Top-ranked Mandarin boys soccer working to stay undefeated as playoffs near

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Mustangs opened the season 9-0, outscoring the opposition by 40 goals. The average score of a Mandarin game this year? 9-1.

On Tuesday, they drew with Bartram Trail 1-1.

To put it bluntly, Mandarin has been dominant. On good teams, there is a potent goal scorer and perhaps a top creator.

Mandarin has choices.

Senior midfielder Adis Mesic is both a creator and a goal scorer. His 11 assists rank 14th nationally. He has also scored 15 goals, to lead the team. That goal total is one ahead of senior forward Antonio Mancinotti’s 14 goals. Together, they’ve scored more than most teams in the area.

“Because we’re totally interchangeable on the front line. That’s difficult to defend, provided that there’s movement,” said Mandarin coach Jason Cooley. “If we’re moving, we’re good.”

After a break for the holidays, Mandarin will be back on the pitch on Jan. 4 hosting Nease. Then it’s away to Atlantic Coast the following day and a home match with Tallahassee Chiles on Jan. 7. The regular season concludes with home games against Deland on Jan. 17 and Paxon on Jan. 19. Then the playoffs begin. That’s when the Mustangs want to be playing at their best.

Last year the Mustangs advanced to the Final Four before losing to Tampa Plant. While Cooley says this team, like that one, is a very technical team, there are two areas in which they are better: experience and closeness.

The team was brought closer together during the just-completed World Cup. Usually played in the summer months, the November and December schedule in Qatar allowed for the team to watch matches together before heading out to practice sessions.

“This is the last time we’ll ever see this in our lifetime. You know, high school had been World Cup games during school, especially so you know, we take a time for practice, set it aside for later and then watch the World Cup together. And we’ve had different opposing you know, sides who would be voting for it’d be really cool. But that was really awesome moment.”

Watching on monitors in the locker room, the players identified some of the concepts that Cooley teaches and the team employs. And then there was the picking of sides.

“That was a great team experience,” said defender Kristian Palenik. “It was fun. You know, we’re happy Argentina won. Argentina on top.”

Mandarin’s attacking philosophy also makes facing the Mustangs difficult to prepare for. Using aspects of the Dutch Total 90 Football approach, Mandarin interchanges their attacking players on the fly.

Cooley likes where his team is at this point in the season, but he also acknowledges that on any given match day Mandarin can be beaten.

“It’s soccer,” Cooley said. “You can lose on any day? Right now, we’re kind of injured. Injuries are one thing,” Cooley said. “They’re happy go lucky. And just you know, we’ll see where it ends up. It’s a fantastic journey. I’ve got a bunch of really awesome seniors.”

With five games remaining in the regular season, the Mustangs’ goal is clear.

“The ultimate goal is always a state championship,” Mesic said. “I think with our team, we can definitely do it, especially after last year’s tough loss. I want to win the state championship in my last year.”