Bulldogs get past North Stars on Larson goal
By Darryl Mellema
There is always this discussion about soccer teams wanting to score a “good goal” – something well-worked with a nice finish – when in reality, most teams would be happy if the ball went in off a thigh and crept over the line.
All goals, as the phrase goes, are good goals.
But there’s no denying that the goal Batavia scored to separate itself from St. Charles North on Tuesday was a “good goal.”
The goal came 5 minutes into the match when Brendan Allen worked well in midfield to claim a ball and send a pass to Ian Larson moving up the right wing. Larson brought the ball into the penalty area, cut it back to avoid a defender and then hit a sharp shot into the net.
That goal was all either team got in a 1-0 match that opened this year’s play in the Tri Cities Showcase. St. Charles East defeated Geneva 2-0. Both the evening’s matches were Upstate Eight Conference River Division contests.
“Allen stepping up in the midfield and being able to win it and play it quickly was great,” Batavia coach Mark Gianfrancesco said. “That’s what we want to do. Sometimes we get a little bogged down where we’re holding the ball too much where with one, two or three touches, we’re better moving it. (Allen) did it there and obviously it paid off with the game-winner.”
St. Charles North (2-8-2, 0-1-1) saw the goal as a situation where Larson was allowed to reach a one-on-one situation with North Stars keeper Kevin Sabres close to goal.
“We continue to have trouble with the way we defend,” St. Charles coach Eric Willson said. “Even though we gave up one goal, it was maybe one of the first opportunities they had in the first half and we defended it poorly. Often times in this game, that ends up being the difference between winning and losing.”
Through the match, the Bulldogs (10-2-2, 5-1) created a wide range of chances. In the first half, Brendan Allen hit the crossbar after 20 minutes, Heinz Leiferman had a left-to-right shot go wide.
“We did a good job creating those chances,” Gianfrancesco said. “I wish we would have put a few more away. That would have made the game a little easier for us.”
Batavia’s John Barnes was hugely influential in the contest, and in the second half, he created shots and had chances of his own in the second half. First he fed Joe Jorgenson for a shot that was blocked and then he shot wide.
“My touch felt pretty good tonight,” Barnes said. “My teammates were giving me the ball and I was getting it back to them. We had some offensive chances and we wish we could have finished some more.”
Later in the half, Kevin Collins shot high, and Ian Larson had a pair of chances, one which he shot wide and a second which was saved.
Meanwhile St. Charles North struggled to find more than occasional chances to balance Larson’s goal.
“We got a few chances,” Willson said. “I would like to see us put them on frame and at least make the keeper make a save. But ultimately, we just continue to force the issue offensively.”
The North Stars’ best chance came in the first quarter of the match when Phillip LeGare received a pass on the right wing, then centered for Ryan Olson to hit a shot that hit the crossbar.
“That comes from moving the ball well and getting it off the foot quickly and not feeling like you have to force the issue,” Willson said. “We did too much of that. Obviously I want us to be able to put the ball in the back of the net.”
When the North Stars did get the ball wide, LeGare was often the player on the ball. He set up the North Stars’ best chance near the midpoint of the first half when he took a pass on the right wing and sent the ball quickly through the penalty area for Ryan Olsen, whose shot struck the crossbar.
“We try and find him, obviously, as one of our target players, whether he’s playing up front or as one of the midfield players,” Willson said. “We try to get him the ball. You want to get your skillful players the ball a little more.”
But despite having corner kicks and other moments where the ball was near the Batavia penalty area, the North Stars struggled to get chances at goal.
“I think the guys have to get hungrier when we serve balls into the box,” Willson said. “There’s times we’re serving balls into the box and there’s one or maybe two guys in there to attack the ball. We’ve got to have more guys in there.”
Batavia favors a ball possession style of offense, and it is through players like Barnes that the ball moves when that system is working effectively.
“Playing some possession around the other guys, tiring them out, that’s a lot of fun to play soccer that way,” Barnes said.
In the second half, the Bulldogs took advantage of some quick counter attacking play to get the ball back into the St. Charles North penalty area. If the moves never resulted in goals, there were often dangerous chances created.
“What we wanted to focus on in the second half was finding our forwards, because we knew we could break their pressure,” Gianfrancesco said. “We did that quite a bit in the second half and broke a lot of their pressure and we had a lot of rushes.”
Toward the end of the match, the Bulldogs’ play was stretched, which led to more possession by St. Charles North and a succession of corner kicks Batavia had to defend.
“I hate making excuses,” Gianfrancesco said, “but it was our second match in two days and I think we looked a little tired. I think we were sitting back a little bit and didn’t have a lot of energy. But I think they communicated in the back and tightened up a little bit.”
As Barnes said, “I think that especially the last 10 minutes, we were back on our heels the whole time. I think that was due to our game (Monday), a little bit. But we were also in control of the game at that time, so it was kind of back-and-forth.”
For both teams, the artificial turf on Geneva’s Burgess Field marked a considerable change to the surface on which they usually compete, and play seemed cramped into the middle of the field as a result. Batavia’s home field is natural grass and thin.
“I think we would have liked it maybe a little wider,” Gianfrancesco said. “I think sometimes our outside mids weren’t as involved and when they did, we didn’t use them.”
In St. Charles North’s case, the natural grass surface has a history of suffering from poor drainage, leading to large areas that are grass-free by the end of the season.
“I think that guys are still maybe not as used to a huge field and maybe don’t utilize all of it,” Willson said. “There was definitely a lot of traffic, and that’s part of not trying to force things and trying to move it from side to side and use all of the field.”
Batavia split its goalkeeping duties between first half keeper John Faraone and second half keeper Nick Foster.
“They were solid, closing out and communicating,” Gianfrancesco said. “That’s how they’ve been all season.”
With keeper Billy Larsen ill and unable to play on Tuesday, Sabres played in goal for the North Stars. The sophomore sparkled, making a number of strong saves.
“I thought he did a nice job today,” Willson said. “He made some solid saves and he’s a nice keeper. He didn’t get to play any minutes as a freshman until the regional final against St. Charles East last year. He’s got some more minutes varsity-wise this year and I think he’s given us really good minutes. He’s really matured as a goalkeeper in just this one year and I’m really happy with what I’ve seen.”
St. Charles North has played four close matches in a row, starting with a 1-0 loss to Plainfield East. The North Stars tied Downers Grove North 1-1, fell to Leyden 4-3 and then lost Tuesday’s contest to Batavia.
“It tends to get frustrating sometimes,” LeGare said. “I try to look at the positive side of it and try to be a leader on the field and try to motivate the guys. These close losses are a matter of us putting the ball in the net and sometimes we don’t find it.”
Through 12 matches, the team has scored 13 goals. Take away the three-goal outburst against Leyden, and St. Charles North had 10 goals in 11 matches.
“That can be frustrating, but I think we’re getting better at it,” LeGare said. “We’ve seen multiple chances and we had those three goals against Leyden.”
Batavia has been unbeaten in 10 matches and concluded its UEC River series of matches with Tuesday’s contest. The Bulldogs will use their remaining matches to prepare for the IHSA tournament, which starts in two weeks.
“I like the way we’re playing defensively as a unit,” Gianfrancesco said. “We want to be consistent for 80 minutes, play the ball to feet and knock the ball around. We want to make sure we’re finishing the chances we get and that we’re framing the goal better.
“Against better teams, we’re going to have to finish more consistently and put them down. When you’re up 1-0 and they’re pressing you, we’ve got to be able to go the other way and finish. We got the counter going a couple of times today and we weren’t able to finish. If we can finish those opportunities, that puts the other team at a loss. When you get countered on, your heads go down.”