By: Logan Alexander
Twelve ticks off of the clock at Everbank Field is all it took for the Armada faithful to fall into a euphoric state as Jemal Johnson smashed a shot from 30 yards out into the back of the net to score his sides first ever goal in history. Quickly Jacksonville Armada created a name for themselves, playing a fast paced style of the beautiful game that was envisioned by owner Mark Frisch since the start. Though a heavy downpour made an appearance on that historic night of April 4th, Section 904 kept singing, Armada defeated FC Edmonton 3-1, and spirits ran high throughout the vibrant city in excitement for what was to come. The Fleet has landed and it was time to take a hold of the NASL by storm.
After what was a beautiful opening night in Jacksonville, fortunes turned as the Armada traveled to Ft. Lauderdale in the first ever installment of the “Battle for the Atlantic”, a derby name coined by Section 904 member Armada supporter Adam Garrett. At Lockhart Stadium, Jacksonville hit their first bump in the road losing out to the Strikers 2-1 and instilling their first of a few key mistakes this season. Though it was only the second match of the inaugural season there was a tactical situation that needed to be sorted on the pitch. Marquee Armada signing, Marcos Flores, made his way to Jacksonville from Newcastle Jets in the Australian A-League for a fee of around $825k in what was the most expensive transfer for the new club. Problems arose when the central attacking midfielder was being deployed at the position of right wing instead of playing in his comfortable spot in the center of the park. Rolling out in a 4-3-3 formation, Jacksonville was unable to play with all four of their attacking playmakers on the field, leaving out Pascal Millien to sit the bench for a second consecutive week. Without the creative and influential Flores in the midfield there was no one able to pull strings in attack and create chances for our star studded forwards, Alhassane Keita and Jemal Johnson. Without any threat in the attacking third, Jacksonville’s defense could not be relied on and the boys in blue were forced to pay for their lack of on field success. Coach Guillermo Hoyos was prompted to make changes to the side, which was seen in the next match at Tampa Bay.
Two weeks passed after the misery in Ft. Lauderdale and the Fleet made their way to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida along with fifty traveling supporters to take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Fixes in the northeast Florida side were necessary, and finally the Armada found their identity on the pitch. The lineups unveiled on Twitter and immediately there was a shock between the fans. Playing three at the back is a risky order of business, and with only a decent defense that struggled against Ft. Lauderdale was it the answer to our woes? Yes. Millien, Johnson, Keita, and Flores all started for the side and accommodated for 22 shots, 11 corners, and 20 attacks and though only scoring two goals on the night, the lads were a brilliant attacking force up against a strong Rowdies team. Lucas Scaglia proved to be a vital player for the Armada as the defensive midfielder’s role was to sit in front of the back three and wreak havoc on all attacks that forged together in the midfield by the opposition. Jacksonville deserved a result from the match but fell 3-2 in the “Ponce de Leon Derby” due to heroic goalkeeping by then backup keeper Matt Pickens. Armada slipped in the table after losing two straight but what was important was the improvement seen on the pitch, although it just wasn’t our night.
Jacksonville returned from their road trip with no points but there was a new excitement in the air on match day against the San Antonio Scorpions. For one, the reigning NASL champions were in town for a huge match against the new boys on the block, Armada. Along with the battle against the Scorpions, it was also opening night at Community First Park, home of the Jacksonville Armada. Pascal Millien scored in the fourth minute to better the argument of Jacksonville’s love for scoring early. Just minutes later Community First Park was silenced as Omar Cummings struck a bicycle kick into the back of the net to level the score 1-1. In a fiery contest consisting of eight yellow cards, Armada found a goal on a brilliant run by Akeil Barrett who passed into the path of Keita, where the Guinean perfectly found the bottom corner of the net in added time to take down San Antonio and rise Armada up the table.
The boys in blue continued their home unbeaten run due to a great game by keeper Miguel Gallardo after impressively defeating Indy Eleven 1-0 in a very one-sided affair in Jacksonville. After beginning the season in the lower half of the table, Armada rose to prominence going to second place in the standings, only behind the New York Cosmos. Everything seemed to be going in the Armada’s favor due to how the team was playing, results being won, and team chemistry increasing over the weeks. Jacksonville were in perfect position to win the Spring Season title as long as they won out in the league, but the lads were dealt a heavy blow against Atlanta in the following week.
Coming up against a very defensive oriented side was already tough enough for Armada until they lost their star striker Alhassane Keita due to a hamstring problem late on in the match. The game ended in a decent 1-1 draw but tactically the Armada were in a difficult situation. Minnesota United were next up on the fixture list along with a U.S. Open Cup match against the Richmond Kickers and three days later a game at home to Carolina. Adjustments made for Minnesota were not ideal for being in the situation that we were in. Akeil Barrett was the likely man to join the starting eleven in place of Keita, but for some reason he was left off of the team sheet when Armada took on Minnesota in another pivotal match as the race for the Spring Season title was getting heated. Marcos Flores started the match at the striker role and like fans saw against Ft. Lauderdale earlier in the year, no attacks were being created in the midfield with the Argentine pushed that far forward. A dismal first half in Minnesota led to a change in the side as Barrett came on in the second half. Immediately there was a spark that was not seen in the first 45 and we knew why. When Marcos Flores drops back into the CAM role, Jacksonville is a much better attacking team and is more diverse when pushing up the field. Unfortunately it was too late and Minnesota ran away with the game obtaining a 3-2 victory. New York also defeated San Antonio 3-0 and it was destined that Jacksonville would not win the Spring title.
