Chance. An empowering word engraved into the mind of a Jacksonville Armada supporter for the rest of their livlihood. Chance. A word pertaining to the odds of coming out of a situation alive or dead. Victorious or defeated. In regards to the local North American Soccer League club in the River City, chance was either prosperity, or catastrophe.
When time revealed itself, Jacksonville was on the brink . On the brink of a beautiful dream in 2012, being torched right before our eyes as we inevitably conceded to identifying JAFC as ash and embers during the frigid December days. As time rolled onwards and more information became leaked to the public, chance of pulling through was in an array of doubtfulness. In what seemed to be a saga of downward spirals, the club based in Jacksonville had its back against the wall for what felt like an eternity. Anxiety uncovered a distinct fearfulness in the souls of supporters and fans of this young club. Days were long, nights were everlasting. Yet, no one knew what the future had to hold.
An owner with no more finances to back a second division soccer club. Millions of dollars were lost in the pursuit of a dream. There was no President overseeing Armada after the removal of Steve Livingstone in February of 2016. No man guided the struggling ship to waters of safety and smoothness. All players were released and yet the only rock within the squad was the coaching staff under Mark Lowry. A USL bid was rejected, an owner could not be found to take control of operations throughout the club, and the NASL at that moment was lying on its death bed. With the ceasing of operations being either permanent (Rayo OKC) or suspended for the time being (Fort Lauderdale Strikers), the league was identified as weak and failing. A lifeline was presented by the United States Soccer Federation though, to save a number of teams in a struggling system.
Fast forward to the first week of January. The North American Soccer League acted positively to U.S. Soccer’s criteria and Jacksonville became a league owned franchise. USSF demanded that the NASL consist of at least eight teams to have a viable chance of persisting through the sanctioning decision which ended up taking place on January 6th, 2017. Against all odds, USSF came to decide that both the NASL and United Soccer League were to share Division II status. Both leagues were required and are in the process of making adjustments throughout their respective league to be considered to either retain D-II or fall to Division III in the soccer pyramid.
In the end, Jacksonville needed the league, and the league were heavily reliant on Jacksonville as their eighth team. Without each other, these two entities would have died. As fans and supporters of the club, it is important to remember our history and what we endured to get to where we are, but moving forward and looking ahead is the only focus now. The 2017 NASL season is just around the corner, and Jacksonville enter the fray for their third year, eying vengeance after their previous two horrific finishes in the table. Chance did not fare in the Armada’s corner, though they persevered in what was a near impossible situation. April is here.
Guillermo Hoyos was a failure. Tony Meola was just as horrific as a manager. There is no wonder that the team was consistently struggling in the league and cup. Constant formation switches, different lineups featured every match, and no tactical game plan created a tough opening two years for the Northeast Florida side who finished eleventh in both seasons of existence. For two years we have invested hope into different managers to lead the team successfully, and each time we have been left broken and confused. How could a team be this poor? Twenty-five matches winless away from home, a leading goalscorer who could not hit double digits, a defense that has surrendered ninety-five goals since their inaugural match in 2015, what was the problem? Everything. Absolutely everything. From the top of the hierarchy, to the management, to the players, every front of this club was an unsolvable problem. That was, until Mark Lowry seized reigns of the head coaching gig towards the end of 2016.
Lowry, who was already an assistant at the club, was promoted to interim head coach on August 7, 2016 after the sacking of Tony Meola which was a result of a 2-2 home draw the previous day. The dismissal of the gaffer was also due to the poor performance season-wide from Jacksonville. Immediately out of the gates, Lowry recorded Jacksonville’s first ever away victory, a 2-1 result at Ottawa Fury, snapping the club’s brutally disheartening record of twenty-five winless on the road. This achievement was followed up by a 3W-6D-4L record in the remaining fixtures of the season, leading to the promotion of Lowry. Also, Jacksonville Armada secured another away win, which was at Minnesota. They even defeated Tampa Bay Rowdies on the last day of the season 3-2, in a comeback inspired by central midfielder, Zach Steinberger, who was the late hero scoring the match winning goal.
