Playing in sloppy, wet field conditions due to sporadic rain fall did not seem to put much of a damper on the quality of play during McLean’s 4-2 non-district boys’ soccer win at Oakton last Friday evening, April 16.
Both teams displayed some wonderful grit during a contest in which it appeared, in the first half at least, that the talented Highlanders were on their way to an easy victory.
McLean, a seasoned squad and certainly one of the Northern Region’s best clubs this spring, improved its record to 6-0-1 on the season. Meanwhile, Oakton, in a rebuilding phase of sorts under its first year head coach, Todd Spitalny, saw its season record slip to 2-4.
Oakton, trailing 2-0 at halftime, stormed back with a pair of goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half to tie the score at 2-2. But seven minutes later, McLean senior midfielder Tim Whitebread, from about 12 yards away off the left wing area, grounded the ball into the left side of the net for a tie-breaking score to give the Highlanders a 3-2 advantage. A hard McLean offensive rush off the right side helped set the tally up.
Twenty minutes later, with just over three minutes remaining, McLean all but put the game out of reach on a score by senior forward Matt Janssen, set up on a Whitebread corner kick.
McLean, following Oakton’s early second half goals that had tied the game, displayed its fortitude by answering with the game’s final two scores.
“It says something about the character of the team this year,” said Johnny Sims, McLean’s senior forward who scored a first half goal in the win. “We won’t get our heads down.”
Oakton showed no quit either, coming out in the second half with an intensity and fire that resulted in the Cougars getting right back in the contest. The Cougars, trailing 2-0, got their first goal of the night on a close-range header shot by junior midfielder Noah Merlin, who aggressively dove towards an oncoming corner kick ball to get his head on it and re-direct the ball into the net.
Charlie Ahn, a junior midfielder, earned the assist by kicking the corner shot that led to the goal.
The revved up Oakton team continued to pressure the Highlanders and, several minutes later, scored the equalizer when junior midfielder George `Bubba’ Delgado, following a nice move to free himself up for a shot off the left side, scored with 30 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the second half to make it 2-2.
But the Highlanders re-gained control thereafter with two of their own scores to land the win.
<b>THE HIGHLANDERS</b>, in the first half, opened the game’s scoring 11 minutes into the action on a goal by senior midfielder Pablo Chovil, whose lofting 15-yard shot landed high into the left side of the net for a 1-0 McLean lead.
“Johnny and I were pressuring [the goal area during a rush] and I was lucky enough to get to the ball first and get the goal,” said Chovil.
Later in the half, McLean’s Sims scored off the left side from 10 yards out. The score, which came with 6:22 remaining in the half, was set up nicely off a free kick from around the midfield area off the foot of senior defenseman Ben Paris.
McLean, with each win, seems to grow more and more confident. But the Highlanders, coached by Mike Anderson, are not about to take anything for granted with several weeks still remaining on the schedule.
“As a team we’re firing on all cylinders right now,” said Sims. “The season has been phenomenal. We’ve come together as a unit. The win [over Oakton] is great for morale. But we have to make sure we don’t forget that our next game is just as important.”
Spitalny, in his first season at Oakton following several seasons as the Thomas Jefferson High girls’ head soccer coach, said the Cougars have shown good improvement over the course of the season thus far. The team lost its first three games this spring before getting victories over Chantilly, 1-0, and Washington-Lee, 2-1, going into the McLean game.
The coach, whose team was missing starters Ahmed Ismail, Andrew Hippe and Alvaro Cabal against McLean, credited the visiting Highlanders.
“McLean played very hard, very solid,” said Spitalny. “Their center midfielders were dominant with their tackles. They are ranked No. 5 [in area polls] for a reason.”
Spitalny, who led the Jefferson girls to a district title, is looking to build the Oakton boys, who were 4-6-1 last year, into a winner.
“It’s about changing the culture and we’re doing that,” he said. “These guys for a long time haven’t believed they could win. But we’ve outplayed opponents. It’s always [a mistake] late in the game, a little bit of panic and the feeling that we won’t win.”
Spitalny, the travel team coach of both the Braddock Road 94 Elite boys as well as the Northern Virginia Royals U-15 boys’ summer team, loves the makeup of his Oakton team, led by tri-captains Sean Zewe, Alvaro Cabal, both seniors, and Ahn, who is a junior. He calls Zewe, a defender, his `Mr. Dependable.’
“This is a great group of kids,” said Spitalny, of his team.
The loss to a talented McLean team hardly dampened the Cougars’ spirit.
“So far, our season is going very well, although the [win-loss] results aren’t going as well,” said Ahn, one of the Oakton tri-captains and a travel team member of the McLean Academy U-17. “We have a good roster and some real quality players. We’ve come into the season with a different attitude. We need to work on executing in front of the goal. Our strengths are speed, passing and keeping the ball.”