By: Logan Alexander
Behind closed doors, Jacksonville Armada Football Club faced off against MLS opposition New York Red Bulls in Orlando, FL on Sunday morning. This scrimmage featured as the cherry on top of the first full week of training for the boys in blue, and was the first opportunity for Tony Meola and company to positively assess the team against another club.
Regarding the match as a scrimmage meant nothing towards New York. Losing to Columbus Crew in the conference finals last year in MLS has sparked a motivation into the side. Red Bulls released a strong lineup featuring their best talent including the likes of Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sal Zizzo, Lloyd Sam, and Felipe to begin the game against Jacksonville Armada.
#RBNY starting XI vs. @JaxArmadaFC: Meara, Lawrence, Long, Zubar, Zizzo, McCarty, Felipe, Kljestan, Sam, Veron, BWP.
After a dismal 2015 year, in which the Fleet finished 11th in the NASL, many changes were needed to be made to the team. With nine new players entering the club, and near the same number exiting, a total revamp meant a brand new lineup on the team sheet for Sunday’s match against NYRB. Most notably was the formation that head coach Tony Meola displayed. Five defenders started for Armada in a notable 5-3-2 formation, one that fans have not seen before, but is near identical and can also be played as a 3-5-2, depending on how far pushed up the wing-backs play. Miguel Gallardo got the start between the sticks. Jacksonville’s back line consisted of Beto Navarro, Mechak Jérôme, Tyler Ruthven, Matt Bahner, and Bryan Burke. In the center of the park, Nico Perea and Lucas Scaglia slotted as holding midfielders on the left and right side underneath attacking midfielder, Pascal Millien. Finally, up top were the striking duo of Alhassane Keita and Derek Gebhard, a partnership driven by pace on and off the ball. Many of the players featured as starters from today, will be regulars in the starting XI during the season.
#ArmadaFC starting XI vs @NewYorkRedBulls: Ruthven, Millien, Perea, Burke, Gebhard, Bahner, Navarro, Jérôme, Keita, Scaglia, Gallardo.
Red Bulls began the match quickly in the opening minutes, as Kljestan viciously opened up the Armada defense and sent midfielder Gonzalo Verón in towards Gallardo’s net, but the Argentine took too heavy of a touch around the Armada goalkeeper and the ball went out of play. Just two minutes later Verón was delivered a ball through the Fleet’s back line again, but his squared pass to Bradley Wright-Phillips was blocked out for a corner. Surprisingly though, against the run of play, Alhassane Keita struck the back of the net sending Jacksonville into the lead for a 1-0 advantage after the 11th minute. The next ten minutes settled down, allowing for numerous amounts of possession for both sides, but no clear cut chances until the 24th minute for New York Red Bulls. Once again, Verón raced down Armada’s defensive third and played in a delectable pass to Kljestan in the box, but the U.S. International popped his shot just over the crossbar.
The downfall began for Jacksonville when they gave up a penalty by taking down Dax McCarty in the area in the 27th minute. Prolific goalscorer for New York, Bradley Wright-Phillips, stepped up to the spot and slotted home to Gallardo’s right side, in which the Armada keeper guessed the correct way, but could not keep out the Englishman’s attempt. New York continued on the front foot carrying the momentum for most of the match and carved up another opportunity as Lloyd Sam sprung down the right sideline and whipped in a ball to Gonzalo Verón, who’s shot was deflected out for a NYRB corner. At the stroke of halftime, New York gained advantage in the match. The persistent attacking partnership between Verón and Kljestan turned perfect when the two connected to send New York into a 2-1 lead. Verón broke away from the midfield, running again at the Armada defense and delivered a beautiful pass to Kljestan who shot on first touch and scored past Gallardo.
At the end of the first half, Jacksonville Armada found themselves down 2-1 to New York Red Bulls. Full lineup changes were made by both teams at halftime.
#RBNY in the second half: Reynish, Lade, Cochran, Carroll, Duvall, Grella, Davis, Adams, Bezecourt, Bonomo, Cooper
#Armada second half: Krizanovic, Dixon, Barrett, Barrow, Ryan, Lewis, Johnson, Navarro, Norton, Nicklaw, Evers.
The two big names for NYRB playing in the second half were the 2016 debuts of new signing Kenny Cooper from Montreal, and electric attacking midfielder/winger Mike Grella.
