By Logan Alexander:
Two wins to open the 2017 North American Soccer League campaign seems like a time so long ago for Jacksonville Armada FC. After this period of back to back victories, one on the road and one at home against Edmonton, Jacksonville has settled for three straight draws, winless since April 9th. Somehow by God’s grace, Armada remain at the summit of the table, but are leading the charge by a mere one point advantage over North Carolina, Miami, and of course, New York. What was a four point lead for Jacksonville, has now been trimmed to one, as the three trailing teams all earned wins this past weekend. Jacksonville’s stagnant performances lately have enabled a true title race as pressure is increasing on the first place side, making the clash with New York Cosmos on Saturday night one of the truest and toughest tests of the season.
April 29th Fixtures:
New York quite impressively gained ground on league leaders Jacksonville Armada after a shutout effort in San Francisco, ensuring a 1-0 victory due to a wonder goal from Emmanuel Ledesma in the 69th minute. San Francisco Deltas found themselves on the front foot attacking New York heavily in the second half pushing for a goal. Cosmos found an opening against the run of play, creating their opportunity from Darrius Barnes on the New York backline.
Beautiful build up play and transition that started from the defensive line led to plenty of space for Cosmos midfielder Javi Marquez who charged through the Deltas midfield with acres of space. Ledesma peeled off of the shoulder of Karl Ouimette, received a pass from Marquez, and brilliantly chipped goalkeeper Romauld Peiser from eighteen yards away. New York held on to secure the tie and earn three points on the road, which has taken them to be level on points with two other clubs in second place.
Results were not in favor of Jacksonville Armada as the squad drew 1-1 with Indy Eleven, rocketing them up one point to have nine in five matches, three in the past three games. Around the league, New York, Miami, and North Carolina all won their respective matches, as they are hot on the heels of the Northeast Florida side.
Indy struck first in the 25th minute of play, capitalizing on lost possession in the midfield by Jacksonville. Zach Steinberger was left caught in a world of trouble as three Indy players swarmed and intercepted the ball in the worst possible area. Eamon Zayed received possession and sliced open the defensive line of Armada, playing through to Justin Braun who rounded Caleb Patterson-Sewell and slotted home his third of the year. At first Braun seemed to be clearly offside, but watching back the tape, the decision was marginal. Braun appeared to be leaning offside barely, but it is hard to come to a decision with the angle beIN Sports provided. Whatever, Indy took a 1-0 advantage.
Jacksonville fired back quickly as it took just five minutes to score the equalizer. Jack Blake earned a free kick on the right side of the field deep into the Indy area. Blake crossed the ensuing free kick into the box and perfectly found Jonathan Glenn. The Trini striker finished the opportunity, as Jacksonville scored a rare set piece goal and Glenn found his first of the year. Armada had a chance just a few minutes later as Blake received another set piece opportunity from the exact area he assisted for the equalizer. The attacking midfielder connected with Glenn for a second time, but the ball deflected off of the striker’s shin and went out of play, just wide. Chances were few and far between as the two sides settled for a point in Jacksonville as the match ended at one goal a piece.
Keys to the Match: New York Cosmos
Retain Road Success: In three road matches New York have drawn 0-0 with Puerto Rico, defeated Miami FC 2-0, and just recently won 1-0 on the west coast in San Francisco. Boasting three shutouts and securing two wins and a draw on all road trips so far this year is unprecedented, and credit goes to a stout Cosmos defense and goalkeeping effort. A point is routine at Puerto Rico, but the two matches following the success in San Juan is what turns heads. Miami FC dominated New York in their affair in South Florida, a week after NYC were stomped 3-0 in their home opener. Miami started where they left off, running rampant and controlling all areas of the field, but with 24 shots, they could not score on an immaculate Jimmy Maurer in net for New York. Maurer recorded eight saves while the home team smashed the post twice on classy build up play and efforts. Miami absolutely thrashed Cosmos in possession and attempts, but New York escaped with two goals to the good, snatching three points from Dade County.
San Francisco was not as tough of an affair, but leading into the match NYC were aware of the attacking prowess in Tom Heinemann and company. New York discovered a rhythm in attack on the road and posted fifteen shots on Deltas, easing pressure on the defense in comparison to two weeks prior. Still though, the back line of Cosmos recorded a shutout on the road against a hungry SF team looking to build on their previous 0-0 draw at Jacksonville. Jimmy Maurer clutched up saving five shots, and Emmanuel Ledesma’s goal of the week nominee was the salvation of NYC as they exited the Bay with another three points.
New York have performed on the road this year with an in-form goalkeeper, a rock solid defensive line, and forwards who are crucially taking advantage of presented opportunities. Luckily for Cosmos, Jacksonville is struggling on the offensive side of the ball and has all year, averaging under one goal a game and hardly testing the opposition’s defensive line and goalkeeper. If woes continue for Armada up top, New York can shift their game plan and play oriented more to their pressure and flair in the midfield and attack. For New York, the goal is to stretch the match and either score early or hang on for as long as possible. The longer Jacksonville may go without scoring, the better the opportunity for NYC to uncover a winner as they have capable players in the side to score from nothing. Jacksonville chasing the match would benefit New York extremely.
