Jacksonville Sports Day

NASL: Jacksonville Armada Scores 2-1 Win Over Puerto Rico FC

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Sometimes, lightning does strike twice.

Well, it seemingly struck about a thousand times during the Jacksonville Armada’s match with Puerto Rico FC on Saturday night — enough to cause a two-hour delay — but the two that mattered most came from Jemal Johnson and Alex Dixon to hand previously goal-starved Jacksonville a 2-1 win over the NASL’s newest club in front of 5,134 at Community First Park.

The victory was just the Armada’s second of the year (April 15 vs. Miami FC) and gives them a 1W-1D-0L record in the Fall Season, more than half their point total from the disappointing Spring Season (seven).

In fact, the result left them in second place in the Fall standings, and they’re on a five-game unbeaten streak.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” Johnson said. “We’ve worked hard, and in the offseason we’ve been trying to get our chemistry going. Tonight it paid off for us.”

Head coach Tony Meola delivered on his promised roster changes, and minus the weather delay and a 78th-minute goal from PRFC’s Hector Ramos, all went according to plan.

Four recent signings appeared in the game, and all were effective. Defenders Anthony Wallace and Karl Ouimette combined to make 13 clearances and win all their tackles and 11 of 12 duels. Midfielder Zach Steinberger went 22 of 25 passing, and substitute Jason Plumhoff almost bagged a goal six minutes after coming on.

But perhaps Meola’s best decision was to hand Dixon his first start at center forward (he’s usually a midfielder or winger), and deploy Jemal Johnson on his left.

Those two were in sync early and often, and it was Dixon who set up the opener in the ninth minute.

He drifted wide right, took a defender with him and then crossed to Johnson, who let the ball bounce before volleying into the top corner for his first goal since August 2015.

Meola said Dixon has played up top in training, and he expects it to be his main position going forward.

“We told (Dixon), the next time the ball goes in the corner and you pull a center back out, you’ve got to go to goal,” Meola said. “Even if you lose the ball — put them under pressure. We ended up getting a goal out of it. He’s got wheels, and I don’t think we’ve seen him run like that.”

Three minutes later, a distant lightning strike seemed a fitting comparison to a rare early goal from the Armada. But it became much more in the 20th, when play was halted due to weather. That kicked off a series of delays that lasted a full two hours — although the break was livened up by the constant singing and dancing of the proud Puerto Rican fans in attendance.

“It’s always tough whenever you start, stop and then have to get started up again,” Dixon said. “We just kept ourselves moving in the locker room. … Playing soccer tennis, listening to music, doing header challenges, a whole bunch of stuff.”

When play resumed close to 9:30 p.m., the Armada had lost none of their sharpness.

Johnson returned the favor to Dixon just seven minutes after the restart, running down a long ball from Junior Sandoval near the end line and cutting a pass back for his charging teammate, who buried it to hand the home side their first two-goal lead since September of last year.

“As the ball was coming over, I saw that their defenders all dropped back in,” Johnson said. “I saw Dixon out of the corner of my eye and just touched it back to him. I knew he would get the goal.”

There were some nervy moments, like Kevan George’s tackle to deny a point-blank chance and Puerto Rico FC’s Ramos missing a wide open header on a free kick, but the Armada held their lead into the locker room.

PRFC (0-1-1) struck back when Ramos out-jumped Tyler Ruthven to head in David Lopez’s free kick in the 78th, but Ruthven answered with a crucial tackle to deny Ramos in the 83rd. The visitors threatened all the way until the final seconds, and the Armada brought on a third center back, Beto Navarro, to help cope with the attacks.

The Armada now turn to a two-game road trip over the next week, facing the New York Cosmos at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Miami FC at 8 p.m. next Saturday.

With promising new signings on board, key players Lucas Scaglia and Pekka Lagerblom returning to health, and more talent on the way in the Swedish pair of Alexander Andersson and Nicklas Maripuu — Meola finally has some depth to work with. While squad rotation is necessary in the short term, he will be driving toward a best XI that he can count on each week.

“If games were Saturday-Saturday all the time, once everybody’s here and settled in, you probably will see the same lineup, short of an injury,” Meola said.

The Armada’s next home game is at 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 against Ottawa Fury FC.

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