Mandarin celebrates Jose Moreno's 64th minute goal during a FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal. Mandarin eliminated Orlando Boone 2-1 in a FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The Mustangs (18-0-2) advance to host Lake Mary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today
Mandarin celebrates Jose Moreno's 64th minute goal during a FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal. Mandarin eliminated Orlando Boone 2-1 in a FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The Mustangs (18-0-2) advance to host Lake Mary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

PHOTO ESSAY | Like Jax, unbeaten Mandarin soccer team is a blend of cultures

Published on February 14, 2024 at 7:50 pm

On Tuesday night, a boy who was born in Bosnia raises his arms in triumph. The first person to leap into them: his Brazilian teammate, whose unrestrained joy is shared by scores of onlookers, many who witnessed the team’s heartbreak one year prior.

Mandarin’s boys’ soccer team is a collection of Black, white, brown, orange and green. The unbeaten Mustangs have players from three continents who speak 10 different languages.

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“Even if (teammates) don’t understand the words, by how we move our hands, people understand,” says co-captain Sergey Rakhamimov. “It’s really beautiful to see, especially when it comes together. It’s that beautiful fluid gameplay. You don’t even need to speak the language. You’re connected. It’s just beautiful.”

Mandarin captain Sergey Rakhamimov (12) and Orlando Boone senior Luis Quiroz are warned that persistent fouling will lead to a yellow card during the first half of a FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal. Mandarin eliminated Orlando Boone 2-1 on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The Mustangs (18-0-2) advance to host Lake Mary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Mandarin has played beautiful one- and two-touch soccer for years. This year’s Mustangs are the first Duval County public school team to enter the postseason unbeaten in consecutive years.

Mandarin entered last year’s postseason 18-0-1 but were shocked at home in the first round of the playoffs.

This week, the Mustangs (18-0-2) beat Orlando’s Boone High 2-1 in a Florida High School Athletic Association Class 7A playoff game to keep their season alive.

During stressful moments, some players on both teams spoke in Spanish.

“We’ve got English, Bosnian, Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian, Russian, Romanian, Croatian,” senior defender Sasha Maric told Jacksonville Today about this year’s squad in November.

Maric is a 6-foot-3-inch central defender who can play with the ball at his feet. He is fluent in Bosnian but only speaks English on the pitch.

This year’s team is captained by a first-generation Russian immigrant and has players with Bosnian, Honduran, Peruvian, Colombian, Venezuelan and Brazilian heritage. That reflects the increasingly diverse county overall. Nearly 1-in-5, 17%, of Duval County residents in speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census. Since 2018, that proportion has only risen.

Fullback Marius Tulip is the son of a Romanian father and African-American mother. He isn’t fluent in Romanian, but he does understand the language and had an opportunity to visit the Eastern European country twice.

Marius Tulip, pictured in a December 2023 match against Bishop Kenny, helped the Mandarin boys soccer team complete a second straight unbeaten regular season. | Will Brown

When Tulip was clipped in the penalty box in the 25th minute of Tuesday’s game, his teammates reminded him to not curse under his breath at the decision.

He didn’t.

Marius Tulip (23) is a senior fullback who is the son of a Romanian immigrant. Tulip speaks Romanian, one of 10 different languages players on the 2024 Mustangs speak when not on the pitch. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Mandarin head Coach Jason Cooley has seen a shift in the players who suit up for the Mustangs in his 24 years on the touchline. When he started, the team was mostly kids who grew up in Mandarin their whole lives and some with Panamanian heritage.

Cooley is an institution at Mandarin – he is 310-88-32 as the boys’ head coach with more Gateway Conference titles than he can count – but the players are the ones who provide the shoulder to a teammate in a tough time.

Alias Goldsberry missed a fantastic opportunity to open the scoring in the 16th minute Tuesday night. He was still thinking about the moment during a water break five minutes later.

Mandarin defender Luke Renne put his arm around Goldsberry without saying a word. Goldsberry lifted his head and re-engaged with the team. Later, Goldsberry would assist the game-winner.

Renne, a senior central defender with a 4.86 GPA, may be Mandarin’s valedictorian this year. He has grown up in Mandarin most of his life and says playing with teammates from so many cultures has enlivened his soccer experience.

“It helps us all grow mentally,” Renne says. “You learn so much about their culture. I know before games, we listen to music. Every person has put a couple songs on the playlist. You learn through the game. The language barrier, it doesn’t stop the bonds between us. We’re all brothers. Some of them, I can only say a sentence or two, but the bond between us is strong. It really helps us all grow as people that way.”

After a practice last week, Cooley pulled aside Renne and a half-dozen others to remind everyone to edify their teammates on the pitch or enjoy cool February evenings seated next to him.

 “The playoffs are about lifting one another,” Cooley told the group.

That was why Joao Caires was the first person to celebrate Emir Trto when he scored Tuesday’s winner.

Mandarin eliminated Orlando Boone 2-1 in a FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The Mustangs (18-0-2) advance to host Lake Mary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Caires, a 5-foot-3-inch attacking midfielder who is fluent in Portuguese and English, is the first person in his family to grow up in the U.S. As Caires mentions his family’s roots in Vitoria, Brazil, teammates Robert Calazans and Mateus Deban gave him grief about the size of the city in Southeastern Brazil.