Armada debuted two trialists, in Norton and Lewis, and also handed striker Danny Barrow and dynamic midfielder Richie Ryan their first appearances for Jacksonville.
Out of the gates, Jacksonville leveled the affair at 2-2 as 20-year old West Bromwich Albion youth academy player, Danny Barrow, struck home in his first appearance for the club. The lead lasted two minutes though as Mike Grella raced into the Armada zone and banked his shot in off the post from the tightest of angles to send Red Bulls up 3-2 in the 52nd. Just eight minutes later, Grella attempted a laser of a shot from 35 yards out that just fizzed by the goal post. Then, in the 73rd minute, New York took a 4-2 lead. Playmaker Mike Grella cut open the Armada defense with an incarcerating pass of the ball to attacker Bonomo, who slid it right by keeper Sebastian Evers. Chance after chance presented itself for Red Bulls and just a few minutes later Kenny Cooper’s cross found the head of Sean Davis, but a fantastic save by Evers denied the midfielder a goal and New York’s fifth.
New York wrapped up the scrimmage with another goal to make the score 5-2. Davis led the charge of a counter attack, playing a pass to defender Connor Lade, who calm and collectively finished off the brilliant attack brushing the ball by Evers.
New York Red Bulls would always be a tough opponent for Armada to play any day but their quality was just that much greater in Orlando. No matter that this was a scrimmage, allowing five goals to New York(three to the NYRB reserves) is something that needs to be fixed first for Jacksonville Armada Football Club. Though the assuring fact of the matter is that this was the first game after one full week of training. The boys are still learning to play together, and players also are returning back to match fitness, and in the words of Tony Meola, the gaffer stated “The final result not what we wanted, however I’m still impressed by what we are seeing.”
Honestly though, it would be nice not to see five goals being scored on the defense in the first game. After raiding the market and bringing in three new defenders, dubbed to be better than what there was last year, five goals is too much. Even the reserve defenders for Jacksonville are skilled enough not to allow that many balls into the back of the net, especially to the reserves of New York Red Bulls in the second half. With a defense finishing as the second worst last year, problems needs to be addressed and fixed and this is what pre-season is all about. Fortunately though, the strikers for Jacksonville are scoring. Danny Barrow now has one goal in one appearance for Armada which is comforting after such a horrid attacking display last year. Alhassane Keita also placed his name on the score sheet, a popular name since the institution of Jacksonville Armada Football Club last year. Attacking wise, the scrimmage against New York was a positive start for a hopefully lethal attack that will be featured in the NASL.
There are still a few questions to be asked of Jacksonville Armada. Will the 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation remain as the go-to for head coach Tony Meola? And if so, is this the formula to success in the North American Soccer League? In a league where most teams run four to five midfielders consistently in every lineup, three doesn’t seem like it would be able to sustain the presence of however many teams may run against Armada. Also, with as much fire power in attack as Jacksonville has, is it really worth it to leave attacking players on the bench like Jemal Johnson, Akeil Barrett, and Alex Dixon for an extra defender? Seemingly, this is a risk free option playing with more in the defense, but for one it allows for less opportunity in the attacking third, and it enables teams to run the game how they want, getting their chance at the opportunities lost by Armada. Questions have not been answered yet, and hopefully will be soon as reading the team sheet Sunday morning was a bit shocking.
Red Bulls completely dominated in the match and look strong, even if this was one of their first games. Retaining Bradley Wright-Phillips for another year was huge for the 2015 Supporters Shield winners, and the player is still scoring goals no matter who he is facing. Overall the front line of NY is deadly. Two experienced midfielders in McCarty and Kljestan back up a vigorous attack led by BWP, Mike Grella, Lloyd Sam, and Felipe. NY looked solid in their second pre-season match as they look to chase for the 2016 MLS Cup in the upcoming year.
Next on the schedule for Jacksonville is an encounter with MLS opponent, Philadelphia Union on February 6th, whom they defeated last year 3-1 in their inaugural game in history. New York Red Bulls faced off against Montverde Academy right after defeating Armada 5-2 on Sunday morning. After losing to Montverde 1-0 in what was a match for the youth, Red Bulls will next play Montreal Impact on February 4th.
These two sides, Jacksonville Armada and New York Red Bulls, will take part in a rematch on February 27th in Jacksonville, just over a week before the 2016 MLS season kicks off.