Attack the Weakest Area of Armada’s Defense: Aaron Pitchkolan has been ruled out of Saturday’s match which is a great positive for NYC. Jacksonville boast the best defense in the league only allowing two goals in five matches, highly due to the leadership and performances of Pitchkolan on the defensive line. With Pitchkolan being unavailable, Jacksonville’s main option in shifting their back line will be to rotate Kalen Ryden from left back to center back, pairing with mainstay Mechak Jérôme. Ryden is a CB by trade, constantly starting for Oklahoma City Energy FC at this position in the back line the past few years, but has found his identity as a left back within the Jacksonville starting lineup. To be fair, though Ryden has made the jump from USL to NASL, his performances have been impressive and consistent at fullback. Shifting to becoming a center half against New York Cosmos may be a tough task as Ryden and Jérôme have never started alongside each other in a regular season match, disregard preseason.
Taking Ryden’s position will likely be Peabo Doue who has been on the outside looking in and has been searching for quality minutes on the field. Doue is filled with more pace and is an attacking minded fullback always interested in being incorporated while pressing forward. The question mark regarding Peabo Doue is how he will perform against the threat of New York’s forward players while tallying his first minutes as an Armada player.
New York will have an easier and more free flowing time attacking down the right side of the field, but even though that half of the defense is depleted, don’t count out the potential in Doue and Ryden’s partnership. The two started together on the left side of the defense for OKC where they started together for a couple years in the United Soccer League. Having an understanding of each other’s style on the field of play may be a hidden gem and catch New York off in their pursuit in the attack. This swap around for Jacksonville is a risk, though it is the best option for a very shallow squad in depth.
Keys to the Match: Jacksonville Armada
Shots on Goal: Five matches. Eight shots on goal. 36 shots in total. Look, there is an obvious problem in the attack and the ability to advance forward and create opportunities in dangerous positions. Whoever may be willing to step up in the attack, Jacksonville has got to test Jimmy Maurer throughout this match. Maurer, arguably the best goalkeeper in the league and one who has been for years, is currently sitting on three clean sheets and has been dominant between the sticks for NYC. The Cosmos keeper has only let in four goals and has attributed 21 saves over five matches, tied for the league lead with Brian Sylvestre of North Carolina FC. Jacksonville has got to continue to test Maurer throughout the night and test the defensive line in front of him. Allowing Cosmos to stroll through this match unscathed and of a comfortable nature could haunt JAFC as the defending champions are capable of striking at any moment with the skillful players they possess. Maintain pressure. Produce shots on target and don’t give Jimmy Maurer an easy evening.
Take Advantage of “Home Field Advantage”: Jacksonville have performed average at home, securing a 1-0 victory on the day of their home opener, but the side have looked lackluster in their two previous home draws. Right now is time to take risks, advance more in attack, and commit to playing for wins. With teams trailing just behind Jacksonville, now is the time to earn maximum points to exit the rut the squad are in and to ease pressure on the league leaders. In relation to the first key of the match for Jacksonville, they need to feed off of the home crowd, and feed off of their league standing to push for goals and a win on Saturday night. Nothing less.
Assert Midfield Dominance: Nicklas Maripuu and Kevan George are going to be crucial to the success of Jacksonville. Originally on the ‘Bold City Soccer Show’, it was mentioned that the fullbacks are the most important area for Armada on Saturday night as they will absorb constant pressure from the NYC wingers throughout the 90 minutes. With the news of Aaron Pitchkolan being unavailable to make the side, George and Maripuu’s roles have become that much more significant.
The main objective for the two central midfielders is to obviously assert control and maintain a heavy presence throughout the match, but the duo also need to bail Kalen Ryden and Peabo Doue out from all of the pressure they will receive. It is difficult to expect the two to do more on the field as they have already worked tirelessly for the club over the past five weeks. They have bossed the midfield and contained a strong defensive setup in front of the two center backs, leading to difficulty for the opposition to find the back of the net. Attacks will flurry from Andres Flores on the Cosmos right side during the night, it will be their job to protect a raw defensive line on that side. Expect Jack Blake to drop deeper to help on the defensive side of the ball this match. Jacksonville should not approach New York’s midfield lightly.
New York Cosmos (4-4-1-1) : Maurer; Richter, Ochieng, Jakovic, Ayoze; Guerra, Flores, Szetela, Ledesma, Marquez; Restrepo.
*Ochieng should return to the lineup for NYC as he was left out of the squad against San Francisco. The Cosmos center back has started every match except for this past weekend’s*
Jacksonville Armada (4-3-3) : Patterson-Sewell; Beckie, Jérôme, Ryden, Doue; George, Maripuu, Blake; Banks, Steinberger, Glenn.
*Kalen Ryden to replace Aaron Pitchkolan. Pitchkolan is unavailable due to undisclosed personal issues*
*As Kalen Ryden shifts to center back, Peabo Doue will fill in at the left fullback role, receiving his first start of the 2017 season*
Prediction: Jacksonville 1-0 New York. Highly contested match in the middle of the park, Jonathan Glenn to be the goalscorer in the 57th minute.