By Logan Alexander
Saturday marked another draw for Jacksonville Armada FC as they ended level after ninety minutes in their fourth consecutive competitive match. This past weekend saw New York Cosmos visit as the two squads met just two weeks ago at MCU Park in Coney Island, match that ended 1-1. The return leg saw no change in the scoreline and like their first meeting, Jacksonville deserved more than a point and had their opportunity for three, but the chance went for the taking.
66% possession and eleven shots on goal marked a sensational night in possession and attempts against a tough Cosmos team, but this is not the same team we witnessed win the title last year. No fluidity in attack and a midfield unable to control the tempo of matches after the departure of Michael Lahoud allowed for Armada to have their way in what was the biggest match of the year at home to this moment.
Cosmos took the lead on a soft free kick that was awarded in the 24th minute about 25 yards from Caleb Patterson-Sewell’s net. New York midfielder Javi Marquez struck his 2nd goal in two matches against Jacksonville this year on what should have been a routine save by CPS, but the ball found its way into the bottom right corner. The Australian-American dove the correct way to put a save in on the shot, yet he pulled back from his full reach thinking the ball would go wide, which was not the case. Armada 0-1 Cosmos, the same storyline as that in NYC.
Jemal Johnson ran rampant throughout the match, tearing up the left side of the field and besting Ryan Richter completely on the night. Johnson created much space due to his pace on the wing and time after time the Englishman delivered service into the box for anyone to take advantage of, but the opportunities went begging. The build up was astounding all night, but connecting with a teammate in the box was a struggle until the Jacksonville equalizer.
With four minutes of stoppage time gone out of six, Jacksonville had to act quick to at least salvage a point at home to New York. Leading up to this moment Armada were heavy on the attack, pressing and pinning New York to constantly defend against flurries of offensive pressure. Drew Beckie took the best chance of the match as he headed a corner kick from Zach Steinberger down into the ground. The bounce of the ball nearly found its way in the top corner, but an excellent save by Jimmy Maurer denied the defender.
Time was ticking as Maurer punted a ball upfield in which Beckie received and decided to take on. Drew glided past three Cosmos players, steaming upfield and generating much time and space for himself to pick an influential pass. Beckie ended his run with a pass wide left to Johnson and on his one successful cross of the night, JJ picked out Zach Steinberger who emphatically scored a scissor-kick from the top of the box. Euphoria. Bliss. Any synonym can describe the moment vividly as late drama allowed for Jacksonville to retrieve the match and share the spoils of points with NYC.
With Armada earning a draw, their record is now 2-4-0, still undefeated but the squad is stuck on a streak of four straight draws. Miami, New York, Railhawks (Haha), and San Francisco were hot on the heels at the beginning of match week seven behind the leader of the pack. Jacksonville Armada failed to gain maximum points which saw their reign as league leaders come to an abrupt end. Miami defeated Puerto Rico 2-1 in San Juan propelling the South Florida club to the summit with eleven points as Jacksonville sits second in the table with ten points in six matches. Upcoming for the Fleet is a pivotal clash with North Carolina FC (Railhawks) in Cary, North Carolina at the weekend.
Though the match itself was an exciting prospect, there were many talking points regarding the Jacksonville starting XI and the performances of players on the field that night…
Maripuu vs. Blake
Two different players with two completely different philosophies. During the first five matches of the season Mark Lowry deployed a midfield partnership consisting of Kevan George and Nicklas Maripuu. These two are a heavily defensive duo strong in possession and are capable of dictating the tempo of a match in their lonesome. Not to mention, they both are pretty good defenders of the ball and aren’t afraid to put in challenges in the midfield. You’re guaranteed high work rate and explosive passing/possession percentages along with strong defensive capabilities , but the downfall to having these two start side by side is the lack of urgency going forward. Sure, the partnership in the center of the park is nearly flawless, as Jacksonville only gave up two goals over the span of five matches with this two sitting in front of the back line. In the attack though, Armada had only scored four at the time of allowing three, averaging under one goal a game. If JAX are serious about being Spring Season title contenders than a change was by far means necessary.
Jack Blake, a central midfielder anyways, was rotated out of his starting role in attacking midfield to be dropped deeper into the squad to fill the void of Maripuu who was benched against NYC. It’s not that Maripuu played a bad string of games, he didn’t and that’s for sure, but Lowry desired to initiate play going forward more often rather than backwards and of consistent resetting and possession orientation. Jack Blake was a part of rotation to be that point man of transition, to carry the ball up the field with speed, and to be another added option when attacking the opposition’s net. Especially with ability to create combination plays with any of the forwards for Armada, Blake played a major role in the increase of presence and pressure at the New York defense and goalkeeper. There is still work to be done in the goal scoring department, but the attack witnessed a great amount of success going forward against NYC. Eleven shots also topped the charts as the most shots by JAX in a single match this season.
Offensively the change was positive and defensively the change held its own weight of a positive grade. George and Blake were under hardly any pressure during the match. There was no worry of Blake’s shape and ability to defend, which were actually just fine even considering that NYC had little to no forward presence. Lastly, George and Blake dominated the possession and flow of the match, which gave Blake freedoms to roam the field and get more involved on the offensive side of the ball. No one really knew what impact the swap would hold, but in fact it seemed to work out very well for Jacksonville. Now it is up to Mark Lowry to make the tough decisions within the Starting XI.
Unrelenting Back Line
No matter if Aaron Pitchkolan is on the field or not, the defense still continues to be a strong suit for Jacksonville. Pitchkolan missed out on Saturday due to personal issues surrounding the central defender which led to a surprise player being chosen to take his spot. Kalen Ryden was the obvious choice to join alongside Mechak Jérôme centrally, but Lowry instead rotated Drew Beckie from right back to center back. No person could have expected the manager to roll out his back line in this fashion but after further though, Beckie was a quality decision.
The right back boasts much more professional and defensive experience in relation to Kalen Ryden, he is tall and can win headers well, and his capabilities in actually defending are fine. On the night, Beckie had one header on goal that nearly hit the back of the net, while successfully completing 100% of his tackles (3/3) and winning the same percentage in headers. (6/6) Beckie emphatically made a run from the defense while on the ball with little time left and picked out Jemal Johnson which led to the equalizing goal. His Man of the Match performance proved that though Jacksonville’s defense is thin, the quality is at a high capacity. There are also plenty of versatile players that make up Armada’s defense.
The reason the defense is phenomenal is due to the fact that players are indeed over performing, like Ryden for example. There is true leadership in Aaron Pitchkolan, a factor that has not been identified within a team for this club since the start of the franchise. Most importantly, the midfield is containing any attacks from opposition and controlling matches, making times far easier for the last line of defense. Still, Jacksonville hold the best defensive record only allowing three goals this season in six games. This past weekend showed that with three changes in crucial areas of the field at right back, center back, and central midfield, the team defensively is formidable and still finds great amounts of success.
The Striker Situation
Derek Gebhard started his first match of the season against New York Cosmos this past weekend. Lowry decided to make the switch to inflict pace on the match and to bring a higher tempo than what was seen in New York just a couple weeks prior. Whether the decision to start Gebhard over Glenn was the correct one, the young Armada forward saw a full ninety minutes worth of action in a very high tempo match created by Jacksonville. Gebhard did not play a bad game either, as he brought a lot more speed in the attack compared to Glenn. What came from his efforts was little to none though as he only took two shots during the match, both consisting of zero harm on the Cosmos ‘keeper. With hardly any impact in attempts, the question for JAFC is where the goals will come from, and are Derek Gebhard or Jonathan Glenn capable of leading a team to scoring more frequently even though they both have struggled this season. Time will tell.