AFC Mobile broke its own Gulf Coast Premier League attendance record Saturday night as a crowd of 1,465 watched the Azaleas suffer a narrow loss to Gulf Coast Rangers FC 2-0. The atmosphere for the first-ever matchup between local rivals featured a flyover by the US Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in a Search and Rescue MH-65 Dolphin helicopter on the club’s second ever Military Appreciation Night. The visitors from across the Bay were also welcomed by 10 of Mobile’s world-famous Azalea Trail Maids.
AFC Mobile now owns the top eight spots in the GCPL record books — one for each home league match in the club’s history.
“To our fans, y’all were great. We want to apologize for not getting the victory tonight, but I thought you would like the performance the guys put in,” AFC Mobile coach Nate Nicholas said. “We loved every second of having you guys here, we want to keep these numbers going up and up and up. We have a couple more home games and we need your support.”
The Azaleas had a bright start to the game. AFC Mobile’s leading goalscorer Chisom Obgonna ripped a shot from outside of the box that went wide left of the goal. Minutes later the ball was played back to Ogbonna in the box, but he was bogged down by the Ranger defense. The ball found its way to Erik Aispuro outside of the box, who tried to play it back to Ogbonna, but his pass floated back into the hands of Rangers keeper Xavier Audergon.
Mobile nearly took the lead in the 17th minute after a David Valverde free kick found Aispuro who headed the ball onto a streaking Matt Merrill, but Merrill’s left-footed shot was pushed wide by Audergon.
The first half was an even affair with good chances for both sides. In the 27th minute, Mobile keeper Elijah Gibson played the ball out of his box and was picked up by the Rangers’ Yan Livenu whose shot sailed over the crossbar.
In the 33rd minute, Valverde was taken down by a crunching tackle after a nice piece of footwork. He was replaced by Greg Hosford, who started for AFC Mobile’s reserve team in their 3-0 win over the Rangers reserves in midweek.
The Rangers’ best chances came toward the end of the first half. In the 43rd minute, former AFC Mobile player Moses Muhubao’s shot was saved by Gibson. Gibson came up with another big save one minute later off of the ensuing corner. But the tide turned in first-half stoppage time when defender Matthew Jakubik floated in a header over Gibson off of a Rangers free kick. The Azaleas went into halftime trailing Rangers 1-0.
“I think that goal was a momentum killer. It was an even game,” Nicholas said. “I don’t know that one team deserved to be ahead of the other at the time. But the guy went in unmarked but we had a little confusion in the back post. But to be honest with you he wasn’t even shooting the ball; he was heading it across and Elijah just couldn’t get to it.”
Rangers would start the second half on the front foot. Rangers’ Andrew McInnis sent a shot just wide after tight pressure from Brantton “Sunshine” Greene.
In the 60th minute, Rangers’ Alex Wichmann was shown a yellow card. Seconds later, Audergon came up big with another great save off of a header on an AFC Mobile free kick.
Two more yellow cards were shown in the 74th and 76th minutes to Rangers’ Sergi Cebrian and Mobile’s Guillermo Lumbreras, Jr.
The record crowd thought the Azaleas had equalized in the 85th minute after Abdal Almutairi pressured Audergon to win the ball. Audergon appeared to lose his footing after initially avoiding Almutairi’s approach, and Almutairi took advantage, tracking back to the loose ball and slotting it home into the open net while Audergon lay on the ground. Two minutes later, after Mobile had finished celebrating and had set up to resume play from the center circle, Audergon remained down and the official reversed his initial award of the goal, claiming Almutairi had fouled Audergon. Audergon would finish the game, including a total of 8 minutes of stoppage time, in goal for the Rangers.
“I didn’t argue too much that it got called back,” Nicholas said. “I just thought it was a little wishy-washy for [the official] to let everybody come back and celebrate and he’s already running back to midfield and he thinks about it…and their goalkeeper lays on the ground. I thought, for him, it was a pretty poor performance. If that’s a foul then you’re literally right there. He was within 15 yards of the play. If it’s a foul he should’ve called it a lot earlier, rather than let both teams get back in midfield and set up for it. That’s just my view. I thought it was poorly done.”
The Rangers doubled their tally late in stoppage time after Gibson pushed up into the midfield on an AFC Mobile corner. Former AFC Mobile captain Nathan Gillespie got behind the forward-playing Mobile keeper on a counter-attack and slotted home a garbage-time goal to give the visitors a 2-0 win. The loss leaves AFC Mobile in fourth place, but the Azaleas remain third in points per game, having two games in hand on Pensacola FC and Gulf Coast Rangers.
Next week, AFC Mobile will travel to Pensacola to take on GCPL Eastern Conference leaders Pensacola FC. Kickoff is at 7 pm at Ashton Brosnaham Stadium.
The Azaleas will return to The Lip in two weeks to face GCPL out-of-conference opponent Alexandria FC. Kickoff is at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 23rd at the Archbishop Lipscomb Athletic Complex located at 3610 Michael Boulevard in Mobile. Tickets are $5 and children 12 and under are admitted free.