Jacksonville Armada Season Preview- A New Hope

By: Logan Alexander

 

November 1st was such a long time ago, the date of the last competitive match that Jacksonville Armada Football Club has featured in. Though, with the trials that were suffered throughout the first year, to the epic demise and fall that Jacksonville witnessed in the NASL table, we can forget an inaugural year of tribulation on the playing field. Now, we begin to ramp up to the start of a year two. A new uprising. The first regime has disintegrated, the Argentines are gone, and now leading the helm for JAFC is a man on a mission, one that is looking to make his mark in the coaching world; Tony Meola.

Hope has been reignited in Jacksonville after a series of changes from players, to coaches, to even the front office.

The Squad

Let’s begin with the plenty of changes in the roster. Marcos Flores, the Argentine central attacking midfielder dubbed to lead Jacksonville both in the attack and in the locker room. Gone. After an uneventful season in such a primetime role, Flores departed Jacksonville In November 2015 and now plays in the third division in Chile. Lucas Rodriguez, central midfielder by trade but continuously featured at left back. Gone. Now he plays in the Major Indoor League. Lucas Trejo (bleh) left the club at the end of the season, though he was the weakest link and no one really cared that he opted out of Jacksonville. Following these three out the door were Fabricio Ortiz, and a plethora of the local talent that wore the blue, gold, and white. Tommy Krizanovic (Goalzanovic) was dropped from the squad after a one goal affair in 2015, which by the way was a goal that sealed a 1-0 victory for Armada at home to the New York Cosmos. But honestly, as a backup, the local striker that everyone loved could not match up to the caliber of the NASL. Nurdin Hrustic, Joseph Toby, Tyler Williams, and Jordan Gafa were not offered contract renewals from Armada.

Most notably was the recent departure of Akeil Barrett just a few weeks ago, who joined Pitea, a third division side in Sweden. With so many departures personnel wise, came plenty of players into Jacksonville.

One word to describe the signings that the Armada have made over the course of the offseason is….UPGRADES. From Louisville City FC comes two players that took the United Soccer League (USL) by storm last year; Matt Fondy and Bryan Burke. Fondy won the 2015 Golden Boot scoring 22 goals for Louisville in 28 appearances for the club. This player brings a different dimension to Jacksonville, one that was not present last year for Armada. At the striker role we have Alhassane Keita, a speedy attacker that can run at any defense with pace and be lethal, but also a target man and dominant aerial presence in Fondy that is capable to challenge for any ball in the air, an area of skill that ‘the Fleet’ lacked in last year. Bryan Burke enters the fray, a right back who led the USL in assists(10) last year and was also a USL Best XI player with Fondy. Significantly, Burke enters the side and will start for the Armada in a position that was very thin last year.

Tony Meola stated that one area of the squad that JAFC needed to bolster was the center back role. In comes Beto Navarro and Tyler Ruthven, two physical and skillful center halves joining up with already dominant Mechak Jerome and Matthew Bahner. Navarro played his trade with Atlanta Silverbacks a few years back and has been called up to Jacksonville from USL side, Orange County Blues. Standing at six feet and an inch, Navarro proved to be a promising addition in the preseason, playing with much heart on the field and actually proving to be a solid pick up for a leaky 2015 defense. Ruthven did not see the field as much as Navarro in the preseason, though he has featured for New York Red Bulls before and plays with plenty of experience both in America and Europe in Finland/Sweden with IK Brage and KuPS. Ruthven is also another USL player signed by Jacksonville. Finishing out the defensive line is Patrick Otte, a Dutch left back who provides depth in the Armada roster and another versatile attacking presence who enjoys pushing forward consistently with the attack.

The midfield struggled heavily last year in the league, a main reason for the downfall in league standings. Lucas Scaglia and Nico Perea are the only remaining midfielders in this Armada side. Scaglia was arguably the best and most consistent player for Jacksonville last year while Perea did well to slot into a defensive midfield/center back role at the back end of the year. Being added to the midfield is a dominant Irish midfielder, Richie Ryan, who was a main figure that led Ottawa Fury FC to a monumental run in the fall season which ultimately saw them fall to the Cosmos in the 2015 Championship Game. Ryan will be the captain for the Armada in 2016, and he is a fantastic box to box midfielder capable of pulling all the strings in the midfield and will be the key to Jacksonville’s success this year. Ryan will be the most important player for Jacksonville, playing a central and defensive role in front of a back line that looks to be solid already. Along with Ryan is Pekka Lagerblom who will not see action until July due to an Achilles injury, but his presence in the midfield is subject to be game changing.

