Jacksonville Armada face the biggest challenge of the season on Saturday night when they go head to head against a tough Minnesota United FC squad away from home. The hype for this match is surrounded by the chance and thoughts of silverware in the trophy cabinet, the opportunity to obtain the Spring Season title. One obstacle to achieving this feat is a recurring theme for every match left on the Armada schedule: Win. Against Atlanta the Armada gained a point, and luckily the red hot New York Cosmos drew 2-2 against the Carolina Railhawks, which did not allow for them to pull away in the table. Though we were saved last week with the Cosmos drawing, there are no promises of another slip up by the league leaders. It’s a simple concept, win and were in, but it will be a war to get maximum points in Minnesota.
“We should have beat Atlanta” stated Mark Frisch of the Armada. There is no falseness in the statement as all supporters of Armada were left astounded that we did not pick up three points in the ATL. The Silverbacks are a very defensive minded team, having the best defense but the worst attack in the league. After their first minute goal that was called offside but still counted because the center referee waved the decision off, Atlanta positioned every man behind the ball, only playing for counter attacks on the Armada. On a vicious ball through from Marcos Flores, Keita slotted it into the Atlanta net to level the match and that is how it would end. Jacksonville found it tough to breakthrough the Atlanta back line, and to be honest they were not allowing much. What opened up for the Armada, they failed to convert on any situation. The boys in blue controlled the match with 58% possession and ended with nine shots, five on target, but could not find a winner. Thankfully we scraped through the match and got a point, because Atlanta smashed the bar twice in the game and easily we could have lost out in controlling our destiny for the rest of the season.
Minnesota(2-1-3) are on a four match unbeaten streak after dominating Indy Eleven 3-1 at Indianapolis. The Spring Season did not start out very well for United as they drew three games and lost one in their first four and sat bottom of the league with the San Antonio Scorpions. Fortune turned for the Loons as they went on to beat Atlanta 1-0 and then the next week handled Indy. Now Minnesota sit in fourth place, a point back behind the Armada, with also an opportunity to win the Spring Season if they continue playing as well as they are. Saturday night’s match is a must win for both Minnesota United and Jacksonville Armada. For Minnesota it is of potential to get back into the race for the title. Jacksonville are playing one of their four must win matches for their championship tomorrow, there is no option to lose or draw.
Tactics will be a hot topic leading up to the match against Minnesota. One significant talking point in the Armada FC squad is the status of Alhassane Keita. Last week at Atlanta, after reaching to kick a ball, Keita pulled up grabbing at his hamstring and was taken off the pitch. There have been no reports as to whether or not he will be able to play against Minnesota, but by the looks of it , it seems he will not be in the squad for the match and is questionable for Carolina next week. The only talk about the incident is amongst the fans, many with differing opinions about how we should approach Minnesota and the rest of the week. Disclaimer, the upcoming points are the opinions of Logie, do not pester the lad if you disagree. Against Minnesota, the best switch would be Akeil Barrett for Keita. Instead of a straight swap, Jemal Johnson will move into the striker role and Barrett will play wide at left winger. Why? JJ has more goals and is more of a lethal threat at striking the ball than Pascal Millien and Akeil Barrett. Millien is the best winger on the squad, so why move him from his prime position? Armada will perform to the height of their potential if Millien and Barrett are on the wing, with JJ up top leading the attack. Millien is a huge creator in the squad and Jemal can finish when given chances.
Another blow to Jacksonville’s starting lineup is the loss of Fabricio Ortiz due to the Argentine gaining his fifth yellow card of the year in six matches.. (come on man). In the NASL, after five yellow cards a player is due to serve a suspension of one match and after that, every three yellow cards given is a suspension. What makes this situation interesting is the different options at the hands of Guillermo Hoyos as to how to approach a strong Minnesota attack. For sure, Lucas Trejo will get another start at the left center back role. The best defender on the squad is Matt Bahner who has been solid all year for the Armada, so he will slide into the middle role of the defense to disrupt Pablo Campos, striker for the Loons. There are three options presented of players to start at the last center back spot: Nurdin Hrustic, Joseph Toby, and Shawn Nicklaw.
