By: Logan Alexander
Hope, “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”. In the verb tense, hope is the “wanting of something to happen”. As a supporter of Jacksonville Armada Football Club, all we have left to feel is hope. The feeling is all too familiar. For the second year running, the off-season has painted a picture of nerves and doubtfulness regarding the survival of the club. To be quite honest, the past months have been terrifying, and even though Jacksonville will be competing in the National Premier Soccer League in 2018, there is still a feeling of uncertainty. No one knows exactly what the plan is after the season ends as ideas float in the air, but all that we want is all that we have got. The fans of this club wanted another year playing football, so a spot in the NPSL Sunshine Conference for 2018 is what we have graciously been given.
On January 30, it had been announced that Jacksonville would compete in the NPSL for the 2018 season while the club awaited further information on the situation regarding the North American Soccer League. The decision to self-relegate to the NPSL came after the U.S. Soccer Federation Board had motioned to revoke the NASL’s status as a Division II league in America. After filing an antitrust suit to gain a preliminary injunction to attempt to preserve Division II status, NASL was denied. This decision came on November 4, 2017 and it was not until February 27, 2018 that the league announced officially that they were going to cancel the 2018 season.
The whole winter consisted of playing a waiting game. There were no murmurs, no new information being released, and it had seemed like the club was frozen for two months. Two things we knew for sure is that the players had been training over this time and were preparing for whatever 2018 had to hold. Secondly, Robert Palmer, the owner of Jacksonville Armada FC, had stated that there would be a kick of a ball this year no matter what league the club would agree to join. Since 2016, Armada have fielded an under-23 squad that has featured in the Sunshine Conference of the NPSL, known as Jacksonville Armada U-23’s. For the time being, the senior squad will replace the U-23’s in the conference and league, pending further information on the future of the club.
The madness did not stop on that day in late January when the club revealed where their fate would lie for the moment. March 14, 2018 was another key date that affected not only Jacksonville but also the other two clubs that jumped ship to the NPSL, Miami FC and New York Cosmos (Now Miami FC 2 and New York Cosmos B). On that day, U.S Soccer announced the format for the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The press release was standard including information on increased prize purses, change of format and rules regarding rounds in the tournament, and lastly was the release of the playing field of clubs. Controversy arose when the three clubs previously mentioned, were not included in the list of teams participating in the Open Cup.
There was backlash of course, which prompted U.S. Soccer to consider a change in their previous decision. Two weeks later the Open Cup Committee announced in a press release that they would allow Jacksonville Armada FC, Miami FC 2, and New York Cosmos B a place in the tournament. The press release stated “The Committee carefully considered the teams’ exceptional situation which involved all three moving from Professional Division II status in 2017 to solely Open Division league participation earlier this year. Since the move occurred after the Open Division league’s 2018 Open Cup entry deadline in mid-2017, the Committee decided to allow the three teams the opportunity to compete in the 2018 edition of the U.S. Open Cup.” The three clubs received a place in the tournament but will have to compete in regionalized play-in matches featuring one team from the NPSL and two from the Premier Development League where the winners will be admitted into the first round of the tournament.
Throughout everything that has occurred over the course of the past months, kickoff of the 2018 NPSL season is looming. A revamped roster, different opponents, and a unique setting in a new league, this year is going to be strange but a breath of fresh air.
NPSL Sunshine Conference Division
The National Premier Soccer League is divided into thirteen divisions, one of which is the Sunshine Conference Division. This year, Jacksonville will face Naples United FC, Boca Raton FC, Miami United FC, Palm Beach United FC, Storm FC, and most notably Miami FC 2. Jacksonville Armada will play each team twice, once at home and once away, aiming to claim a playoff berth in their first year in the division. Before potentially advancing to the national playoffs, the top three teams in the division will advance to divisional playoffs. The first seed will earn an automatic spot in the final, awaiting their opponent from the match between second and third in the league.
The Returning Players
Jacksonville Armada FC owner Robert Palmer stated publicly on Twitter that he would honor all of the players contracts in the off-season. Relegating to a semi-professional league, of course there would be little interest in playing at a lower level. Palmer acknowledged that if players wanted to stay in Jacksonville, of course there would be a place for them. There was also an offer to fully release players from their contracts if they had no desire to continue playing for the club. Expectedly, a good number of players on the roster departed Jacksonville including the likes of Jack Blake, Zach Steinberger, and Kevan George, who are all playing football in the United Soccer League (USL) now. Jacksonville Armada FC will look very different leading into the 2018 season but there are a few faces that have remained with the club after all of the action off the pitch. These players are not just names on a team sheet, they are club legends.
The pacey attacker is returning to Jacksonville for another year and returns to the NPSL where he last played for Jacksonville United FC in 2015 before being signed by the Armada that summer. Gebhard saw little action for Jacksonville until the 2017 NASL season where he was a main striker option for head coach Mark Lowry. In thirty-four appearances last year, Gebhard scored four goals, including a game winner against FC Edmonton last July. He is not a lethal finisher and does not score often, which is the downside to his game, but his ability to create opportunities was a bright side in watching him play last year. Lowry has been utilizing Gebhard on the left side of midfield this pre-season, so there could be a positional change upcoming by the start of the season. Overall, Derek Gebhard is young but is still learning and could prove to be better off out wide then as a starting striker, there is no doubting his quickness though.
Man, myth, and legend. Drew should not be in the picture to start against Miami FC 2 on April 28th, but somehow he is. After contracting a serious virus while training in Sweden this past November, doctors made it aware that the result of the virus would be six to eight months of recovery. Drew returned to the field on April 12th when Jacksonville played an exhibition against Charleston Battery, clocking twenty minutes of match time.