Lastly, Junior Sandoval, an attacking midfielder, joins the Armada from the Honduran First Division. Interestingly enough, it seems as if Sandoval and Pascal Millien will be battling to play centrally behind the striker(s). Meola deployed Millien at the CAM role numerous times throughout the preseason and the Haitian international looking very threatening, attacking at the defense in that role, in comparison to playing on the wing. It seems as if the player is more useful attacking from the midfield rather than the wing, making the fight for the CAM position a primetime debacle.

Joining Matt Fondy in the attack is a trio of new options going forward for Jacksonville. Danny Barrow hails from England where he grew in the West Bromwich Albion Youth Academy. After a failed move to Jacksonville last year, then Kansas City, the 20 year old striker prevailed after a second attempt and finds himself settled into Jacksonville. From watching him in the preseason, one can infer that Barrow is a pacey striker with great footwork though he can be indecisive in key moments or situations throughout the match whether it is holding onto the ball for too long or missing a pass. Surely with more minutes under his belt, problems will be solved and its one’s hope that Barrow gets to a top level because he is a classy player for his age.

Charles Eloundou absolutely shocked Armada fans around the city after a four goal effort in the preseason which saw this trialist a secure spot in Jacksonville for 2016. Banger after banger after banger were scored in four different preseason games, prompting coaches that the kid can bag goals and it was showing in his first match for the club against Philadelphia Union. Eloundou has been capped for Cameroon and used to play for Colorado Rapids in the MLS. A quick scouting report on Eloundou… He’s quick, physical, a goal scoring threat, and his inside cuts are world class. This player will definitely be a game changer for Jacksonville, and could even find himself starting for the squad, potentially.

Last but not least is the USL Champion himself Alex Dixon who won the ‘ship with Rochester Rhinos last year. The ex-Houston Dynamo player plays on the right wing, but has a lot to prove to try to win over the coaching staff. Dixon seemed hesitant and out of sync with the team throughout the preseason, almost needing to discover his comfort zone in Jacksonville, which can take time. What can be said is that he is a decent addition to the team this year.

One continuous theme that rings about the signings of the offseason is that, a lot of these new players are either American players or talented USL players. Here’s the thing, that is where teams find success! The failures of last year were due to grabbing and picking at players from all over the world, players with international experience but no experience in American leagues. Bottom line is that soccer is a different culture than football, the game is played differently here than in Europe or South America. Jacksonville possessed a star studded attacking lineup but the rear guard absolutely sucked. There was no balance in the squad and that is what made Armada struggle in their first year. With Meola leading the charge, our scouting networks have been locked on talented USL players making a mark in the third division deserving a call up but also still in original spots. There is a sense of balance in the squad now, between players we scout, and also the players in which we sign. The most successful teams have veteran international presences but are also stacked with American talent who understand how the game is played in this part of the world. It’s crazy to think about, but the mentality is vastly different.

The goalkeeper position remains the same as Miguel Gallardo will start between the sticks for Armada for the second year running.

The Coach

You all know by now, Tony Meola is the manager of Jacksonville Armada Football Club and takes over for the underwhelming Guillermo Hoyos and interim, Eric Dade. The former USMNT goalkeeper decided to make JAX his first home in the coaching business after a stint of broadcasting with One World Sports for New York Cosmos. Now, it is time for the long time professional player to face the adversity of the critics. Can Tony Meola lead JAFC out of the darkness and into light, potentially challenging for the title at the year’s end? It’s possible. With the positive mindset Meola establishes day in and out with the team and how much confidence he has in this group of players, it seems there’s a chance something special can happen this year. Numerous times over the past few months Meola has stated that “We will challenge for the league and the cup”. With the players he has called in and coaching mentality he has, there is a possibility to succeed in the job. The team is also said to be “very focused and prepared for the task at hand” so we will see if these words ring true come their first match this Sunday at New York Cosmos.

