AFC Mobile pulled into second place in the Eastern Conference with a win over Hattiesburg FC on Saturday. The Azaleas were able to overcome a rough start, collect three points, and move into a playoff position despite missing two key players in Iba Ndaw and Tilman Schober.
The Azaleas fell behind early in the 8th minute. Following a free-kick from just outside the penalty area that goalkeeper Domenic Nascimben dove to the ground to save, Hattiesburg FC’s Tim Tuomikowki collected the rebound and chipped it into the net give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
“We definitely did respond very well tonight. To recover the game after what might be a slowish start, but the reality is I think we well and truly deserved to win tonight regardless of conceding at the start,” said AFC Mobile head coach Steve Wieczorek.
Mobile attempted to pull one back with chances from the club’s leading all-time leading goalscorer Chisom Ogbonna in the 16th and 19th minutes, but neither shot truly threatened Hattiesburg.
In the 28th minute, Ogbonna was brought down leading to a free-kick just outside the box. The birthday boy, Arad Lev-Ari, stepped up and hit a rocket of a free-kick to equalize for the Azaleas. Usually a force in the midfield for Mobile, Lev-Ari played in the forward position filling in for the injured Ndaw.
“It’s a new position for me. It’s kind of difficult to adjust to it. I didn’t get the ball as much as I usually get it,” said Lev-Ari, “but I think it worked well for the team. When I got the ball it was in good positions so I could either shoot or pass, so it worked out.”
“How we tried to penetrate them was a little bit different than how we’ve approached games in the past,” Wieczorek said. “Obviously, Arad certainly delivered with his mobility and his finishing.”
The Azaleas took the lead shortly after the start of the second half when Sam Blackburn slotted home the game-winner from a tight angle. Lev-Ari was involved with his second goal of the night after providing the assist.
“We made a bit of a change at halftime. Coach Steve was brave and made the decision to move me into an attacking right back position. He gave me a bit of a license to go forward and attack. I managed to find a little bit of space there. Arad, as he’s done so many times this season, managed to play a great pass and then I managed to do the rest,” said Blackburn.
The Azaleas created a few more chances throughout the second half but couldn’t find the back of the net. In the 72nd minute, Ogbonna played a great ball that nearly found the feet of Lev-Ari, but it was cleared by the visiting team. Despite not scoring, Ogbonna shined for the Azaleas putting in one of his best performances of the season on both sides of the ball.
The last 15 minutes of the game saw yellow cards shown to Mobile’s Eddie Dakwa and Ogbonna, as well as a chance for Hattiesburg hit the post, but the Azaleas managed to hang on and come away with a 2-1 victory.
The result leaves Mobile tied on points with conference-leaders Tallahassee SC at the top of the table, with the Battle Lions holding the second tie-breaker of goal differential by 2 goals. Gulf Coast Rangers, who were also tied on points with Mobile and Tallahassee going into Week 7, dropped to third place following a 2-0 loss to Tallahassee.
AFC Mobile will return to action this Saturday, June 29th, as they head to Gulfport to take on Port City FC in the second leg of the Forgotten Coast Cup. The Azaleas beat the reigning GCPL champions earlier this season at the Lip 3-1. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Herbert Wilson Stadium in Gulfport, Mississippi.