Real Jersey FC took the pitch on Sunday as the reigning USYS national champions in the Boys Under-17 division.

The New Jersey side won the crown in 2019 but was unable to defend it last year when the USYS National Championships were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Jersey side walked off the field as 2021 champions, with a 3-1 win over Sparta United (Utah), although there were some challenges involved in the tournament, played in the Sarasota and Bradenton, Fla. area.

Sunday’s final was also a revenge contest from earlier in the week for Real Jersey FC after falling to this same Sparta side, 2-0, in group play.

Real Jersey FC maintained a lot of possession from the onset, creating chances and earning three early corner kicks. In the 16th minute, Real Jersey FC goalkeeper Stephen Connor made an excellent save to keep the game scoreless.

While both sides had chances early on, Sparta United established possession in the attacking third. In the 31st minute, Sparta United took a 1-0 lead following a brilliant touch turn by Owen Knecht. As the first half elapsed, both teams continued to test each other’s defense. Ttwo sides traded scoring chances.

Real Jersey FC came out of the halftime break, continuing to apply pressure while keeping the ball in its attacking third. That pressure was rewarded in the 67th minute, moments before the hydration break, as Julian Pittaoulis netted a sensational goal to the top corner that equalized at 1-1.

Only six minutes later, the New Jersey team then converted again. Cade McGrath beat his man on the right side and served a ball to Andrew Kitch at the back post. Kitch headed home the goal to give his team a 2-1 lead. Just before the final whistle with two minutes to go, Milton Jones added an insurance goal to create a two-goal cushion at 3-1. Jones caused many problems for the Sparta United defense.

Real Jersey FC head coach Jon Kopytko said that the key to victory was being able to go through adversity.

“This final, we knew that there were going to be ups and downs, but the boys’ resiliency and experience showed well,” he said.

This past was a successful campaign for Real Jersey FC, scoring 14 goals in the competition.

Connor was recognized with the Golden Glove Award for his outstanding play.

“We were dominating games early,” he said. “With the heat, it was hard for us, but we had a solid two weeks of preparation before we came here. We were running and getting used to the heat in New Jersey so we could be prepared for it here.”

Pittaoulis also was awarded the Golden Ball, scoring three goals. He spoke about the equalizer and reflected back upon that special moment.

“Dribbling up the right side with the left center back coming on, I took a touch down since I was 1 v 1 with him,” he said. “I was not sure what to do, but with two quick stepovers, I took one in and hammered it home, upper 90.”

Nick Yushchak was recognized with the Best Eleven award for the greatest competitive impact in the 17U Boys Division. He expressed what it meant to him to be a back-to-back national champion.

“The first time you win, it is like the greatest thing in world,” he said. “However, the same emotions were there this year because every game is so competitive. It means just as much both times.”