Julian Pittaoulis is known as a jokester by his teammates on the Real Jersey FC 2004 boys team, but there was nothing funny about the goal he scored in the 67th minute of their U.S. Youth Soccer national final on Sunday.
Down 1-0 to Sparta United after already losing to them once in group play, Pittaoulis — a second half substitute — gathered an upfield pass from Dylan Petke, pushed past one sliding defender and after taking on another defender in the box unleashed a rocket that was precisely what his team needed in the moment.
“I’m seeing him take a big touch by the second to last defender he got by and then I see him going to goal so I kind of just let him do his thing,” said teammate Cade McGrath. “Then seeing him put that goal away I mean, he’s a good player, he’s done it in practice before so it wasn’t that much of a surprise but I’m not sure he’ll ever score another goal like that in a bigger moment.”
Just seven minutes later, McGrath was combining with Pittaoulis on the right flank to set up the eventual game winner from Andrew Kitch, who headed home a cross from McGrath, who had done well to beat his man near the corner flag.
“Julian came off the bench, dribbled past three kids, hit a rocket top corner and gave us a lot of momentum,” Kitch said. “I put 90 percent of that onto him. Without his goal we don’t get the momentum and we aren’t able to open the game up and get a second and a third.”
The third goal came off a counter in the 88th minute from Milton Jones, who took his cleat off and pretended it was a phone while running to a pile of his teammates near the corner flag. Head coach Jon Kopytko and assistant Ian Carmelia were right in the middle of the celebration.
“I don’t celebrate like that often,” Kopytko said. “It’s pure excitement, pure joy for the boys.”
The 3-1 win put Real Jersey FC into rare company as back-to-back champions after winning the national championship as U15s in 2019 (the 2020 competition was canceled due to Covid-19). They were also in the national final in 2018 but fell 2-1 to Nationals Union.
While most of the starters from that 2018 team are still on this year’s edition, Pittaoulis got to experience a national title run for the first time. A South Philly resident on an almost entirely South Jersey-based team, Pittaoulis played previously for the Philadelphia Union Academy and has also played for FC Delco.
“I remember watching when they won the national championship before thinking that’s really cool, I would love to win a national championship,” Pittaoulis said. “It was never something that I thought could actually happen for me though because I was playing academy at the time.”
Team captain Nick Yushchak, who has been part of four straight national championship runs and three straight finals, said winning it all felt even better the second time around.
“I think the games we had, some of them were a little tougher, it was hotter and we went through a lot of adversity together,” Yuschak said. “We’ve become a lot closer too as a team through everything.”
The good news for Sparta United and the other teams in their age group is that the boys in blue from South Jersey won’t have a chance to play for a third straight national title next year at the U18 level.
After fielding U13 and U14 teams in the inaugural season of MLS Next, Real Jersey FC will have teams all the way up through the U19 level for 2021-2022. The decision to move the team into the higher level of competition was done in part to give players added exposure to top college coaches and pro scouts.
“I think winning back-to-back puts us in an elite category and kind of cements for us that we are one of the best youth soccer teams ever in the country,” Kopytko said. “Part of me wishes we could go out at U18 and U19 because I think without a doubt we would be there but there’s bigger fish to fry for the boys.”
For Pittaoulis, playing in the MLS Next league will mean a return to the top youth competition in the country.
“I’m ready to do some more there and get a challenge in MLS Next but it’s still cool to say this team went back-to-back and I got to be part of it this year,” Pittaoulis said.
In the end, a pretty big part too.