In U.S. Open Cup Jacksonville met Richmond in what was the worst game of the season. Flores was left off of the team sheet which crucially hurt the side and they fell 3-0 to the USL side. Akeil Barrett made his first start for the team but without great support in the midfield nothing could be created for the three forwards. Defense also lacked on the night as the fullbacks were caught forward too many times and Richmond’s counter attacking football made life difficult for the Floridian side. Life was getting just as difficult for Jacksonville and supporters grew impatient when they saw Flores starting at striker again when Armada faced off against the Carolina Railhawks. Once again without a dominant presence on the attacking side of the ball there was no existence in the final third and we paid a heavy price giving up four goals in the first half and eventually losing 4-0.
Another week passed where there was no celebration of a goal for the boys in blue. Although Jacksonville absolutely dominated the Ottawa Fury on every part of the pitch, there was not a goal to be had, which left the team goalless in over 270 minutes, a very frustrating stat to live with. To make matters worse it was also made known that Akeil Barrett had suffered a hamstring injury during the midweek and he would be out for the remainder of the spring season. Sadly for our loved side, we had to face off with the unbeaten and NASL leaders, the New York Cosmos, on the final day of the season.
Just under thirty minutes into the game, New York took a 2-0 lead on two goalkeeping mistakes by Miguel Gallardo and Jacksonville looked to end the spring season even worse than it already was. Whether it was an invigorating team talk at half time or the players decided to step up their game after an embarrassing half, the next 45 was a beautiful piece of art. Pascal Millien scored twice to level the game at 2-2 and after New York took a 3-2 lead, Joseph Toby off of a corner, scored a miraculous volley that sailed into the top part of the net to send the Armada supporters at Lynch’s Irish Pub into a miraculous celebration. Jacksonville marched into the Cosmos home park and outplayed the home team entirely in the second half, in which was their best half of the entire season.
After ten games in the NASL Spring Season, Jacksonville finished with a 3-3-4 record. Having twelve points secured in the season, Armada now sit 6th place in the league, still only eight points behind league leaders NYC with 16 games to play in 2015. Also do not forget, Armada can earn a playoff spot by winning the fall season, or being one of the top teams with the most combined points between both seasons. Opportunities are endless and overall, the inaugural season for the Fleet was not amazing but decent.
Without Alhassane Keita in the lineup in the spring Armada finished winless and only earned two ties, against Ottawa and NYC. Jacksonville only managed five goals without the star striker and ten while the player was on the pitch. For Armada to have a successful campaign in the fall, Keita needs to remain healthy and start how he left off when he was injured: Scoring goals. In an interview with forward Jemal Johnson he stated “It’s been very difficult to adjust without Keita. He is a massive part of the team and he is the guy we look to, to score the goals and create chances”. Marcos Flores remarked on the topic saying “He is an important player for us. A striker like him(Keita) on the field, we are more aggressive and can get deep into the attack”. Jacksonville’s success will rely on the well being of our striker throughout the next few months.
Defense wins championships and currently Jacksonville’s defense does not look like one that could win us a championship. Behind Edmonton, Jacksonville has the worst defensive record in the league and it dates back to the risk and reward system that Guillermo Hoyos implemented into his side and how they play. Most of the time we were dominated in the air on set pieces and on crosses. Also plenty of times throughout the season our defense was caught too far forward and they were punished. Lastly, the lads give up way too many penalties. Four penalties were given up this season, and though that may not be the biggest number, three penalties cost us at least a point in three separate matches, against Tampa, Minnesota, and Ft. Lauderdale. In the back there needs to be more stability and less mental errors and that will ensure better play and more results going Armada’s way.
Pascal Millien led the team with four goals in eight matches that he started. Jemal Johnson and Alhassane Keita also scored three goals on the season which goes to show that when our front line is healthy, Jacksonville is a force to be reckoned with in the league. Marcos Flores led the team with two assists and could have had more had he played in his regular position throughout the season. The constant changes throughout the season hurt the squad and one hopes that there will be a balance each week in the next season, but the team was hit with a very impactful injury regarding Keita.
In 75 shots that the Armada took during the season, 15 of them hit the back of the net which is a 20% conversion rate. Jacksonville took the second most shots, fouled 144 times, and received 26 yellow cards which was the second most in the league. Pascal Millien was the Spring Season player of the season with four goals and an assist to his name. Constantly in matches the right winger is running at defenses, and tirelessly works for this club. Matt Bahner is my surprise player of the year. Coming from USL side Wilmington Hammerheads, it was always going to be difficult to move up a level in the competition. At center back, Matt has been a rock and has kept this side in key matches, while making clutch defensive plays in the past run of games. Out of everyone on the pitch, he has been the most consistent player. Match of the season goes to the 3-1 victory over FC Edmonton. Being the first match in history it was already dubbed to be a great spectacle. Twelve second into the match Armada went 1-0 up and after a full half the boys increased to a 3-0 lead. At the end of the match, Jacksonville pulled out a 3-1 victory and we went top of the table for a week!
After an action packed spring season, prepare yourself for the fall as Jacksonville look to secure a place in the four team playoff at the end of the year and eye a Soccer Bowl victory.
Let’s go boys in blue….We believe in you…