Two days of dreary skies and gray weather gave way to sunshine at the Jefferson Cup on Sunday, and as the wind picked up, so did the action. At West Creek, a marquee matchup in the U17 Championship division pitted the talk of the tournament, Aztecs FC of San Diego, against the always-solid Herndon FC of Virginia.
Having downed Georgia's Cobb FC with a late winner on Saturday, coach Hector Diaz and his Aztecs might have been looking for something a little more comfortable against Herndon. But the white-clad Virginians refused to cooperate.
Both teams showed signs of fatigue in the early going, with the play somewhat unsettled. Herndon used superior size and strength to their advantage, often choosing to create space with bigger bodies, then fire shots at the Aztecs goalkeeper. The Aztecs defense showed signs of distress, including several lazy square passes between defenders that allowed Herndon to create chances. Herndon’s forwards were active and aggressive, pressuring the Aztecs into mistakes.
The Virginians got on the scoreboard first when Patrick McLaughlin unleashed a shot at the Aztecs goal, saw it saved, then followed up with his head to put in the rebound. The goal put Herndon in front, but also seemed to wake up the Californians. Aztecs FC began to find their passing and increased their pressure on the Herndon defense earning a string of corners.
The Herndon 'keeper was forced to push an Aztecs shot over the bar in one sequence, nearly bringing the game level. Holding the advantage in possession, but wary of the problems Herndon’s size presented them, Aztecs chose to play short corners in almost every instance. The strategy yielded just one shot, which failed to make its way through traffic and onto goal.
Much of the first half was characterized by an escalation in physical play and rash challenges. Players from both sides made it difficult for the referee to maintain control, and words and shoves were exchanged on multiple occasions. Aztecs in particular had trouble dealing with the turn in the game's tenor. Though it disrupted their rhythm for the latter portion of the first half, the Californians did manage to put home the equalizer. After playing a short corner that resulted in a wayward cross, the ball was put back across from the right side, where Jonathan Martinez connected on a volley that the Herndon 'keeper.
The second half immediately brought Aztecs FC a chance to nose ahead. Joshua Warren went down in the box from a Herndon challenge, winning a penalty. Midfielder Mario Rubio stepped up to take it, but picked the same side as the Herndon 'keeper, who caught the shot to preserve the tie.
Physical play continued, culminating in a red card for Aztecs FC. With neither side willing to back down, it seemed unlikely that the game would end in a stalemate and fifteen minutes left plenty of time for one of the teams to find a winner.
Martinez found himself in a one-on-one with Herndon’s goalkeeper, but saw his shot tipped aside. As the pace of the game slowed from tired and sore legs, chances became fewer and farther between. Herndon’s best chance at a winner came from a set piece opportunity on the left wing. A glancing header directed the ball towards goal, but a teammate's ensuing attempt to head it on target flew just over the bar.
In the end, it was Aztecs FC that overcame the fatigue to pull out the victory. Rubio, who was man of the match for the Californias with his distribution and willingness to go at the Herndon defense, put home a deft header in the final three minutes to seal the win for this side.
Herndon began the brief two-hour trip home and will begin looking toward their next challenge, while the Aztecs have over 3,000 miles to savor their successful weekend at one of the top events on the country. No doubt their cross-country journey home will feel just a little bit shorter as a result.