Throughout the trials of the offseason, there is a sense of promise surrounding Mark Lowry and the staff. There is never not a fear of failure, it is human nature to be afraid or doubtful, though it is time to rest easy and relax. Offseason transactions have been graded well and currently, the morale of the team has reached heights that have not been seen before. There is a new era in Jacksonville, with a manager committed to the cause of winning and putting in performances week in and week out. Also, a true respect has been shown from manager to the players and vice versa as they fight for each other on the field, as we have seen this preseason. Lastly, one important reason that Lowry is a great fit to lead Armada on, is that he gets the most out of the players that are under his wing, no matter the skill one may possess. Under the new head coach, there is a unity between each and every player, and building off of this strong suit can take the side to new levels of prestige.
The second enhancement in leadership comes from the man who will be wearing the captain’s armband this year, Aaron Pitchkolan. For starters, the wealth of experience surrounding this player is immense and is an attribute we have not seen before in a captain. Since the beginning of his career in 2005, Pitchkolan featured, most notably, sixty-eight times for FC Dallas in Major League Soccer. He also spent a small portion of his time with San Jose Earthquakes. Not only was Pitch playing in the top level of the MLS, after he left the Quakes and after venturing around the States for a few years, he found himself landing in Minnesota. The midfielder played from 2013-2016, appeared ninety-five times for the Loons, and even became captain of the NASL side during his tenure. Unlike any other captain in Armada history, Aaron Pitchkolan has consistently played at a top level which is one key reason he has achieved in earning the armband.
Leaving Minneapolis and coming to Jacksonville, Pitchkolan brings a winning mentality to a predominantly losing side. Over the few years up north, Pitch was not a witness to many losses as the squad around him has been a force to be reckoned with in the NASL, now playing in the MLS. Having a positive and upbeat mentality is huge for a team that has experienced numerous occasions of failure, This approach to a match by just one player can motivate a whole squad, and having a certain belief that victories can come, will change the dynamic of this team quickly.
There are plenty of qualities that point to Aaron Pitchkolan as to why he is the captain for 2017, but no matter how much character or heart he has for the game, he is an equally good player. The midfielder will be starting at center back for the Boys in Blue, a role not often given, but the player is surely capable of stepping up to the occasion. He is said to have the “touch of a blacksmith” when on the ball, and be “full of composure” throughout the ninety minutes, so let’s hope this translates well when we actually see him playing regular season soccer for Jacksonville. Pitchkolan’s role is the biggest of any player on the team this year, and his play will be the most crucial going forward.
Ending the 2016 season, and throughout the 2017 preseason, Mark Lowry has not tinkered much with a formation that seems to suit the squad particularly well. Leading up to the start of the regular season, fully expect the manager to continue with his trend of running a 4-3-3 formation with an attacking mindset. Here is my prediction as to what the starting lineup may be at the beginning of the campaign:
Patterson-Sewell; Beckie, Pitchkolan, Jerome, Doue; George, Maripuu, Steinberger; Banks, Eloundou, Glenn.
The reason that Caleb Patterson-Sewell will win the starting job, is solely due to his level of experience in comparison to Kyle Nasta. Though the Australian-American has not been tested thoroughly during the preseason, his professional experience separates himself from Nasta. Though, after the preseason period, there is no distinction as to who the better goalkeeper truly is, time will have to tell. One positive about Nasta is that he will for sure be the backup goalkeeper, and he made quite a few very spectacular saves that were eye catching. One of which saved a 1-0 scoreline against Tampa Bay Rowdies, in which the Armada held firm and won the match by the same score. The big question mark for the goalkeeper situation in Jacksonville is this. Will either of these two be able to fill the shoes of the fantastic shot-stopper Miguel Gallardo? Chill out, it was a joke. Carry on.
