By: Logan Alexander
Its as if Jacksonville Armada Football Club is a girl at the bar that you notice on a guys night out. One may be going out to have a good time, enjoy a Friday night with friends, but this one person just cannot keep their eyes off of the beauty across the counter. Eyes lock, you two engage, and all you can feel is an enigma uncontrollable when you’re with her. Days go by, which turn to weeks, which turn to months, and every passing day you get crazier and crazier about her. Sooner or later you start to fall in love and the passion you have for her is a rage. One lesson to be learned is that, no relationship encompasses an absolute perfection. There will be times of pure joy, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, there will be times of an engraving heartache. What is important is to stand by who you love through any trials or obstacles endured in life.
Another chance, another opportunity to achieve what has never been done before, and that is three points on the road, a feat not accomplished in 21 matches away from Community First Park. Though, no matter where ‘the Fleet’ have played this year, the season has been an utter struggle on all cylinders. Currently last place in the North American Soccer League, Jacksonville has underachieved in all areas of the pitch.They have been so underwhelming, when dubbed to finish at least top five, and potentially make the playoffs in the pre-season power rankings. The team also has not won a league game since their home victory against Miami FC, in which they won 2-1 back in mid April.
Tony Meola stated that the U.S. Open Cup was a huge deal to the club this season, and he wanted to lead the squad to a deep run in the competition, but currently that is Fort Lauderdale Strikers living lavishly, not the Armada. Of course, beating Charleston 2-1 at home was a huge result as it overshadows the horrid 3-0 loss to Richmond Kickers last year in the Armada’s opening round. The problem is that after squeaking past the Battery, Jacksonville could not follow up with a win against Orlando City as they fell 1-0 to the Lions. With a failure in the Open Cup, as well as more failures in the league, Jacksonville seems to be buried six feet under. Against Tampa Bay Rowdies though, the Armada can open their Fall season account with three points as they look to claw back into the thick of things in the NASL. Also on the side note, a win away from home would be a huge morale booster needed in this team that lacks a certain spark.
Just under a month ago, Tampa Bay visited Jacksonville in what ended as a 1-1 draw on a blistering hot Saturday afternoon. Junior Sandoval opened the scoring for the Armada in the 52nd minute, but could not hold on with ten men on the field and six minutes plus stoppage on the clock. Junior Burgos equalized in the 83rd minute on a well struck ball from outside of the 18-yard box that was out of the reach of Armada ‘keeper, Miguel Gallardo. In previous meetings before the June 11th matchup, Jacksonville are 1-0-2 against Tampa Bay, winning 2-0 at home in the fall season, but falling short in Tampa 3-2 on both occasions last year.
The hosts finished 5th in the league in the Spring Season, but only two points off of the top spot which was taken by Indy Eleven dramatically on the last day of the season. The team as a whole has scored eleven goals while conceding nine, but four clean sheets by Rowdies shot stopper, Matt Pickens, have been clutch in Tampa’s successful run this year. Rowdies forwards, Georgi Hristov and Tom Heinemann, have comprised of five goals between the two, which is just under 50% of all goals scored through the whole squad. A key to the great start Tampa has had in the league is the fact of the matter that they are not too reliant on one player, the striker, to score all of the goals. Sure, the defense can be scrutinized for allowing nine goals in ten games, but shots that hit the back of the net have been found on all areas of the field, which is an added bonus. Joe Cole, Eric Avila, Neill Collins, Tamika Mkandawire, and Burgos have also contributed to the goalscoring, all with one each.