The ex-Ottawa Fury and Carolina Railhawks defender has consistently started at right back for the Armada over the past year. The upside to his style of play is that he can be commanding on the right side and is not afraid to dart forward. All in all, a very solid player to slot into the back line, but time will tell whenever he is one hundred percent healthy. Lowry has a big decision to make with Drew, for his own sake and the teams’. The NPSL season is a short one, so including a player that is not fully healthy is risky, considering the importance of winning each and every game in the division.
The biggest name on the list. A player who two years ago was in the mix to advance with Minnesota United FC into the MLS but was instead shipped off to Jacksonville in the off-season of 2017. Banks is a versatile attacking midfielder who also experienced featuring as a winger last year for Mark Lowry in a 4-3-3 formation. In 2017, J.C. appeared on the scoresheet five times and assisted once. This year is going to be an opportunity for J.C. to prove how impactful he truly is, potentially returning to the attacking midfield role. With Zach Steinberger departing for Indy Eleven in the USL, Banks has found himself as the front runner in being the focal point of attack for Jacksonville.
Both on the field and off the field, J.C. Banks is one who takes risks. He has a knack to pick key passes and is not fearful of having a hit on the ball towards net. Disregarding the pitch, J.C. arrived in Jacksonville during the toughest period of time in club history when Armada was without ownership. After having success in year one, another trial presented itself in the player’s career, either choosing to leave the club to continue playing professionally or take the dive into the NPSL, where he chose the latter. There is plenty of credit to the manager, Mark Lowry, for generating enough pull to retain these players, but in J.C. Banks case, it’s a truly classy move that he has remained in Duval.
J.C. Banks might have been the biggest name on the list, but the best player that has stayed in Jacksonville is Mechack Jérôme. An absolute menace on the back line, the center back has been an exceptional addition to Jacksonville since he joined the club from Charlotte in the summer of 2015. A strapping and mentally tough defender with national team experience for Haiti and MLS experience for Columbus and Montreal was the perfect fit for a leaky Armada defense when the year one struggles were showing. The Haitian is second all-time in appearances for the club with 63 and is continuing to excel in JAX.
The center half is coming off of his best year in an Armada shirt, only allowing 40 goals in 34 matches. The numbers are not ideal on the end of goals being allowed, but it is an improvement from the 52 in 2015, and 48 in 2016. Jérôme is of MLS quality and most definitely that of the USL but is enjoying life in Jacksonville and his family reportedly shows love for the city, which is a reason to stay.
One of the newer faces, Kilduff is a strong center forward who has a sure eye for goal. Ciarán joined Jacksonville from Dundalk, who play in the League of Ireland Premier Division, on July 31st of last year. Quickly the forward hit the mark scoring four goals in twelve appearances, which is the best scoring average in Armada history. Considering being in the NPSL, Kilduff should take the league by storm with the quality he possesses in the box and in the air. If he can get to scoring early in the year, he will not stop, bet on it.
Mark Lowry, tactical mastermind. Lowry is a manager that possesses a gravitational pull to both fans and players by the knowledge he has for the game. This off-season, he has attracted the likes of Yuma and Conor Doyle to join the club while retaining the players listed above. If he is asked about a formation used during a match, he will ask which formation is being asked about. With Lowry it is not as simple as eleven players on the pitch starting in a formation and attempting to score. His philosophy spans to the aspect of eleven players, featuring in one formation to defend, one to attack, one to sit, and one to press. Last year he was quoted saying that in one match he used as many as six to seven different formations. The mental capacity he has towards the game is remarkable.
The hype is serious, though. The style of play is a beautiful execution of how to break an opponent down throughout a match. Constant knocking of passes back and forth and making possession a high priority, but also generating opportunities through having the ball. Every player has a role on the field to help each other and achieve an ultimate goal via an articulate way to play the game. Lowry checks all of the boxes, from genius to passionate to transparent. Players love his training sessions and his eye for the sport. Whatever comes out of this season, will be in due to the work he has done on and off the field this year. The players are the ones that ensure results, but Lowry is the one that has created this all. The real question is.. Do the players in the system possess the capability to take this club the distance in a league they are thought to rampage through?
Win it all. There is no reason why Jacksonville can’t challenge to win the 2018 NPSL Final. With the amount of firepower on the roster including mostly of players with pro experience, there is no doubt in my mind that Jacksonville can go the distance this year. The only team that boasts an early threat is, you guessed it, Miami FC 2. Two teams in the same boat, playing semi-professional soccer after appearing professionally last year, that include rosters that are stacked with talent and ability that can run the league. The Sunshine Conference Division should be a breeze until the potential date with Miami in the division finals at the end of the season.
Obviously, an Open Cup trophy in the cabinet is a stretch. A run in the competition, could happen though. Personally, winning the play-in match against The Villages, defeating SIMA Aguilas in round two, and then moving on to defeat Tampa Bay Rowdies in the third round would be enough to make me content. Entering the tournament without ambition would be just wrong, though. Playing every match with the mindset and confidence to win will take a club far, as FC Cincinnati did in 2017 during their monumental cup run. At minimum, defeating Tampa Bay is the goal.
For Jacksonville, this is an opportunity. 2018 is an opportunity to boast a first championship in club history, attempting to seek success amidst a dark time in lower division soccer regarding the hiatus by the NASL. It is an opportunity to reignite a flame in the community that has been lacking since the beginning days of the club. Lastly, this year is an opportunity to make a mark and make a name for the club, for Jacksonville Armada Football Club.