Nurdin Hrustic is proven to be a strong defender in the center of the park, but it may be difficult for him to perform at a right back/right center back role, especially against Minnesota. Bahner properly knew how to attack up the field, and when to get back and defend when needed. Hrustic brings power to the defense but does not present a factor of attacking and is less pacey than Matt Bahner and the other two options. Also, the pace lets him down as he would potentially face up against USMNT prospect Miguel Ibarra, a very good attacking player. Will Hrustic start? No.
Joseph Toby has played a significantly tiny role in the regular season so far for Armada, only coming on as a substitute against Indy Eleven two weeks ago. Toby is the ideal fullback: quick, smart, and a threat. The only problem presented is the question as to whether he is game sharp or not. Along with barely playing this year, how well can he play at a position not ideal for his play style. At fullback, Toby is usually always up the field and adding pressure on the opponents rather than defending as much as he would do at right center back/fullback. With only three in the back, there would be a fear of the player being caught up field and eventually screwing the defense, and in this scenario, there can be no mistakes Saturday. He has the pace to defend against Ibarra but I do not think he is smart enough to play the role that Hoyos wants him to play, especially in a big match coming up. Joseph Toby will not start.
Shawn Nicklaw is the best option available for the Jacksonville Armada to deploy in the last center back position. Nicklaw is strong and can play both in the center and out wide. He defends well and has the awareness of where to be in different situations. Also, he is the only player of the three that I feel can contain Ibarra well enough to not allow the attacker to be a huge threat.
Players to watch for Minnesota are their front four in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Up top is Pablo Campos who was scored 15 goals in 30 appearances for the Loons with two goals so far this season. At right winger/midfield is the dangerous Miguel Ibarra, a USMNT call-up who has one goal and two assists in 2015. Though not many goals have been scored so far for Miguel, he can create many chances for the side. Kalif Alhassan is the next in the list, a recent addition to the squad from Portland Timbers. Alhassan is the leading scorer for Minnesota with three goals and has also assisted for one goal. Last to watch for Minnesota is Christian Ramirez. Ramirez was the NASL leading goalscorer in 2014 and was also named into the NASL best eleven of the 2014 season. In 31 appearances for MUFC, Ramirez has scored 21 goals and has one goal and an assist this season. Armada will have their hands full against a strong, ruthless, and skilled Minnesota attack.
Missing from the Minnesota squad is midfielder James Watson. Last week at Indy Eleven, Watson started but sustained a torn ACL that will keep him out for the rest of the season. Christian Ramirez should slide into his starting position against the Jacksonville Armada.
Saturday night is match of the year for the Jacksonville Armada. It will be the toughest match of the season, against one of the toughest teams in the league in a very hostile atmosphere in Blaine, MN. With a win, the Armada will keep control of their fate in the fight for the Spring Title. A loss and any points gained by New York could dampen the Fleet’s hopes of a title in their first season. Minnesota United will look to keep their title hopes alive with a win against the Armada. An interesting stat for this match is that the Armada have never lost in Minnesota.. and all time have never lost to the club!
Jacksonville Armada 3-3 Minnesota United FC. It will be a shootout in Minnesota. I’M SORRY OK, but with Ortiz out of the starting eleven, the defense will surrender an extra goal to the ever dangerous Minnesota attack. Also, Minnesota lack in as much quality in the defense compared to the forwards, enabling the Armada to get three by them. Both teams will be out to score goals to secure a victory, it will be a thriller in Minnesota. Marcos Flores will be man of the match with two assists and one goal but it will not be enough against a tough squad like Minnesota. Like I said, VERY SORRY. Minnesota look too good to beat currently.
Predicted Starting 11:
Gallardo; Nicklaw; Bahner; Trejo; Scaglia; Rodriguez; Hoyos; Flores; Barrett; Millien; Johnson.