Waukegan soccer moving toward elite-level status

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If you’re looking for non-believers in Waukegan High School’s boys soccer program, the one and only place to look might be wherever at Palatine High that school’s varsity soccer team practices.

Back in August, Waukegan opened its season under new coach Peter Valdez and laid the proverbial egg, losing 4-2 to the Pirates. Given that result, it is the Pirate players who probably don’t believe in the Bulldogs.

Everybody else?

B-E-L-I-E-V-E.

Since that debacle, Waukegan’s soccer team went 6-0-1 in matches going into this week’s battle against highly regarded Evanston. And in the last four games leading up to Evanston, Waukegan had allowed no goals. Zero. Nil.

The fourth shutout in the streak was 2-0 over rival Zion-Benton — a contest in which Eric Hernandez and Jonathan Rojas got the goals, and keeper Roberto Flores made three saves, all of the routine variety.

“The defense has really gotten its chemistry together.” said first-year Waukegan coach Peter Valdez. “They understand each other a lot more. When the season started. I don’t think those four had played together before. There were some mental mistakes that we made in that first game that we corrected.”

Valdez moved up to coach varsity from the lower levels, and he has the team playing elite-level soccer.

“They definitely have made the right adjustments, like who marks who, and when we break zone to go to more of a man-to-man,” the coach said of his defensive players. “Their chemistry is really good.”

One of the backs is three-year starter and senior captain Osmel Ochoa.

“Our first game was pretty bad for us. After that game, we knew what we had to fix,” Ochoa said. “We worked a lot on our communication, and we’re using a formation that has helped us out. If you’re going to be strong in the back, you have to communicate well.”

Ochoa said it’s obvious the team is playing well-organized soccer coach this fall.

“Coach has been working with us on our touches. We pass the ball better and communicate more,” Ochoa said. “We’re a team that used the long ball a lot, but since that first game, he’s had us touching close and moving together down the field.”

Where Waukegan is still not perfect is in finishing in the box, and Valdez knows the second half of this season will be focused in that area.

“We still need to find that chemistry between the middle and the forwards,” Valdez said. “Once we do that, and we finish like we’re supposed to finish, the scores we’ll be more reflective of the possession and the style we implement.

“We’re still looking for that finisher. We’re trying different guys in different lineups and different roles,” he added. “We’re moving guys wide. Finishing is definitely something we need to work on. That’s our responsibility as coaches, and something (coach) Mike (Armour) and I will work on.”

Waukegan’s most high-profile player is Miguel Zavala. Valdez said he’s one of the best players in the state.

“We need to find a way where we can maximize his potential,” the coach said. “There are still some adjustments we need to make.”

Waukegan’s play impressed longtime Zion-Benton coach Cliff Pontillo.

“Waukegan does a nice job. Coach Valdez has a nice team,” he said. I hadn’t met him before, and he seems like a really good guy.”

As for his own team which has been scuffling a bit at 4-8-1, Pontillo said: “We’ve played a lot of soccer the last two weeks. We had seven games in 12 days. We have guys out and guys injured. Everything has kind of confluenced, and this is what you saw. It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Fortunately, our schedule loosens up, and we’ll get some of our guys back.”

Waukegan will host Maine South on Saturday in a Central Suburban League South Division match.

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