Tampa favors playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, one that suits the players they have very well. Now this is the first game of the Fall season so its not the easiest to suspect what lineup will be dropped for the match later on, but here is a valiant effort as to who the Rowdies will likely roll out with. At goalkeeper, will be the man himself Matt Pickens, who like I said earlier holds four clean sheets in ten matches on the year. The back line will feature Ben Sweat at left back, a local talent of Tampa Bay who though isn’t dynamic at fullback, he will get the job done. The two center halves should consist of Neill Collins and Tamika Mkandawire, two dominant target men on corners who have both scored, but are not the most consistent duo in the rear. Rounding out the final third is Darnell King at right back. Juan Guerra and Joe Cole should start at the holding midfield roles, sitting right in front of the back line looking to eliminate any attacks that advance deep into the Rowdies half. At the outside midfield positions we could eye either Eric Avila (ex-Orlando player), Kalif Alhassan, Darwin Espinal, or even Freddy Adu! Likely, Avila on the right and Alhassan on the left, such a danger running with pace at the defense but who is also a pretty tidy finisher. At central attacking midfield, if healthy, Michael Nanchoff. If Nanchoff is not ready for the match, totally expect Georgi Hristov to slot in at CAM. Up top will either be Tom Heinemann or Hristov, depending on the situation at CAM.Heinemann as you may remember, took the league by storm last year in the fall season with Ottawa, being their top goalscorer and leading them to the NASL title game after an abysmal Spring.
Jacksonville finished on the completely opposite end of the league table. With a record of 1-2-7, the team sits on five points, which is last in the league. Five goals have been scored in ten games while eleven have been allowed. After ten games, Matt Bahner and Junior Sandoval are the leading goalscorer combining for 80% of the teams goals(cries). The problem that arose and haunted Jacksonville is the fact that they do not have a consistent goalscorer in the squad.
Matt Fondy banged 22 into the back of the net last year for Louisville City, was signed by Jacksonville, but was soon released after not scoring in six starts. Alhassane Keita, the second striker option, has not scored in league play yet but has one in the cup. The inconsistency at the striker position hurts Jacksonville so much and we can’t seem to find a player at the top of the formation that we are comfortable with. All along the front line, there is a lack of passion to spark a fire, and the players almost seem to be too passive. Another talking point is the lack to just shoot the ball. It is limited but when Jacksonville is in a position to shoot, they don’t and there are often games where hardly any shots are recorded for the Armada. Of course there are problems on the defensive side of the lineup as well, but when the offense is lacking and midfield is not supporting, the defense will get battered. And let’s not talk about the goalkeeper situation, sorry.
Danny Barrow seems to be a player that Jacksonville is keen on starting, who brings a lot of talent and potential to the table, though he did not even travel with the team to Tampa. As is the same story with Matt Bahner, who are both completely healthy but did not make the trip down south. Seems like a pretty weird strategy leaving two of the best players in the blue and gold jerseys back in Jacksonville.
This matchup in Tampa (St. Petersburg) is going to boil down to one key element on the field and that is the presence of the two central defensive midfielders for Tampa Bay. Look, a 4-2-3-1 formation is dangerous. Offensively, good numbers can push forward with the everlasting presence of the attacking midfielders in support. Defensively, plenty can fall back in retreat if Jacksonville can provide any threat in the attack. What to watch for is the middle of the field when Jacksonville attack at Tampa Bay, and that is the space of the two holding midfielders. Jacksonville need to not be insane tonight. If the middle of the field is too congested and every attack is breaking down at the hands of the CDM’s the ball should start getting sprayed wide. Now the pressure that falls on the Armada wingers is actually delivering decent crosses into the box, an area that has also been a struggle from the North Florida side. Maybe a player can get their foot or head on a ball that gets a solid cross from the sideline. Pascal Millien and Jemal Johnson are key players tonight, who need to step up for the side after an average Spring season for them both.
Also for Jacksonville, they cannot fall behind early, or at all. In previous meetings at Tampa, Jacksonville has seen themselves fall behind and chase games late on in the second half, chasing for draws. Tonight, the Armada should be chasing for three points or need to be in the clear. A goal down going into 15 minutes left would not be a good sign for a team desperate to just win a game.
Tampa Bay’s key to the game is that they are playing at a sold out Al-Lang stadium in front of their home fans, honestly a true morale booster for any side in the league. They just need to play their game, keep their composure, and beware of anything that can happen, because no one really knows what Jacksonville is ever going to do on game days.
The match will be televised locally and nationally on beIN Sports as Jacksonville look for their first road win in club history, and Tampa Bay hope to secure three points to stay leading the pack in the North American Soccer League. Kickoff is set for 7:30pm and for tickets, well they’re sold out.