Photo Credit: James E. Cage Jr.
NEW ORLEANS – An early headed goal from left back Mario Gratzl was neutralized by a late equalizer as AFC Mobile drew the New Orleans Jesters 1-1 in the first meeting of the clubs in the NPSL.
“I wanted us to come here, score a goal, get a point. When you look at the game in context, we’re winning, and then they score. So you start to feel disappointed because you’re in a winning position, but overall we accomplished our objective,” AFC Mobile head coach Steve Wieczorek said.
The match was fairly even at the start of the first half. The Azaleas were on the hunt early when the ball was picked up on a giveaway in the midfield by Mobile forward Iba Ndaw. Ndaw slotted the ball to Ronaldo Fortune, whose shot was saved by New Orleans keeper Jose Santos.
Minutes later, AFC Mobile keeper Will Blake saved an open back-post header from New Orleans’ Jackson Hulme, the first of several crucial saves for the visitors.
Mobile took the lead in the 15th minute on a well-worked corner kick. Soane Deminguet sent the ball into the box for Gratzl to head down and into the net, scoring the Azaleas’ first goal of the season and giving them a 1-0 lead.
The Jesters had two chances to equalize before the break, but were kept at bay by Blake with a fingertip save that tipped a long-range effort over the bar, followed by a 37th minute stop to keep the score level and send Mobile into the half with a 1-0 lead.
“You take it one save at a time,” Blake said. “I was talking to myself a lot, saying that ‘alright, just make one save, make one save.’ That adds up, and that’ll get you the points.”
The second half saw the introduction of two veteran AFC Mobile players for the first time since 2019. Zubair Taylor came into the game for Stanley Joseph, which sent center-back Vlad Margolin to right back, making the new center-back pairing Taylor and starter Thierry Zabarel. Andrew Rhoda checked in for Blake Palmquist in a deep midfield role. The Jesters switched to a back three after halftime and sent defender Mason Morise into an attacking position.
It was a slow start to the second half. Iba Ndaw saw a yellow card in the 61st minute after a tackle to stop a Jesters’ breakaway. The Azaleas nearly doubled their lead in the 63rd minute when Deminguet sent a backheel pass to a running Iba Ndaw in the box. The forward slotted the ball into the back of the net but was flagged offside. Minutes later, the Jesters’ Jackson Hulme was carded for a rough challenge in the midfield.
The Jesters nearly equalized in the 70th minute when Mason Walsh picked out Morise outside the box. He rounded an advancing Blake, but sent his shot wide right from a tight angle.
The last twenty minutes saw a flurry of substitutions for the Azaleas. Chisom Ogbonna came into the match for Iba Ndaw. In the 76th minute, Erik Aispuro replaced an injured Eddie Dakwa. Will Blake made two more crucial saves in the 77th minute after a New Orleans free kick and subsequent long-range effort.
In the 83rd minute, Erik Aispuro got in behind the Jesters’ backline, but Santos saved his shot. A minute later, Mobile’s goalscorer Mario Gratzl earned the Azaleas’ second yellow card of the night.
In the 90th minute, New Orleans’ Mason Walsh played in a right-footed cross that was bundled home by forward Sheldon Green after a goalmouth scramble, leveling the match at 1-1. A few minutes into stoppage time, Salia Carr came on for Jackson Wheatley on the right wing. Neither team was able to find the goal in stoppage time, and the game ended in a 1-1 draw in the first meeting of the clubs since a 2017 preseason friendly.
“The fact that after a hard-fought 90 minutes where we achieved our goals and the guys were disappointed and upset, it tells me a lot about the character of the guys that we have, so I was really really happy,” Wieczorek said.
The Azaleas have taken one point out of a possible six on a two-game road trip to start the NPSL season. Coach Wieczorek said he was anticipating the long-awaited return of the Azaleas to the Lip.
“I’m really excited about the next match and playing in front of our fans now. We got to have our traveling supporters come, and that was awesome. Getting to see that level of support from the Rebellion and also from the Academy families. But, I think it’s going to be special finally getting back in front of our home fans, and I think we’re gonna be ready and I think we’ll get the right result.”
AFC Mobile returns to the Lip for the first time since 2019. The Azaleas will take on their former GCPL and current NPSL Gulf Coast rivals Port City FC of Gulfport, Mississippi, in the first leg of the 2021 Forgotten Coast Cup. AFC Mobile currently holds the rivalry cup, which is determined by the aggregate score of the two matches between the teams during the regular season.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at the Archbishop Lipscomb Athletic Complex, 3610 Michael Blvd, Mobile, AL 36609. Tickets are $10, and children 12 and under are admitted for free. Season tickets are still on sale and can be purchased here or at Braided River Brewing Company in downtown Mobile (package A only). Single-game tickets can be purchased at the gate on the night of the match or online here.