By Bob Narang

The 16th Annual PepsiCo Showdown Boys is a high school sporting event unlike any other, featuring 64 high schools, 2,000 boys soccer players, more than 175 communities and nearly 130 games in a 14-day span.

And to top it off, all of those schools and players are at Inwood Soccer Complex in Joliet on back-to-back Saturdays – starting with 32 games on Sept. 8 for Opening Day – and finishing with a massive celebration on Sept. 23 at Robert Morris University’s Sports Complex in Arlington Heights for Championship Saturday.

This fall, PepsiCo Showdown boys players also will make a difference in the lives of 64 children from military families. Each event, the PepsiCo Showdown brackets are named after a local charity/nonprofit to bring awareness, engagement and exposure to that cause. This time, however, the brackets are named after the U.S. Armed Forces: Army, Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard.

Let’s meet the NATIONAL GUARD BRACKET OF THE 2018 PEPSICO SHOWDOWN BOYS (CHICAGO): Miss the LIVE seeding show? CLICK HERE to see coverage. 

The teams, the seeds: Lincoln-Way Central (1), Parker (2), Herscher (3), Homewood-Flossmoor (4), Garcia (5), Ridgewood (6), Schurz (7), Little Village (8), Willowbrook (9), DePaul Prep (10), Lake View (11), Richards (12), Naval Academy (13), Muchin Prep (14), Evergreen Park (15) and De La Salle (16). CLICK HERE to see the bracket.

Top players: Parker midfielder Joey Stern; Willowbrook goalie Mario Giase; Lincoln-Way Central midfielders Connor Erickson and Breandan Brannigan; Herscher forward Jake Allen and midfielder Jacob Schultz; Little Village midfielder Axel Acosta; Richards midfielder Younes Ahmed; Homewood-Flossmoor midfielder Kyle Butler.

Top teams: After winning nine games in 2017, Lincoln-Way Central has its sights set high. Four key returnees are back, mixed in with some talented first-year varsity players. Connor Erickson and Breandan Brannigan, though, are the key players to watch, according to coach Sean Fahey.

“Connor and Breandan are the engines and glue to our team,” Fahey said. “Connor is easily our hardest worker and one of our best players.”

Parker is another team to watch, led by Joey Stern, Dylan Jung, Daniel Mansueto and Jarad Albert.

Herscher returns plenty of firepower from last season’s Class 1A sectional championship team. Jake Allen, Bascom Jackson and Jacob Schultz are among the headliners.

“We look to take the next step in the postseason this year and return to state,” Herscher coach Alan High said. “We’re exceptionally fast and have a good returning core.”

Dark horse team: Garcia. Led by varsity captains Diego Vazquez and Marc Alvardo, Garcia returns some solid pieces, and coupled with work on their defensive awareness and individual skill development, it could be a mover and shaker in the bracket. Garcia coach Eduardo Balderas said having a solid goalie in Vazquez is key to the team’s long-range potential.

“Diego always motivates everybody to try their best and gives advice to our younger players, especially when defending,” Balderas said.

Interesting note: Willowbrook is optimistic on its chance to be a contender in the West Suburban Gold and top last season’s 7-11 record. With senior goalie Mario Giase, a three-year starter in the net, Willowbrook coach Eddie Delacruz is not worried about his team’s new back line.

“Team chemistry will be huge if we want to be successful,” he said.

Did you know: Muchin Prep entered the tournament as one of the least experienced teams. After winning 13 games last season, Muchin Prep graduated 16 seniors. With a varsity roster of between 16 to 18 players, Muchin’s players mostly hail from the Chicago Metro area, with most of them from service families.

“We will put out a quality 11, but our depth is questionable,” said Muchin Prep coach David Underwood, who won a state championship at Wheaton Academy. “We don’t have a ton of experience. The key will be how well our back line defends.”

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