The Johnson boys soccer team didn’t have to worry about repeating last year’s heartfelt come-from-behind performance against East Hall this time around.
Instead, Class AAAAA’s No. 4 Knights found themselves in the lead two minutes in, then used its trademark defense to stay out front, diminishing a reputably fast Vikings opposition in a 2-0 shutout, on a frigid Wednesday night at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
“We didn’t want to start slow. We wanted to come out, step on the gas from minute one,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley.
The Knights (6-1) were opportunistic from the start and that mentality allowed them to land that first blow after a critical East Hall defensive error. A visibly eager and fresh East Hall (7-2) re-claimed possession off the press shortly following the opening kickoff. But the Knights got exactly what they hoped for 1 minute and 30 seconds into the game, as Vikings goalkeeper Oscar Rosas sent a Knights player airborne on a slide tackle outside the box. Rosas was given an early curtain off the early infraction and the momentum swayed.
Thirty seconds later, the Knights pounced. Junior Marco Vazquez scurried down the home sideline into East Hall territory and punched a through-ball to junior David Flores in the middle, who took two light touches before finishing with a left-footed strike for the one-goal advantage.
“That’s was our plan coming in, trying to force their back line into playing, and that’s where we were able to catch them,” Shirley said of the setup. “We did a couple of things yesterday in training that we thought might apply to today, and you know, we caught them on one, and they came out and took us out. ...We did a good job to jump on that and recognize it.”
Johnson’s Felix Velasquez gave the hosts a two-goal advantage in the 43rd minute. In only his second start of the season, Velasquez dashed the length of the home sideline, eluded a defender and unloaded a left-footed strike that bent into the top-left corner of the net.
“We gave him an opportunity tonight to come out and perform, to start. And he did,” said Shirley of Velasquez. “With his pace, and the pressure he’s putting on their back line is nice to have.”
Meanwhile, it was slim-pickins for East Hall’s fleet-footed attack, which wooed the crowd with their finesse but was only granted a handful of opportunities against Johnson’s steady back line.
That first vague look at Johnson goalkeeper, Cooper Bowen, didn’t come until two-minutes remained in the half, as Vikings’ Carlos Rosas unloaded an attempt near the top of the penalty box.
“For the most part all season, our defense has played pretty solid,” Shirley said. “We knew they had three or four guys who had a lot of pace and could come in and give us some trouble.”
East Hall finally broke through in brief spurts in the final minutes, Sergio Turcios coming the closest after creating an open look off the dribble. But his attempt ricocheted off the lower-left post with under three minutes left. And within under two minutes left, a sliding save by Johnson’s Cooper dismissed a strike from Maury Ibarra, who was beautifully set up over the middle off a rolled cross by Turcios.
“We wanted to limit what they could do on the counter attack. Our defense read it well — we had two small or minor mishaps — but you know, Coop(er) was there to get anything that happened to sneak through cleaned up.”
The Knights now turn their attention to Buford in a highly-anticipated Region 8-AAAAA opener on Friday night. East Hall continues Region 7-AAA play against Union County Friday night.
JOHNSON GIRLS 9, EAST HALL GIRLS 0: Alexis Smith scored a hat trick, while teammate Itzel Rivera notched a brace (two goals) and added a pair of assists in the Lady Knights’ shutout victory. Dani Malone, Maria Rivera, Carla Avalos, and Jennifer Mendoza were others to find the back of the net with a goal for Johnson.
Johnson (6-4-1) hosts Buford at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Oakwood.