By: Logan Alexander
After a humiliating 5-2 defeat at Indy Eleven, followed up by a 2-2 draw at home to Carolina, Tony Meola was axed by Jacksonville Armada Football Club following a tumultuous campaign in which his squad at the moment were rock bottom of the NASL, playing pitifully in what was a season of plenty of hope. Although, did we have a valid reason to be so optimistic leading into the 2016 season? For starters, Meola had no prior coaching experience.
Our faith rested on the shoulders of a man who played a great career in Major League Soccer, overseas, and for the United States Men’s National Team, though he possessed little to none time on the sidelines. Meola also had a game plan for Jacksonville, yet he failed to execute his tactics due to poor signings and less awareness. The Scandinavian Project did not work out in favor of the club. Alexander Andersson lasted just over three months for the club with only three starts and no goals. Even off the bench the striker could not make any impact on the pitch. Nicklas Maripuu arrived in Jacksonville at the same time as Andersson (June 20th), and even found a consisting start role in the team yet there were no flashes of brilliance from him. Lastly, the fan favorite Pekka Lagerblom. First was an Achilles tendon that hampered him from the get-go in Northeast Florida. Next was a hamstring. Such a clever player has been injury ridden all season, leading to his first year in Jacksonville being a classified failure.
One of the most notable flaws of Meola’s tenure involving player signings is that of the transfer of Matt Fondy to Carolina. The poaching striker had no supporting cast behind him and without quality service into the box, Fondy was never going to be successful here. Though instead of fixing mistakes, Tony sent the target forward packing for Cary, North Carolina where he scored in his debut match for the Railhawks eventually bagged another six. To fill the void, Andersson came to town, and that was dreadful. Tactically, Meola was awful. So many different formations, too many matches without a clear mindset, and no will power to lead the team.
On August 7th, the first year head coach was sacked. Two days later, assistant coach Mark Lowry was handed the reigns as interim head coach. First match of his campaign, Jacksonville Armada 2, Ottawa Fury 1. The first ever match that the Fleet have won away, yet also the first match that Lowry had ever managed at the senior level. To finish up the Fall season, Lowry ended with a 4-6-4 record including once again another away win at Minnesota, the toughest stadium to play at in the league.
There is a different vibe surrounding Mark Lowry. The players seemed locked in and ready to fight for the club every time they stepped onto the field. Looking back on tactics, the team had solid goal scoring opportunities throughout, and stuck with the 4-2-3-1 formation. There was not always a sense of wanting to make big changes after a loss, but to become more sound and improve at what Jacksonville were rolling out with every time they stepped onto the field. This is optimism and a new hope for JAFC. A bond between both player and manager, a chemistry that can exceed goals and ambitions.
There was not a single player that could be identified as a leader at the beginning and throughout the fall season. After an away match in Miami back in June, traveling supporters were asking questions, it didn’t seem like life could get any worse at that moment for Armada fans. In the heat of the moment, Tyler Ruthven stepped up. This speech he gave was not that of backlash or rage at the traveling support, but of pleading that he was giving everything he had for the cause of the club. Stepping up next to the Ruthven, Matt Bahner and Mechak Jerome. Up top, though he is young, Zach Steinberger has emerged as a threat in the attack. The reason these players can be declared leaders, is by this. No matter win, lose, or draw, they play with their heart on their sleeve and give everything for the badge on their chest. The desire to win is imminent and they lift up other players and teammates around them. Since Miami away back on that hot day in July, there is a sense of leadership in the squad, and if we can somehow keep this core group of players together for next season, a special team can be built around them.
After months of waiting on the sideline for his opportunity to shine, Danny Barrow finally dipped into the team leading the charge in attack with ferocity. The player from the United Kingdom is a tricky one, so small but has such a fierce burst of pass and a knack for skills on the ball. Unfortunately, he has not scored in an Armada jersey when producing or receiving good opportunities, which is an area that needs to be adjusted in his game. Confidence plays a major role in Danny’s game, and if he can keep pursuing throughout the 2017 season with strides of a confident mindset, he will be a lethal attacking winger.
Charles Eloundou is another young player that can lead the charge next year as well. Countless times we have witnessed expert runs down the flanks of the field, a cut inside towards the goal, and a shot that goes sailing way over the bar. Like we saw in the preseason, once Eloundou started scoring, he would not stop. Having four hit the back of the net in before the regular season, the Cameroonian attacker scored six goals in the final 15 games of the season. Zach Steinberger is another young player who could not stop scoring, and was also mentioned as an asset to the team that plays with desire and passion.
Last but not least, who remembers Chaim Roserie? Well, he’s 18. And eligible. In an interview I held with him, he says that he is ready for 2017 and is motivated to finally be able to play. Two years on the sidelines due to being ineligible to play according to FIFA. If you don’t know him get acquainted, he’s going to be quite the star.
Finally, Three Points on the Road
32 matches away from home. Two wins. Life away from Community First Park has been awful, yet there is joy to be found in the fact that Jacksonville have mentally hurdled over the boundary known as “Winning Away”. The period of time in which Jacksonville did not win away from home was one of the worst records in history. But, screw records, it’s over now. The past is far behind and what the players can look forward to is not heavily depending on a result at an opponent’s park to save their sanity. A win at Ottawa and a win at Minnesota seals the deal, and there should not be an anxious nature about the squad on their travels like we’ve seen over the past two years supporting this club.
Man, the past two years have been a rollercoaster ride for the players and support of Jacksonville Armada. From the height of the opening match of the regular season against Edmonton in the inaugural year which saw Armada as 3-1 winners, to the lows of a 3-0 loss to Richmond Kickers, the support has never died. It will never die. From trips to New York City to Puerto Rico and all in between, JAFC have seen fans travel the country to support them and that is encouraging for any team, especially one going through trouble and struggles like this year. Keep moving forward. The players appreciate all that we do for the team, from showing up to games, to traveling, to supporting them via social media. Every effort counts, and never give up on the squad because of results. Support local, and never let it fade. Have pride in the Jacksonville Armada Football Club.