Before a training session last week, Jack Eddy let out a sly smile when he quipped that he has picked up some Albanian over the years while being around his teammates. He took his declaration a step further when he said he knew a few words and phrases in Arabic.

That’s when Maric retorted: “From who?”

But, with this Mandarin team, Eddy’s tale is not far-fetched.

Jack Eddy (7) is one of eight seniors on the 2024 Mandarin boys soccer team. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

“It makes it difficult when you’re going against us because the South Americans, they usually like to dribble more and stuff,” Eddy told Jacksonville Today in November. “The Eastern Europeans, they play more pass, pass, move. Coach Cooley, in his great coaching, he really brings us this standard that we all know. But, we also bring our own little flair so you don’t know what to do against us.”

Rakhamimov says the beginning of the year can be difficult at times as the Mustangs find the balance.

That wasn’t the case this year as Mandarin obliterated First Coast 18-0 in its opener. The match was stopped at halftime because the Mustangs easily surpassed the eight-goal mercy rule.

“When other teams see us warming up, they see us screaming in different languages,” Maric told Jacksonville Today in November. “They are intimidated and kind of scared. Also, you don’t know what to expect from each of us. Every year, we get new players from new backgrounds.”

Daniel Moreno is one such player.

The junior winger was born in Eastern Venezuela in Ciudad Bolivar. His journey to Jacksonville took him to Maturín during his childhood, then Mexico for five months before arriving here in March 2023.

Moreno leads Mandarin with 16 goals in 20 games this year. He says this is the best year of his soccer-playing life because he has won individual awards before, but this year he’s won trophies with teammates.

Moreno scored a goal in Mandarin’s 5-1 win over Atlantic Coast in the Gateway Conference tournament final on Jan. 12. He produced a goal and an assist on Jan. 31 when the Mustangs beat Creekside 3-0 to win the District 1-7A championship.

Moreno was not comfortable conducting an interview in English. But sophomore Abraham Coba translated for him: “It’s good because I finally won a trophy with a team that I feel part of, like a family.”

Moreno’s twin brother, Jose, scored Tuesday’s opener with 16 minutes remaining.

Eddy ran like an unbridled Mustang during his 15-minute second-half cameo at center forward. He harassed Boone’s players into risky passes and never let them get comfortable on the ball.

Eddy’s relentless running forced Boone to play a ball near its own goal line that its defenders tried to shield out of bounds. Boone turned the ball over in the penalty area, Jose Moreno ran onto the loose ball and finished.

Moreno sprinted toward the touchline to be mobbed by his teammates.

Tuesday’s opener embodied this year’s Mustangs: Fantastic fitness, extreme effort, collective celebration.

Mandarin’s second showcased something the squad has in abundance – skill and touch.

Boone equalized in the 67th minute on a Ricardo Guerra penalty kick. Mandarin never bowed, despite their season hanging in the balance.

A series of one-touch passes helped Mandarin scythe through Boone’s midfield. Emir Trto gathered possession on the edge of the penalty area and found a way to finish.

At halftime, Cooley told the team to find a moment and make the most of it. He told them that there were goals to be had, but the Mustangs had to “have the self-belief that you will bang it into the back of the net, run around and celebrate.”

That’s what Trto did when he scored his seventh goal of the season in the 71st minute.

Mandarin’s second goal lifted the spirit of a team that was forced to live with the shock of losing in the first round of the playoffs in 2023.

There are no guarantees that Mandarin will win its first state championship in boys’ soccer. Varsity soccer is a sport where a team can play poorly for 79 minutes and use one moment of magic to shock their opponent.

Michael Burns says this year’s Mandarin squad doesn’t rely on individual brilliance this year. Burns has Peruvian heritage and visited the country a half-dozen times.

Michael Burns, right, explains a tactical instruction to Jose Moreno prior to the second half in the FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal. The Mustangs (18-0-2) advance to host Lake Mary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

This year, Moreno and Goldsberry are the only players with 10 or more goals. And there are six others who have scored at least five goals for the Mustangs.

Mandarin is 36-1-3 over the last two seasons. They are four games away from their ultimate goal.

After Tuesday’s win, Mandarin midfielder Omar Trto smiled at the thought of his younger brother scoring the winner.

Mandarin’s Omar Trto (10) dribbles in the midfield during the second half of the FHSAA Class 7A regional quarterfinal. The Mustangs (18-0-2) advance to host Lake Mary. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

“I love him so much. And, he knows whenever I get angry at him, it’s just to show my love, to push him. I’m glad he got to build his confidence up and I’m glad that he got the winner. We’re moving on, baby!” he says.

The Trto brothers were born in Bosnia. Omar says he speaks English, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin.

Omar says he is learning Spanish. His lessons from Mandarin foreign language teacher Carmen Nye are complimented by the language immersion every day at practice.

“It’s a part of football. I like all different cultures, because I get to meet new cultures. I get to meet new languages and I get to express my languages,” Trto says. “It’s honestly brilliant. I really love it. I’d rather have so many heritages than stick with one heritage. …We enjoy it. And, we’re all brothers from different cultures.”

Mandarin’s Jose Moreno (2), Alias Goldsberry (center) and Emir Trto (right) celebrate their win in a FHSAA Region 1-7A quarterfinal. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

author image Reporter email Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at

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