By Logan Alexander
“Undefeated” is a word that mounts a great success in regards to any sports team. Whether a team is invincible as the Gunners were in 2003-04 and lasts a full length season unbeaten or pundits start to question after a string of games when a club will face defeat, both are achievements and can hold an impact on the year. An unbeaten run can extend a lead in a title race, push a team to playoff contention, and have the effect of staving off a relegation threat. The key to advancement in these situations though are the victories established along the way, as draws do not paint the picture as beautiful as it may seem.
Jacksonville Armada FC began the year unlike anyone could have imagined, claiming 1-0 wins in back to back affairs with FC Edmonton, one match at home and the other away. The agony of the offseason evaporated and there was a sense of feeling in the air that the squad could stake a claim at the top of the North American Soccer League table. The Eddies are only one opponent of seven that Armada will encounter this season and there is plenty of more football to be played. Since the ascendancy in Edmonton on April 9th, the Fleet have not recorded a win in four matches, a month and three days in time. Over this period, Jacksonville have slipped down the table to 2nd and could fall as far as 5th if results do not stand in their favor in Cary, North Carolina at the weekend.
No matter what, if Saturday ends in a loss or draw for the Bold City, they still sit comfortably in a tight race at the top end of the table, vying for their first ever playoff berth. If we’re going to be realistic about this team and their chances in the league this year, draws are going to have to start translating into wins, quickly. It’s true, draws are important points gained. Although, when other teams at the top are developing a quicker pace and are starting to win, like New York and Miami, Jacksonville has got to keep up to speed. JAFC have not been playing at a low level, they actually have been the opposite of that. Defensively sound, dominant on a weekly basis in the midfield, and the team are finally seeming to find their feet in an attack that has only averaged .83 goals a game, five in their first six matches. At the end of the day, a squad may play at a high level, but goals are what counts and are the make or break of a season.
Mark Lowry shifted the lineup around this past weekend against in hopes of more creativity and influence in attack, and the experiment seemed to actually work quite well. Jemal Johnson was surprisingly a menace on the left side and was the most involved during the night as every successful attack channeled through the Englishman. Derek Gebhard brought an immense amount of pace and caught Cosmos defenders napping, as he made darting forward runs and latched onto every ball first when they were played by teammates. Jack Blake started at central defensive midfield, Zach Steinberger at central attacking midfield, and J.C. Banks on the right wing. The changes all across the field made no negative impact on the match as Jacksonville played their best game of the season yet. Bringing on Devon Fisher and shifting Drew Beckie paid off just fine in the defense as honestly, Armada looked good against NY. The problem of course, and the biggest question about the team is, where will the goals come from?
Derek Gebhard and Jonathan Glenn have only amassed one goal between the two, which did not come from open play. Jonathan Glenn headed home, or shouldered home(?), a set piece delivered by Jack Blake against Indy Eleven, but other than that the striker position has been stagnant to start the season. As we saw last week, promising opportunity was created by Jacksonville, but Gebhard, or anyone for that matter, could not capitalize until Steinberger blasted banger in the 94th minute of play. Whoever starts, it could be Glenn or Gebhard, needs to consistently be involved in the activity going forward and we need to score goals to get over this dry streak of four straight matches winless.
Speaking of inconsistency, North Carolina FC. NCFC enter Saturday’s matchup with a 2-2-2 record and are eying to rebound from their 2-1 home loss to San Francisco Deltas this past weekend. 2017 has been a roller coaster to begin for Carolina as they are a part of the race for the Spring Season title in fact, but they’re results are scattered all over the place. The team is 1-1-1 on the road and at home showcasing vulnerabilities wherever they play. After one point in their first two games, NCFC won two of their next three and have just recently suffered defeat to Deltas.
Offensively, North Carolina have scored eight times, spearheaded by you guessed it, Matt Fondy. Fondy has hit the back of the net twice, equal with Lance Laing for leading goalscorer on the squad. One concern for Jacksonville is that NC can find a goal from many players in their team whether it is the striker, wingers, or midfield. Even the defense has gotten in on the action in the early part of this year, therefore Armada need to be wary of any possibility of a threat from anyone in a blue shirt.
The defensive side of the ball has continued to be a struggle as NC have allowed eight goals in their six matches played. A team built on the basis of defense throughout the years are surrendering countless amount of goals and it is all due to a makeshift back line that is playing far less than what is expected. With Drew Beckie leaving the squad to make his way to Jacksonville Armada and Simon Mensing departing for Airdrieonians F.C. in the Scottish League One, Carolina’s failing defense has only gotten worse. With no significant signatures in the offseason and only one player entering the fray to join the defense, head coach Colin Clarke is in a very difficult position tactically.
Set pieces. Man marking. These two areas of defensive effort have haunted NCFC during the 2017 season and have led to a majority of the eight goals allowed. Just this past weekend in their loss to San Francisco, Carolina gave up two goals off of free headers, one being a late winner to send Deltas streaking up the table. Failed marking on the back line can derive from lack of communication or a lackadaisical effort in the most important part of the pitch. They’ve allowed opponents to roam around the box, which is absolutely unacceptable. Obviously this is a problem for NC and Jacksonville need to attack the weaknesses.
The striker will be the key player for Jacksonville Armada, either Jonathan Glenn or Derek Gebhard. This match seems to present a greater opportunity for Glenn as he is capable of heading balls in, but if we’re being honest here, Gebhard can also have great success with his speed and quickness up top. The striker situation is a longing debate, but Jacksonville need goals this match, no exception, as this is a great matchup to break the lasting deadlocks. Attacking with width and pace on the sidelines will open the game up for Armada and if chances are taken clinically, they will win this match. Two goals in Cary and they will depart victorious.
For North Carolina, the midfield will face off against the most controlling team in possession, that being Jacksonville. This NC team will not be able to play with such a free flowing game plan as they likely will not be on the ball for as long as they hope and are used to. There will be little amount of opportunities for the home team against a stout Jacksonville defense and they will be heavily reliant on their midfield and defense. Carolina rotates their squad on a regular basis. There is no telling who Colin Clarke will start in the midfield, but the two midfielders centrally will be the key to NC to cut out threatening attacks and stand firm in front of a defense under scrutiny this year. The less amount of pressure on the defense equals calmer nerves and an easier night. The back line needs comfort and help in front of them as Jacksonville will be looking to attack with numbers all night.