Two years after breaking onto the scene and becoming the largest high school boys soccer tournament in the Midwest and third largest in the country, the Pepsi Showdown continues to grow.
The 2006 field will consist of 34 teams, 32 of which will compete in the area's lone single-elimination tournament beginning Sept. 5.
"Last year was exciting, and I'm even more excited about this year's tournament," said Lyons boys soccer coach Alex Hernandez, whose school is the official IHSA host for the two-week tournament. "Things last year went off without a hitch, and that was because our administration did a great job making sure everything was set to host a prestigious tournament like this."
This year, Buffalo Grove and Jesuit (Calif.) also will be apart of the Showdown. The two programs will battle the area's best the second week of the five-day tourney.
"This tournament will be a spring for us one way or another," said Hernandez, whose team advanced to the Class AA state quarterfinals after finishing third in the Showdown a year ago. "It will either take us to another level or send us in a tailspin."
Considered by many to be one of the strongest showcases around, the 2005 field consisted of programs that combined had won 108 sectional titles and advanced to the state finals 55 times. Nine of those programs had won a state title, while 16 others had finished second since the Illinois state tournament began in 1972.
The 80-game tourney featured more than 600 players from 24 public schools and seven private schools. More than 90 communities were represented in the Showdown. Tournament and Chicago Fire officials are in the process of trying to finalize an agreement that would have the 2006 title game played on Sunday, Sept. 17 at the new Toyota Park after the Fire's battle with D.C. United on ESPN2.
"It was exciting looking around on the two Saturdays last year and seeing all the teams playing," Hernandez said. "To have all 34 teams at one site on the same day is what separates this tournament from the rest."
After posting a 22-2-3 record in 2005, many wonder if the Lions will come anywhere close to that mark this fall. With Tim Markham and Mark Zeman now playing at the next level, Hernandez is unsure who will replace 42 goals and 27 assists that the duo combined for last season.
"We don't have the superstars this year that we had last year," said Hernandez, whose team was seeded No. 12 in the Showdown and will host Streamwood on Sept. 5. "The key to our success will be playing consistent soccer. It's not going to be easy replacing the players that graduated."
Senior forward Kyle Luetkehans (eight goals, 21 assists) does return, however, and is the one person Hernandez is expecting big things from.
"We're going to be a totally different team this year," Hernandez said. "At this point, I'm not really sure where our talent level is going to be.
"But I know Kyle is going to be the leader, and we need him to be?"especially early in the year in a tournament like the Pepsi Showdown."