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In its debut season, Jacksonville Armada performed like a stereotypical expansion team. There were highs (a Goal of the Year nominee that was also the fast goal ever scored in league history) but mostly there were lows. Yet there was never a moment when it felt like Jacksonville or its supporters were in over their heads. As the team was finding its legs, its fans went wild for every new first. The front office of Jacksonville has shown itself to be shrewd and reserved but in no way detached or unambitious. There’s a positive and winning attitude in Jacksonville, there just haven’t been the results to match. Things will certainly improve in 2016.
In one season of existence, the Armada have had four managers. Jose Luis Villarreal helped created and prepare Jacksonville’s initial roster but oversaw that team for a scant couple of games before it was announced that he would be leaving the club at the end of the Spring. This left Guillermo Hoyos to guide the Armada for the bulk of its first season. However, in a bizarre sequence of events, Hoyos was fired just months after being given a four-year contract renewal as the Armada sat firmly at the bottom of the standings. It was left to Eric Dade to lead in the interim and close out the season, which he did in a more than competent manner given the quality of the team. It wasn’t a pretty first season; Jacksonville ended 2015 in last place (8-7-15).
Enter Tony Meola. The former US Men’s National Team and MLS star goalkeeper will take the helm for the first time as manager in 2016. There were major defects in the Armada’s play over 2015, the most significant being the utterly dreadful defense. Hitting the ground running, Meola made shoring up the backline priority number one.
The Armada boasted perhaps the shortest backline in the NASL. 2015 starters leftback Lucas Trejo, centerbacks Matt Bahner and Mechack Jerome, and rightback Shawn Nicklaw were all six foot or under and were routinely easily bossed by larger and taller opposition forwards. With the exception of Jerome, the Armada backline was underwhelming as it was frequently beaten by quicker opponents, regularly made dubious decisions, and initiated less than technical tackling.
Enter new signing Bryan Burke formerly with USL’s Louisville City and winner of the third division’s 2015 defender of the year award. An attacking rightback who can play centerback when needed Burke notched 10 assists.
In the center of the defense, Meola again went fishing in the USL pool signing Beto Navarro from the Orange County Blues and Tyler Ruthven from Arizona United. Navarro played with NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks and FC Edmonton in the past proving he can handle the second division. Similarly, Ruthven saw time with the Atlanta Silverbacks when a young defender and has matured in USL. Both are primed to fight for a starting spot.
There is a bit of a hole at leftback for Jacksonville if Lucas Trejo doesn’t return but, honestly, his play over 2015 was spotty at best. It wouldn’t be out of the question to move Jerome to the leftside creating a backline of Jerome, Navarro, Ruthven, and Burke, but his experience at centerback is invaluable to this still new team. No matter how you cut it, I can’t envision last year’s starters remaining so for 2016.
Under Hoyos, Jacksonville trotted out a 4-3-3 that all too often and easily devolved into a 4-6-0. This approach led to some maddeningly dull soccer wasting the talent of attacking third players while confusing what role the proper midfielders were to fill. As a way to dispel this confusion, Meola added Ottawa Fury stand out central defensive midfielder Richie Ryan.
Lucas Scaglia and Nicholas Perea held down most of the center of the midfield down the stretch of 2015. Scaglia has a motor but is too sloppy in his challenges (collecting the most cards in the league) while Perea too often disappears becoming a non-presence. Neither were able to effective win balls, keep possession, or distribute to the Armada’s pacey attackers, but with Ryan we’ll definitely see all of these traits accomplished with greater acumen. Next to Ryan may be another new signing, defensive midfielder Pekka Lagerblom, who could be the Armada’s version of Minnesota United’s Juliano Vicentini. That is, an anchoring experienced presence who is able to burst out with moments of individual skill but has the vision to make the key pass or the pass before the assist.
There was often a stark lack of production from the forwards in 2015. I believe this was mostly due to the fact that there was no one tasked with the job of actually providing service. Speed is a great thing, but finishing is better both require proper service. With the center of the pitch upgraded, Jacksonville needs to sort out its attack. Of the nine forwards currently listed by the team, the only true strikers are Alhassane Keita and Tommy Krizanovic.
Keita should be an absolute in the Starting XI flanked by Jemal Johnson as left winger and Pascal Millien as right winger. To my mind, neither Johnson nor Millien are suited as strikers. Keita can’t succeed on his own and forcing wide players inside will only generate more disarray, which is why Akeil Barrett may be the most important part of the Jacksonville attack. A striker who can play comfortably as a withdrawn forward or central attacking midfielder, with minutes Barrett will show he can finish and create. The four (Keita, Johnson, Barrett, and Millien) together make the Armada’s attack arguably the fastest in the league. Augment this with new signings right winger Alex Dixon (who could be a starter then, most likely, moving Millien up as a striker) and Danny Barrow and there’s a slew of talent waiting to be unleashed. That speed buttressed by a now stronger midfield and more reliable defense means Jacksonville Armada are poised to have a breakout season.
There is one glaring issue that Meola hasn’t addressed yet and that one would think would be dear to his heart–goalkeeper. David Sierra has been let go and signed with the nascent Miami FC, which means Miguel Gallardo is still the number one. Few pundits rate Gallardo as a quality ‘keeper citing is poor decision making over the 2015 season that lead to some truly astonishing fails. Yet I would argue that Gallardo never had enough confidence in his backline to feel that he couldn’t afford to take risks or, rather, do more than he could/should have. Also, we shouldn’t ignore that as star goalkeeper and more than savvy goalkeeping coach, Meola may know more than few tricks to tweak Gallardo’s game. But another potential starting goalkeeper to create the necessary competition and depth for the spot is need.
We’ll see just how the Armada will line up in February when it gets its preseason underway in earnest. Jacksonville will take on three MLS sides: Philadelphia Union, neighbors Orlando City, and New York Red Bulls. Preseason friendlies don’t mean much but going up against top division teams can only improve the Armada and set them up to go into the Spring primed for success.