The third time certainly was the charm for Real New Jersey Football Club
. Two times the New Jersey-based team went to the U.S. Youth Nationals and twice the squad came home empty handed. What made it even more excruciating was the fact that Real lost the Boys 14U final in 2018 in the last 10 seconds of the game.
This year, Real emerged as Boys 15U National Champions.
"We were the most experienced team in our age group," head coach Jon Kopytko said. “That was able to give us a bit of advantage in regards on how to prepare and what to expect and things along those lines. It was really a business trip for us."
"We had a goal from the second the final whistle blew last year. We got together right after the game, huddled up and just how it was going to be our goal to get back to this moment, which we were able to do. We felt like if we could get back to that game, we would be able to win it" Kopytko explained. Which Real did, as they defeated PA Dominion (Pennsylvania) in the final, 2-0.
The key to Real's success?
"Our perseverance and our character," Kopytko said. "Everybody points to the talent. I'm not going to take that away from a very, very talented group. These boys have created a family within this club. We're a young club. They're the oldest team within the club and everybody looks up to them. Their attitude towards training is at a very, very high level. That allows them to have the ability to improve their game and represent our club very well and expose themselves to high-level situations because of the mature age."
He describes this Real team as very coachable. "That's significant because you have a group like this," Kopytko said. "They're 14- to 15-year-olds. Some kids think they know it all, but these boys are very open to being coached. They take the information at all our meetings and they would apply it to the field."
If one thing defined the Jersey side, it was its ability to strike multiple times over a short period. In fact, in its five games, Real scored two goals within a five-minute span in four matches. It started when Cade McGrath and Milton Jones tallied within a minute of each other in the team's tournament opener.
"We felt like we had a very, very dangerous attack, arguably the best that was there," Kopytko said. "I think we might have scored the most goals throughout the tournament in our age group. We missed a lot of other opportunities that were very good ones. We felt in a certain amount of time in a certain situation that we could score. I don't think it was luck. It was the result of constant pressure that we were able to put defenses under. Sometimes, ironically it was just so happened we were able to score in a short amount the time."
Real did not exactly start its road to the championship on the best foot, losing to PPA KSA 04 Pro-Profile (Georgia), 3-2, on July 23. Real enjoyed a two-goal advantage but allowed its rivals to score three unanswered goals en route to win.
"That was funny because last year we went undefeated in group play," Kopytko said. "We only gave up one goal going into the national championship. I do believe this year because of the ups and down we had during group play I think it actually us to prepare for the semifinal and final. As coaches, we looked at ourselves and looked at where we needed to be better and the kids had a more open mind because we did not run through. It was a tough group."
With its backs against the wall, Real went out and recorded a 4-0 triumph over Nationals Union 04 Black (Michigan) on July 24. McGrath and Andrew Kitch found the net in the first half and Milton Jones struck twice within a three-minute span late in the match.
What made the victory even sweeter was that Real avenged its heart-breaking 2018 final loss, a 2-1 result. "That was kind of a revenge game for us," said Kopytko, who did not need to motivate his team for another reason. "After losing our first game, we were playing for our lives," he added. "We had all the motivation we needed going into that game."
So Real entered its final group game against needing only a draw against NY Stars Premier Galaxy (Eastern New York) on July 25 to reach the semifinals. There were no consecutive quick goals in this encounter, but McGrath equalized in the 75th minute for Real, which walked off the field with a 1-1 tie. "We just played them in the EDP Conference Cup final prior to national," Kopytko saids. "We beat them in the championship there, so we knew they were going to be extra motivated there. Also, they needed to win to move on and we needed to tie or win."
That set up a July 27 semifinal confrontation with Downtown LVSC 04 Gold (Nevada) in the first match-up between these two teams. Not surprisingly, Real struck twice within a two-minute span on goals by Jones and Joseph Cino to grab a 2-0 lead. Only three minutes after Downtown sliced the advantage in half, Andrew Kitch restored the two-goal margin before Downtown scored later on in what turned into a 3-2 Real win.
"Downtown was a very tough team but we were able to persevere," Kopytko said. "It was a little bit of a nail-biter towards the end of the game. We just had a few breakdowns on the defensive end that kept them in the game." It took a while before Real could break through in the July 28 final in a rematch with PA Dominion, another National League EDP Conference side, but the New Jersey squad did it in typical fashion, scoring twice within a five-minute span in the second half.
"We're essentially rivals," Kopytko said of the two National League EDP Conference teams. "We're relatively close to each other. We're talking about the nationals. About 35-40 miles from one another. We felt like we had control of the game. So even going into halftime when it was 0-0 -- even though we would have loved to have been up. We had a few chances. I was confident and was pleased with the way the boys were playing. They stuck to the game plan precisely and I did feel in the second half that one point we would break through. I didn't want to wait until the last eight minutes of the game. But nonetheless, it worked out and we preserved and got through."
The 68th-minute game-winner started off a goal kick as the team worked the worked the ball up the field. The ball eventually went to McGrath, who took on two players, ran into the penalty area and went 1 v 1 with the goalkeeper before depositing it into the back of the net.
Five minutes later, Real was celebrating again connecting off a combination play. McGrath played the ball to Jones. A defender a deflected the pass. Two Dominion defenders were undecided on who would get the ball as Jones got possession. The keeper came out of the net and Jones had an open net for the 73rd-minute insurance goal in the 2-0 victory. When Kopytko heard the final whistle and his team had its national championship, "it was just a sense of relief before the excitement," he se said. "Last year, the boys, I thought they deserved to win," he continued. "They put in a ton of work. It just didn't work out for them. This year, there was a huge amount of work once more and to see them actually persevere, from the parents and the players, there obviously was a sense of excitement and also there was a sense of relief."
Kitch, who can play midfielder and forward, and Jones, a forward, were named to the tournament's Best XI. "They're two very, very special players, arguably the two most special players of the tournament," Kopytko said. "Milton's probably the most dangerous attacking player in the whole tournament; 1 v 1 1 v 2 even, he was handful. Andrew Kitch was very versatile. He was able to kill the game as a defensive center mid but when he was moved to a forward position, he was able to get after you 1 v 1 as well and be very, very dangerous."
When asked if he wanted to mention any other players who stood out, Kopytko admitted "it's tough. I would love to mention them all. They all did really well." Real had 12 players who played most of the minutes during the tournament, according to the head coach.
"On a game-by-game basis, including our goalie, nine to 10 players who played the whole game," Kopytko said. "Our back four never came off the field. We ended up having an injury after the first half of the first game, but once that center back subbed in, he never came off the field after that.
With the high school season looming, Real probably won't get the team back together until mid to late October.
"There are pros and cons to every situation," Kopytko said. "One of the pros of playing high school is i think they play for the fun, playing with kids, some of their best friends, to represent their high school in the town they live in, more from a social aspect. I'm ok with it. We'll reconvene and start the road to defend our title."