ATLANTA, Ga. – The Knights made history simply by stepping foot on the pitch at the GSU Soccer Complex Friday night. An evening full of firsts ensured they will return to Orlando with the chance to make more.
Playing in the first match in the history of the program as the top-ranked team in the nation, the No. 1 UCF men’s soccer team rose to the occasion, fending off a second-half Georgia State rally and clinching a 3-2 win in its regular-season road finale in Atlanta, Georgia, Friday evening.
The winning effort represented the sixth straight for the Knights (10-1-2, 6-1-1 SBC), who have emerged victorious in every match in which they’ve played since their 1-0 loss at then-No. 1 Marshall over a month ago Sept. 23, and the 10th of the season overall, marking the squad’s first double-digit win campaign since its 15-3-2 season in the fall of 2019.
UCF also tacked three more points onto its lead in the regular-season Sun Belt table, paving way for the team to clinch the regular-season conference title and the No. 1 seed in next month’s conference tournament at home on Halloween night.
The Knights enter their regular-season finale Oct. 31 with a Sun Belt-best 19 points, one ahead of No. 6 Marshall’s second-place total of 18, and UCF has now clinched a top two seed in the tournament with No. 2 West Virginia’s 1-0 loss to Kentucky Friday, awarding the Knights the right to host at least the first two rounds of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Nov. 5-12.
The team authored its latest victory on the strength of a handful of firsts throughout the night, including redshirt-freshman goalkeeper Luciano Natoli’s first collegiate start and win, midfielder AJ Seals’ first collegiate goal, and defender Zane Bubb’s first collegiate game-winning goal.
The Knights, who entered the evening already riding an offensive surge of late having scored eight goals in their previous two matches, again cracked the scoreboard first in the 23rd minute, when forward Clarence Awoudor made a crossing attempt from just to the left of the box.
Panthers (5-6-5, 2-4-2 SBC) goalkeeper Josh Hangi went down in efforts to corral the ball, but failed to halt a rebound. Seals, who had already entered the box, was just steps away, and quickly sent the ball past Hangi and another Panthers defender to give his team the early advantage with the first score of his five-year career. With Seals’ goal, the Knights also improved to 8-0-1 when scoring first this season.
UCF added on with a pair of tallies in the second half just 79 seconds apart by Bubb and forward Emmanuel Bam. The latter netted UCF’s second goal of the evening in the 64th minute, scoring a few feet in front of Hangi after receiving a feed from Awoudor, before Bubb tallied what would prove to be the game-winner off a corner kick by Beto Ydrach in the 65th minute.
Not unlike the team’s previous 3-2 win at South Carolina Oct. 22, UCF found it necessary to stave off a late rally by its opposition. In the absence of starting netminder Juanvi Muñoz after he was shown a red card with just over 15 minutes to play in the Knights’ win over the Gamecocks, Natoli showed poise throughout the match, making the first four saves of his collegiate career.
The most crucial stop made by the redshirt-freshman came in the final minute of play, when Georgia State, which had trimmed the Knights’ lead to 3-2 with a pair of quick scores, lined up for a corner kick on the far side. Natoli gobbled up a header try by a Panther just in front of him with 46 seconds to play before laying out to drain a few more seconds off the clock.
On the heels of the Knights’ sixth straight win, the team will look to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and the regular-season conference title at the UCF Soccer Complex Tuesday, Oct. 31 in their regular-season finale against James Madison. Kickoff from Orlando is slated for 7 p.m.
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