Jacksonville Sports Day

U.S. OPEN CUP: Jacksonville Armada Falls 1-0 to Orlando City

Photo by SE Sports Media

In a game marked by wide swings in both emotion and momentum, the Jacksonville Armada fell 1-0 to in-state MLS foe Orlando City SC during its U.S. Open Cup fourth-round clash at Southern Oak Stadium on Wednesday night.

David Mateos netted the winner for the visitors, tapping in a Julio Baptista header on a 62nd-minute corner kick. That snapped a period where the Armada seemed the more likely side to score first, and the Lions held off a barrage of late Jacksonville surges to seal their passage on in the tournament.

“I thought we had the better of the chances, to be honest with you,” Armada goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo said. “I thought we played a really good game, but we made a couple of mistakes and we got punished for it. … It almost sounds like a broken disk. Great effort, but we’re not getting the results that I think we deserve.”

As the first appearance for any Orlando pro sports team after Sunday’s attack at the Pulse nightclub, the match was heavy with remembrance of the tragedy — including both teams wearing purple #OrlandoUnited shirts during a pregame moment of silence, giant strips of fabric hung in the distance to signify the Pride flag, and a 49th minute applause break in honor of the 49 victims lost.

It was especially emotional for Gallardo, who’s still beloved among Orlando City fans for his time as their goalkeeper during their USL days.

“It almost seems like every one of you guys that’s interviewed me wants to make me cry,” Gallardo said. “That’s the first thing everybody says, that it’s an emotional night and it sure was. What happened in Orlando is still very difficult to deal with. I knew people that were involved and affected, and even if I didn’t, it’s such a tragedy that it baffles my mind.”

But Gallardo — and the rest of the Armada — were jolted out of that emotional pregame after just 30 seconds.

Lions midfielder Carlos Rivas blew by multiple defenders down the left side and cut a pass back for Baptista, whose shot sailed over the top.

That was a sign of Orlando City’s intent, which valued steady possession, sitting back, and seeking to launch attacks through Rivas and Hadji Barry down the wings with Baptista running down the center.

But the home side settled down, thanks largely to Tyler Ruthven’s rock-steady play at center back, and got a chance to strike back in the 21st when Junior Sandoval ran in from the right and fired a shot that Orlando keeper Earl Edwards Jr. had to parry wide for a corner. That launched a succession of Jacksonville corners and crosses, but the Lions dealt with them capably to quell the threat until Ruthven forced a diving save with a header in the 38th.

Around the half-hour mark, the Armada’s Haitian contingent of Pascal Millien and Mechack Jérôme — fresh off a stint with their national team in the Copa America Centenario — made their presence felt.

Millien made darting runs down the left, and Jérôme frequently looked for opportunities to unleash his booming right leg, which he flashed with a free-kick goal against Orlando during the preseason.

Head coach Tony Meola seemed to have the same thought, deploying Jérôme in the midfield rather than his usual center back spot, and while his first two long shots were blocked, he nearly found the net in the 52nd when he ran onto a rebound and smashed a shot that would have beaten Edwards had it not flashed just wide.

But after a period where the Armada mostly controlled the match, two defensive mistakes changed the game.

Center back Beto Navarro fouled Baptista along the edge of the box to give up a free kick from 19 yards out, and though that kick was blocked, the ensuing corner proved costly.

Baptista made a near-post run and directed a header across goal, where Mateos was waiting to finish it for a 1-0 Orlando City lead.

“That’s the biggest guy in the park, he went down pretty easy,” Meola said of the foul on Baptista. “I write on the notes every week to finish plays on restarts. We didn’t finish that one (on the corner), and they took advantage of it.”

Three minutes later, Gallardo had to stop another dangerous Lions corner to keep the lead from doubling, as the goal swung momentum back in Orlando’s favor.

But the Armada flipped the script late, bringing on Charles Eloundou and Danny Barrow to jump-start the attack.

Eloundou forced an Edwards save from 25 yards just two minutes after entering, and Barrow launched two good opportunities in the final moments. He fed Jérôme inside the box to lead to a cross, and he nearly slipped Eloundou through one-on-one in the 90th with a pass that was just far enough for Edwards to dive and control.

Ruthven had the last chance with a difficult volley from a Jérôme header in stoppage time, but he put it over the top from just outside the six-yard box.

“I’m falling backward, the ball’s coming backward over my head — I’m lucky I made contact,” Ruthven said. “It was impossible to know where I was, but I was trying to get a touch on it and see what happens.”

While the Armada’s last gasp attempts couldn’t find the net, there was good news in the appearance of midfielder Lucas Scaglia, who came on in the 72nd to mark a return from injury for a player who’s likely to be crucial for the team’s NASL Fall Season run.

Between the returns of Scaglia, Millien and Jérôme, plus the four to five new signings Meola expects in the next month, the Armada roster should be much more fortified for their return to play at Tampa Bay on July 2.

“I think it’s pretty clear that we’re pretty spent top to bottom,” Ruthven said. “Our whole roster is exhausted. … You can’t fault the effort. We just couldn’t pull it off. It’s the same story, and we have to find a way to turn it around in July.”

Meola reiterated that new signings would come at all four lines, from front to back, and that they should push the current starters in training.

“I’ve told these guys from day one that any opportunity we have to improve our roster, we’re going to do it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean guys can’t play. It means we’re in second-to-last place. It’s been a while since we’ve been out of the bottom of the table as an organization, and we need to climb.”

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