and this game still might have went to PK's since Loyola didn't test him, although, it's debatable whether hologram Miller (or Tupac) would have been able to make a save in the shootout. This would also probably be an NCAA violation making this idea irrelavent considering the hologram would cost six figures, though Coach Calipari would probably sign one to a 1 year contract, err, scholarship for the more famous Wildcats of Kentucky.
In then end, penalty kicks would decide who would be hoisting the Chicago Cup. I'm probably the only one, but, I still think instead of PK's, they should go with the dribble up shootouts that the MLS used to deploy. Sure, they made a mockery of the game on a global level, but they were ridiculously exciting and the only reason I went to Chicago Fire games in the late 90's. This less-sweet shootout would come down to the final kick tied 3-3 after Losee, Grant Wilson and Kyle Schickel converted for the 'Cats. Ironically, Nick Gendron clanged his PK off the crossbar after I gushed about how clutch he is in my first post. I take it all back, the guy is a choke artist now (just kidding, Nick). Miller came up with one big save coupled with another Loyola miss setting the stage for Ritter to win it. Ritter calmly finished the fifth PK ripping off his shirt and proving it was clearly the turf's fault when he missed high against Indiana. The game winning penalty kick solidified Northwestern as Chi-town's Finest soccer team. The defending Big Ten Champions are now 4-0-2 in Spring play (the shootout victory technically counts as a tie) and will look to finish the spring season strong with exhibitions at University of Chicago against the Maroons and Lewis University next weekend.