Thank God, Anthony Wallace is no longer rostered by Jacksonville Armada Football Club. The left back is the epitome of how bad last season was in the defense. Completely lackluster, dazed and confused, useless when on the ball, always looking to launch balls forward instead of playing to feet, it was dreadful. That was on the left side of the field. On the right, Bryan Burke showed promise in attack, but often got lost through the defensive aspect of the game, and was extremely inconsistent. Inconsistency came from his own form, and the constant changes to the lineups week in and out by Tony Meola, which did not help much. When Burke was not starting on the right side, Matt Bahner slotted in who is a natural central defender by trade.
The fullback position struggled last season due to the lack of quality and inability to attack and add numbers forward which enables offensive pushes to be far less dangerous. With the additions of Drew Beckie and Peabo Doue, fully expect there to be countless numbers of attacks on the flanks consisting of both, the right and left back. Both players produce flair on their respective area of the field, always thinking about going forward, but mentally keeping tabs with tracking back and staying at bay with the defense when necessary. Drew Beckie is going to be sensational to watch as he was in the majority of the preseason. One key attribute by both of these men is that they can whip in a vicious ball, and with a target like Jonathan Glenn in the box, there will be a plethora of chances for the big forward in the air.
Mechak Jerome was one of the five players that was released back in December, a major blow to the team as he has been one of the most consistent players in an Armada shirt over the past year and a half. The strong, instinctive, and knowledgable Haitian center back returns to Jacksonville for yet another year but with a new partner by his side in the center of the defense. We know the capabilities of Jerome, but how he performs with Aaron Pitchkolan as his partner for 2017 will be a duo to watch out for this year.
*For the record, if either player is to be suspended or missing from the starting lineup, Kalen Ryden will step up into the slot. Ryden has been enjoying a very successful preseason individually and is not one to be ruled out from making a number of starts this season.*
Central Defensive Midfield:
Kevan George and Nicklas Maripuu, we all know who these guys are and what they have to offer. For George, he is an all around superstar and plays one of the most important roles in the squad. He can defend, he can initiate an attack, and with assistance, can shut down an opposition’s midfield in a match. What is special about Kevan George is his ability to weave his way out of tense situations in the center of the park, and his calmness when on the ball in a heavily congested area. For example, we are aware of his talents and abilities when he is in the squad. Whenever the Trinidad and Tobago international is out of the squad though, there is chaos. In Charlotte this past weekend, there was no control in the midfield and that is due to the absence of the star midfielder. He is the key figure to receive passes in tight situations and bail Jacksonville out of difficult circumstances in their half. Many times from these situations, he initiates counter attacks, carrying the ball forward and playing that first pass forward after getting out of his own side of the field. Armada were pressed and being choked by the Charlotte squad the whole first half of the game this past Saturday, not showing a sense of comfort without George, and revealing a true need for the player to be in the side at all times.
Nicklas Maripuu can defend, there is no question about that, and we have watched him enough to understand how he’ll play on the field. The Swede is weak in the attack, but shows a strength in defense, which means he will be shying away from attacks and will sit deep in the midfield to play an assurance in the case of counter attacks or breakaways. Maripuu has got to be quicker when on the ball though as his decision making is too slow and he often times gets swallowed up and is a liability because of that. One more key for Maripuu this season is to start playing the ball forward and not always look backwards. It seems as if the player does not have a pass forward, the ball is always sent back to the defense or keeper. There have been countless times that he has had open space in front of him as well, that has not been taken advantage of. Look, bottom line, he isn’t a horrible player but he can enhances game. Smarter and quicker decision making when on the ball will take him to another level of his game.
