Defense carried the days as Mid America Premier – the top-rated U10 soccer team in the region, and perhaps, now it can be said, the state of Illinois – took the gold in the Lincoln Soccer Tournament Sept. 16-17, defeating not only the top teams from downstate Illinois but the official youth team of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire.

Mid America started off the first day hot – in more ways than one. Temperatures were a sweltering 90 degrees during both the team’s games. And their first game, Saturday morning, was against the official U10 youth team of the MLS’ Chicago Fire. If ever there was the potential for an early upset, this seemed to be it.

However, Mid America would have nothing of it. They came out of the opening whistle with huge energy, dominating in the midfield and defense and shutting down the Junior Fire with relentless defensive pressure and offensive aggression, pressing against their offensive zone and keeping them locked on their side of the field for most of the game.

Still, the Fire were a formidable foe, and the game was knotted at nil-nil 10 minutes in. Mid America got on the board first, with Jackson Leary stealing the ball away from pressing Fire forward and battling through their zone down the line to deliver a perfect crossing pass to Lawson Zulu, who lasered it in for a 1-0 lead.

Zulu would follow suit shortly after, punching down the right corner before passing through the middle to Elijah De La Cruz, who barreled his shot through for a 2-0 tally.

The Fire weren’t quite put out yet, and they came back for a goal to make it 2-1 at half.

However, Mid America re-established their dominance again quickly into the second half, with Leary once again coming up with a big defensive play and delivering a pass up to Zulu for the goal and a 3-1 lead. A few minutes later, they padded out the lead to 4-1 as Adam Donaldson hustled up the sidelines and crashed the goal box, winning the ball and serving it up to Jonas Cortez, who punched it in for a 4-1 score.

The Fire would add a late tally on a sloppy own goal, but by then the win was well in hand for Mid America.

The afternoon’s game would offer nothing near that same level of intensity or excitement. Facing off against a Peoria Legends team that came in highly touted, but was quickly destroyed by Mid America. MAPS roared out to a 5-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game, to the point that the referee stopped keeping score, and the squad emptied their bench, with the starters resting the majority of the rest of the game. The final ended up 10-2, but even that made it seem far closer than it actually was, as Mid America was completely in control the entire time. MAPS easily won their bracket, setting them up for a semi-final match the next day and the path to the trophy.

On Sunday, the team was up bright and early for the semi-final against the SASA Spirits, a game which ended up being a nail-biter due to two missed calls that negated two early goals by Mid America.

The game started off in MAPS’ favor, with Elijah De La Cruz launching a shot from the right side that ricocheted off the goalie and towards the opposite end of the box. Jackson Leary, crashing the net, knocked in the shot for what should have been a 1-0 lead, but the opposing goalie, in a clever move, leapt upon the ball and rolled back into the field of play over the goal line. The referees weren’t in position to see that the ball had gone over the net for a goal and, seeing it in the goalie’s hands, didn’t call it a score.

A similar situation happened later on in the first half, as Adam Donaldson made a fantastic hustle play to chase down a ball just before it crossed the end line, then drilled a great pass across the box to Aydin Caras who punched it in for what should’ve been a 2-0 lead.

But, again, not so fast.

Despite Donaldson, with the ball, being mere feet from the end line, thereby making offsides a near impossibility, Caras was called for offsides and the goal was called back.

So, what should’ve been a 2-0 lead and a comfortable stretch for Mid America, was instead a nil-nil nail-biter.

Mid America would finally get on the board in the first half when Lawson Zulu would nail a nice crossing pass to Connor Wehr, who smacked it in for the team’s first (counting) goal and a 1-0 advantage. In the second half, Zulu would add another goal on an assist from Jonas Cortez to make it 2-0.

But, as with the rest of the game, it wasn’t so easy as that. An own goal mistake brought the score to 2-1 and MAPS had to play with its back against the wall the rest of the way. However, amazing hustle and tight defense, anchored by sweeper Cooper Barnes, who laid waste to the advancing opposition with herculean kicks out of the zone, brought MAPS to the victory and on to the championship game, against a Peoria Legends squad looking for revenge.

Whether it was the heat, rust or bad clams at the hotel, Legends had not played anywhere close to up to their name the previous day in being served hard by Mid America. But something clicked with the team, and they smacked their way to the final, beating the Junior Fire 1-0 to get out of their bracket, then surviving a gut-twisting semi-final against Mattoon that ended regulation and golden goal overtime 2-2 and went to penalty kicks, to see Legends survive by a 3-2 tally.

Legends was primed and ready to roll against Mid America, but once again MAPS turned to their greatest ally – a defense which just would not allow the opposition to get anything against them.

The Legends were shut down to a mere handful of shots as defenders swarmed them, denying them anything in the MAPS offensive zone and clearing it up to Zulu for two goals and Caras for a third as Mid America took the golden trophy with a 3-0 win in a hard-fought final.

In a classy move, MAPS coach Jason De La Cruz, acknowledging the heart and guts Legends had shown, invited them to share the winners’ podium, and all the players from both teams offered each other a hearty congratulations on a tournament played with heart, soul and excellent sportsmanship.

But in the end, once again, it would be Mid America bringing home that first place trophy, joining those gained in Elmhurst and Muscatine tournaments this season, and bringing the U10 Red Team’s record to a pristine 13-0, having beaten teams from throughout the state of Illinois and eastern and middle Iowa.

Sean Leary is an author, director, artist, musician, producer and entrepreneur who has been writing professionally since debuting at age 11 in the pages of the Comics Buyers Guide. An honors graduate of the University of Southern California masters program, he has written almost 30 books including the best-sellers The Arimathean, Every Number is Lucky to Someone and We Are All Characters.