By: Logan Alexander
Finally, after over three months of waiting to watch the famous boys in blue, Armada supporters will receive their wish. Jacksonville vs. Philadelphia is approaching as we are now just over a day away from the first match of the calendar year. Just over a day away from the blue and yellow smoke filling the air at Community First Park. A day away from the beautiful game gracing the pitch in downtown Jacksonville. Arriving in the River City though, are a team looking to divert the direction in which their football club is facing. Philadelphia Union, that is.
Dating back to the inaugural season of Philadelphia Union back in 2010, Philadelphia have only ever made the playoffs one time in their history. 2011. A year of prosperity and one of the highest feelings a Union supporter has felt. Then following 2011, is the downfall. Always anchored down to the bottom of the table, Philly have not had a sniff of MLS Cup Playoff football in the past four years. One reason for their failures is that the team does not pay the big bucks. With the lowest salary cap in the league, Philly does not possess any star quality on the field other than American, Maurice Edu, though he only makes $700k a year, and that is the highest paid player on the team! The club also chooses to not splash out cash on big signings, stating content at being a lower leveled team in the league.
Who wants to go to Philadelphia anyways? With New York Red Bulls close by, LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, all of these intriguing clubs in the United States, who would choose Philadelphia? Being a club can’t be an excuse as to why big players are not making their way, though as seen by the top three teams listed and clubs all around the world, spending means winning. Something that Philadelphia has never ventured into achieving. One Union fan may hope that fortunes can be turned in the year 2016, as “The U” receive a fresh restart and another chance at glory in the MLS, like what Portland Timbers showed us last year.
Jacksonville Armada kind of sit in the same boat. Last year kicked off the inaugural season for the the Fleet, though it was a season to mostly forget. Sure ill go ahead and say that it was a season to remember due to the excitement of having a professional franchise in Jacksonville, and there were goals and a few games to remember, though all of the good things that happened last year are overshadowed by an 11th placed finish, dead last in the NASL. Poor fixtures. No wins away from home. A psychotic manager. Players who did not give their all. The season had all of the elements a first year should, with ups and downs, though the feeling of watching Armada was excruciating knowing that there were no signs of getting better as the year advanced. Like the Union, Armada receive a fresh restart. The assuring matter of the fact is that Jacksonville have capitalized, knowing this is a new year.
Tony Meola has become Jacksonville Armada Football Club’s manager, the Fleet’s Savior, and so far what he is doing as the head man for the club, is everything right. For starters, a challenging preseason schedule including Philadelphia, Orlando, and New York Red Bulls shows the intent of getting down to business, quickly before the regular season starts.
Also, signings that have been made under his tenure have been absolutely top class. Scouting the world is one way to search and sign players, though some teams forget about keeping their eyes open and having tabs open in domestic leagues right in their backyard. The talent in the United States is ever growing and last year, Jacksonville failed to recognize that. Instead of scouting young Americans, hungry to work their way up to glory in the United States, Dario Sala and company chose to look abroad at players who eventually didn’t give their all for the club, and were not accustomed to the way the American game is played. Meola has made a difference to this side and changed the mindset completely.
Matthew Fondy, 2015 Golden Boot Winner and MVP of the league, scored 22 goals in 28 games for Louisville City FC. Fondy’s goal tally of 2015 is one more than that of the following Armada players in the season: Alhassane Keita, Akeil Barrett, Pascal Millien, and Jemal Johnson. At the welcoming party of Tony Meola at Blackfinn in Jacksonville, the manager acknowledged that “one of our targets is a number nine on the field”. As of February 4, 2016, Meola has found and signed his number nine that was always hoped for.
Bryan Burke is another American making a new for himself and working up the league system. Just a few years ago, Burke was an MVP defender for Kitsap Pumas in the USL Premier Development League. Last year at Louisville City FC, Burke led the league with eleven assists and was the defender of the year, catching the eye of Meola and staff in Jacksonville, and many clubs in the United States. Burke and other defenders like Tyler Ruthven, and Beto Navarro, join JAFC in hopes to bolster a defense that allowed 49 goals to hit the back of their net.
Last year, Philadelphia and Jacksonville played to a 3-1 final in favor of the Armada in front of an NASL preseason record crowd of 13,934. Fabricio Ortiz scored the first goal, followed by an Alhassane Keita second just a few minutes later. Lucas Trejo also found his name on the scoresheet after burying a penalty when the score was 2-1, to take his side to the 3-1 advantage that eventually won the game for Jacksonville.
This time it is different. A new manager, new philosophy, with a host of new players. One head scratcher is the question of what formation will be run by the Armada against Philadelphia. Well, interestingly enough, Meola chooses to work with the 3-5-2 formation, one that we have never seen before, and one that was featured during the closed door friendly between Red Bulls and Jacksonville just this past Sunday. Essentially the formation is used to balance out numbers in attack and defense. Three defenders are always present. Two strikers are always present. The midfield shifts and is the factor that determines whether the formation works properly or not. Out of five midfielders, three work in the center of the park, while the last two are a left midfielder and a right midfielder. Depending on how high up the pitch the outside midfielder plays, they can be regarded as an out and out midfielder, or even a wingback if they don’t attack more frequently. Now, the 3-5-2 formation is basically a two in one. When attacking, the outside players will bomb forward, featuring as left and right forwards/midfielders. In defense, these players will feature as defenders on the left and right side creating a five at the back formation when the other team has possession in their half(5-3-2).
Another key note to keep in mind about the 3-5-2 is that it allows for midfield dominance when facing most teams who like to run three or even four in the midfield. The dominance in the center of the park allows for more possession from the side and more opportunities able to be created, which is one thing that Jacksonville lacked last year. The only worrying figure, formation wise, is the threat of the counter attack, and also, are the two wide men able to consistently play the position perfectly and as it should be played.
Let’s take a look at what the formation may look like for the match against Philadelphia:
Armada FC Starting XI: Gallardo, Burke, Jérôme, Ruthven, Navarro, Bahner, Ryan, Lagerblom, Millien, Barrow, Keita.
Miguel Gallardo will get the start in the net, that is for certain. Bryan Burke has an attacking prowess that should not be ignored, which is a reason he will start as a right wingback/midfielder. The three center backs will be Mechak Jérôme, Tyler Ruthven, and Beto Navarro. Shockingly, Meola started Matt Bahner at left wingback/midfield during the scrimmage against NYRB, which forces the feeling that nothing will change at that position. Notably, Bahner can attack well and run the flanks. Richie Ryan and Pekka Lagerblom will sit as central midfielders in the center of the park with Pascal Millien starting as an attacking midfielder. Millien as a CAM is actually interesting to think about. The player is a game changer and with his pace can create acres of space in the field. Going out on a limb, if the formation sticks and Millien retains his role in the lineup, he will achieve over 10 assists this season. Up top we have the Armada’s leading goalscorer last year with seven, Alhassane Keita. Side by side with the Guinean is Danny Barrow, who joined the Armada just recently and is a product of the West Bromwich Albion youth academy. Both players scored in the friendly with NYRB.
You can catch Jacksonville Armada vs. Philadelphia Union on February 6th at 6:00pm either at Community First Park or on the television locally on CW17. The match will also be featured on ESPN3 with a cable provider. You won’t want to miss it.