What Does The Season Hold?

Jacksonville Armada have upgraded on all sides of the field, but let’s be honest and straight forward here, every team in the NASL seems to have upgraded. Rayo OKC is making marquee signings left and right for a first year side, acquiring the signatures of Georgios Samaras, Robbie Findley, and co. NYC continues to add game changing players to their roster, speaking the part of Niko Kranjcar, Jairo Arrieta, and Juan Arango. All around the league teams are becoming better and more challenging to face, improving the quality of the NASL immensely. Though, for Jacksonville, the past is the past. It’s a new year, a new opportunity and a new challenge. The first battle has been lost but the war is not out of reach. The war to become the kings of the NASL. Talent fills the squad of Jacksonville for 2016 and as Jemal Johnson stated in a closed interview “with this squad, we are capable of big things”, confidence seems to be oozing from the Fleet. The Armada winger is right, this team has the capability to be dominant in the league, or they could have the capability to underperform as was seen last year. Focus, determination, and drive are important factors in the Armada’s run to a championship.

Where Will Jacksonville Armada Football Club Finish?

It’s tough to give a specific placing of a team, when the season is only a week old. Soccer has barely been played around the league and that’s what makes this question so difficult. I would like to predict the top half of the table, pushing for a playoff spot. There are teams better than us, but we a better all around squad than half of the teams in the league. Currently, I would keep the boys in blue at around 5th position, but this is without seeing them play a competitive match so far. The preseason was too inconsistent to justify a decision. Who knows, maybe the squad can pull something miraculous off this year. Though, there is a very good chance that the Spring Season title could be won.

It’s a ten game race, ten matches to play the best soccer in the league to book a spot in the playoffs in November. The spring portion of the NASL can be referred to as a sprint in a long distance race. It tends to be, whoever gets off to the hottest start ends up becoming the Spring Champion. Last year cues the perfect example as NYC dominated and found themselves comfortably winning the first half of the season. With the way the schedule has been set up for Jacksonville, a big win in NYC during week one can catapult them to do great things in the Spring, as the three games after NYC are fairly winnable. Twelve points in four games is a strong possibility if Jacksonville can get a hot start at the Cosmos. This all falls under the category of “What Could Be..” For the Armada, and great things could be ahead of the club, that’s for sure.

What to Expect While Watching Jacksonville

Expect more tactical awareness from Tony Meola than what was seen from Guillermo Hoyos last year. Meola has plenty of players to work with and understands how to work players in and around his system. Last year, there didn’t seem to be a system, just eleven guys being thrown on a grass field together.

Expect a 3-5-2 formation or a 4-3-3(attack) formation and nothing else. Over the preseason, Meola resorted to these two formations which tended to work fairly well for the team, it looked very comforting. I think depending on what team is on the schedule for that week, Meola will determine which formation to use that would suit the squad and get the best result out of the team. I honestly expect a different formation every few weeks, throwing teams off of their game while matching the opponents game plan.

Expect a balanced attack and defense. This year isn’t an all out attack affair where we could care less about supporting our back line. More cohesion will be held between the midfield and defensive line and through the play of Richie Ryan in the midfield, this team will find success.

Expect more creativity while on the attack. Plenty of attacks broke down last year due to no creativity or feeding the ball wide for crosses to guys who couldn’t jump high enough to even head a ball. Armada now have a target man, a guy that can blow past defenders with pace, and skillful attacking midfielders. There should not be failure in the final third like there was a year ago.

BOLD Predictions

Jacksonville is called the “Bold City” and with that I have compiled a list of of five bold predictions for this team in the 2016 year.

1. Miguel Gallardo will never leave his box nor think about leaving his box unless ABSOLUTELY needing to.

2. Charles Eloundou will become a consistent starter for Jacksonville Armada at some point this year.

3. Matt Fondy will NOT be the highest goal scorer for JAFC this season. It will be Pascal Millien.

4. 50% off Papa Johns 13 times this year out of 16 opportunities! (Armada win or draw at home).

5. NYC week one will be a victory, and it will be followed up by three straight victories for Armada propelling them to 12 points out of four games. They will then win the Spring. (:

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