By: Logan Alexander
Dating back to the beginning of the season, a playoff push was top priority among the club from the 904. Sure, the playoffs would always be a difficult feat for any expansion side, but there’s a different vibe in the North American Soccer League. There is a sense of equality, a feeling that any one team can beat the other and vice versa, situations not regularly seen in the beautiful game of the modern era. Whilst overviewing the goals for the Armada’s first season as a football club, none can be necessarily classified as impossible. Yet, after a few torrid months, Jacksonville still manages to find themselves in driving distance of the top of the table, while remaining rock bottom of the league. Fifteen league matches remain on the Armada schedule for 2015 and if there is any time to begin sailing rapidly towards the postseason the time is now. Hopes can be dashed quickly as the league is winding down, but a win against Tampa Bay in a highly anticipated derby is a match that can heavily shift momentum and rejuvenate a lacking Jacksonville team. Three points will light a fire in the boys in blue, hoping to spark the come up.
Emotions were running high after Jacksonville took a 3-1 lead against Minnesota United last Friday night at Community First Park but two late goals allowed the Loons to escape with a point, leaving the Armada stunned in front of their home crowd. Three points would have been another increase in confidence after previously beating New York Cosmos 1-0 the week earlier, but a failure of a defensive effort left for two points to go begging and out of reach for the Fleet. Luckily the club has found results in the midst of a run of matches against the league’s strongest opponents. After losing three straight games to begin the Fall Season, Armada have regrouped to secure four points in two matches against arguably two of the best teams in the NASL: Minnesota and NYC. Four measly points is still only solid enough for last place in the table, therefore a win in Tampa Bay is a key result that Jacksonville need to gain a grasp upon.
Although Jacksonville is twelve points off the pace in the Fall Season standings, there is not a huge gap in the combined table for the year which makes a victory all that more valuable. If results were to heavily favor Jacksonville over the next two weeks, only two wins would enable them to regain a position at the top of the table, that’s how close this league is currently. That is all a game of ‘what if’s’ though and bottom line is that the boys in blue need to start winning matches or else they will continue to be separated from the leaders of the pack, leading to a failure of securing postseason status.
Tampa has suffered a tumultuous past couple of weeks in the NASL. Two losses to San Antonio and Edmonton heavily struck the Rowdies and salt was then rubbed into the wounds after they embarrassingly endured a 3-1 defeat at the hands of their rivals to the east, Fort Lauderdale Strikers. A week ago Tampa was only able to draw 1-1 with Carolina Railhawks in what was an unconvincing attacking display by the Rowdies. Obtaining only one point in four matches has driven the team to the bottom of the Fall Season table, equal on points with you know who… Jacksonville Armada. Ironically, the situation occurring in the fall has not impacted Tampa in regards to the year they are having in the league. To date, they are 3rd place in the combined standings and remain in position to secure a playoff position, a completely reversed scenario than what Jacksonville are faced up against.
Jacksonville finally return to full strength as Marcos Flores and Matt Bahner are both back in contention to start on Saturday night in Tampa after being sidelined for small stints due to injury. With Pascal Millien returning for his second match after the Gold Cup and Keita/Jemal Johnson both fit and coming off of a match where they both found the back of the net, Armada’s attacking third finally looks picture perfect and is one that was dominant when the three plus Flores all grazed the pitch together. The last time these four players shared the field with each other was a period of two weeks in which Armada won their matches back to back, leading them to second in the table. Times have changed but opportunities in games never cease to fall short when the front four are playing at the same instant. In addition, if Flores still is not completely 100% for Saturday’s contest, rest is assured with the play of Akeil Barrett recently. The fiery Jamaican injects much pace into the Armada attack and is lethal in the final third. Barrett also scored his first ever professional goal in his first professional start in league play just last week. Even if Flores is left off of the team sheet, the same quality can come from Barrett.
Problems arise in the squad as the back line is heavily inspected for their poor run of games as of late. Ten goals have been allowed through 5 matches in the fall season by Jacksonville’s defense, which is third most in the league. The Armada defense has suffered through a four goal drubbing by Minnesota, giving up multiple goals to Ottawa, which is rare, and surrendering a 3-1 lead to Minnesota just last week in a game that ended 3-3. Matt Bahner returns to the lineup and is the only member of the team to solidify his place in the heart of the defense, and thankfully he will be subject to selection for the starting eleven for the date with Tampa Bay.
Jacksonville Armada’s twitter released last week’s starting eleven in the formation of a 3-4-3, a lineup that has not been seen since May 16th in Atlanta. Quickly after recognizing fault, the tweet was deleted and a revamped lineup was pictured. Instead of rolling out the 3-4-3 formation, Armada supposedly were playing 4-3-3. Sorry, but that is wrong. Lucas Trejo, Fabricio Ortiz, and Shawn Nicklaw were the three center backs in what was a 3-4-3 diamond formation and my goodness was it effective. Many opportunities were created in the attacking half and there was more stability in the center of park in relation to playing four at the back. Since day one my argument has remained constant and that is, Jacksonville Armada reach the most potential when running three defenders, four midfielders, and three forward players. Armada were destined to defeat the Loons at home but managed to screw up due to defensive errors, yet they looked strong in all areas of the pitch simply because of the change in formation.
Captain for Tampa Bay, Marcelo Saragosa, returned to action last weekend against Carolina and looks tipped to start against Jacksonville for the upcoming derby. The midfielder missed league action for two months after suffering a thigh injury, but after playing 87 minutes last week, is back in action for the Rowdies. Also, new loan signing Omar Salgado will be eligible to start against the Fleet after completing his move from Tigres UANL in the Mexican Liga MX. Thomas Rongen, manager for Tampa Bay, has plenty of forwards at his disposal and it will be interesting to see how he approaches the matchup with Jacksonville. Freddy Adu is still questionable to start as he did not travel to Carolina last week for their match.
A massive three points are on the line for Jacksonville. For one reason, a win in the Ponce de Leon derby could bring loads of confidence to the boys in blue as they approach four games in two weeks in the league. Also, victory would enable Jacksonville to force their way back into contention for the Coastal Cup Trophy, a competition formatted for the three Floridian teams. Now is the moment to find form and climb back up the table as it may be too late in the coming weeks. It’s three points or bust for Jacksonville. It’s derby day.