*It must be known that if there is a shortage of midfielders available on any given night, Aaron Pitchkolan is versatile and can step up in the center of the park for the Fleet. Just a thought.*
Central Attacking Midfield:
Zach Steinberger, what a guy. The attacking midfielder/winger has signed a permanent deal with Jacksonville, cutting ties with Houston once and for all. With four goals and four assists towards the end of the 2016 campaign, including the game winning goal to beat Tampa 3-2 at the end of the season, Steinberger was easily the most influential player in the squad. Always energetic and willing to run at the defense, yet picks out perfect passes and can defend, this is the all around playmaker for Jacksonville. After an impressive loan from Houston, and a spectacular end to last season, Steinberger is starting on the same level he ended on and there is no doubt he is starting at the attacking midfield position.
*Zach can also play at center forward or on the wing, generally anywhere. If this is the case, J.C. Banks will be next in line to take on the CAM role*
Charles Eloundou caught fire last year, scoring six goals and menacing the right and left side, often time switching sides of the field consistently during matches, causing problems for the defense. If you compared #99 from the beginning of last season to the end, there is a sense of a vast maturity in his game. Instead of always looking to take defenders on while running down the flank, Eloundou has started to perk his head up, finding open passes and not subjecting himself to going at defenses alone. Playing with different strategies and ideas will keep the opponent’s defense on their toes, making them question what our plan in attack will be. Often times last season and before, teams would figure out our game plan and shut down Jacksonville. After this happened, we would not have a clue what to do when attacking the opposition net and we would look lost going forward because we were so heavily reliant on that one idea in attack. Pass the ball off instead of shooting every time, put the defense off, let’s perform in a free flowing and fast attack.
J.C. Banks is a central midfielder but has looked lethal farther up the pitch, scoring and creating multiple goals this preseason. The ex-Minnesota midfielder is looking to make a case of being a consistent starter with his new club and so far he has played exceptionally. Banks plays along the same style as Steinberger, always hustling for the ball, creating combinations, and he can finish as well. Him and Steinberger should be exciting to watch, honestly. It could be Danny Barrow, could be Jemal Johnson even on the wing, but Banks gets the starting job at the beginning of the season…at least. This is due to his great preseason, while the two previously mentioned forwards have been struggling to make impacts when coming onto the field in the previous matches.
Jonathan Glenn is going to score all of the goals for Jacksonville Armada FC this year and you can bet on it. The forward made a name for himself in Iceland, scoring twenty-five goals in fifty-five appearances across the pond in Viking country. All around, Glenn is a force. For one, he can head the ball well and hold the ball up, generating added time for surrounding players to push up into the attack. Not only can he hold onto the ball, he also has a bit of pace about him and can take on defenders with strength. Lastly, he can shoot, and he can score goals. Whether it be off of his head or his foot, he is a consistent goalscorer and its proven over his previous years that when he starts scoring, he doesn’t stop. Jacksonville need a striker to get going to have any chances to make a mark on their 2017 season, as others have started slow and failed to recover throughout the season. This is the year of double digit goals by the main striker. No pressure, Jonathan.
I have absolutely zero expectations for this season as I am not sure of what will happen, and also I do not want to be demoralized and broken hearted if that may be the case. I have hope and belief that there is potential in this group of players and in the manager, and I believe Jacksonville could be the best team in the league with their offseason acquisitions. There is an added hope knowing that Lowry is the one leading these boys in 2017.
For the Spring Season… 5th. We need a little more time to reach heights and goals set for the season and I do not think that Jacksonville is on the level of an Indy Eleven or Miami squad just yet, and it is not the players fault. So many changes throughout the roster and various offseason happenings have put a toll on the team. I predict we start strong with a win against Edmonton at home, but after that, who knows. Maybe there is a surprise factor and I am totally wrong and this team runs out of the gates very hot. Anything can happen in this league as the NASL league gets underway for Jacksonville on Sunday, April 2nd at home against FC Edmonton. Under forty-eight hours until Jacksonville Armada Football Club have their chance…
Here’s to you famous white and blue..
Duval loves you more than you will know..