Jacksonville Sports Day

NASL: Jacksonville Armada Battles Strikers to 1-1 Draw

Photo by SE Sports Media

Despite one of its best attacking halves of the season and a host of impressive performances, the Jacksonville Armada came up just shy of its second straight come-from-behind win, instead drawing 1-1 with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Community First Park on Wednesday night.

The Boys in Blue thought they had the game-winner in the 80th minute when substitute Charles Eloundou slammed home a rebound from Alhassane Keita’s shot. He made it as far as a backflip attempt on the touchline, where he was mobbed by teammates before it became clear that the referee had whistled Pekka Lagerblom for a foul just before the shot.

“I thought it was 100 percent a goal, but then I saw the replay and it looked like Pekka gave him a pretty good push in the back,” said midfielder Zach Steinberger, who notched a goal in the first half. “I was celebrating, and then I see the center ref come over to the sideline ref, and I’m like, ‘Oh, crap.’”

The draw was disappointing, especially after a lopsided first half, but it still gives Jacksonville five points from their last three — a welcome unbeaten run after a previous string of five straight losses.

“Anytime you don’t win at home, you feel disappointed, and that’s the kind of culture we’re trying to set here,” interim head coach Mark Lowry said. “The guys in there, they know. They felt like they did enough to win the game, and I agree with them.”

It wasn’t just the $1 beers; this one gave the home fans all the entertainment they could ask for.

Playing in a 4-2-3-1 with Keita up top supported by Pascal Millien, Steinberger and Danny Barrow, the Armada notched a total of 17 shots (five on target), with 10 shots (three on target) in the first half.

They easily could have scored three or four in that opening frame, as they put on one of their most inspired attacking displays of the season.

Barrow had the first good look, beating two defenders and ripping a left-footed shot that Strikers ‘keeper Bruno had to dive to keep out of the top corner.

Steinberger then had two near-assists, as his corner was just kept away from friendly feet by Bruno’s fingertips, and his cut-back pass to Keita led to a shot wide against a mostly open net.

That miss from Keita would prove costly a few minutes later, when left back Matt Bahner made a rare error with a slow back pass, and Strikers forward Jose Angulo pounced on it and slipped a low shot past Armada ‘keeper Miguel Gallardo.

It would be Fort Lauderdale’s only shot on target of the night.

“We learn from that. This is part of the process, and we’re trying to build something here,” Lowry said. “Mistakes are going to happen. We just have to make sure we limit them and that we’re able to come back if we do go behind.”

Battling from behind is not historically a strength of the Boys in Blue — who had never recorded a comeback win until Saturday. But they didn’t shrink away in this one.

They nearly came up with a quick answer, as center back Mechack Jérôme hit Millien, his Haitian national teammate, with a pinpoint ball over the top. Millien chested it down on the run, beat his man and was denied only by a quick reaction save by Bruno.

Keita had another chance in the 33rd, when Steinberger brought down a hard cross from Bryan Burke in front of goal, but Keita had to stab at it off-balance and put it over the crossbar.

Midfielder Lucas Scaglia and Keita both had clear looks at long shots that they couldn’t put on frame, but Steinberger finally found the equalizer in the 42nd.

Millien picked him out with a diagonal ball into the middle of the box, and Steinberger showed perfect control with a sharp turn and easy finish — a deserved reward from his stellar first half.

In all, the Armada had 10 shots before the break, including six from inside the box and three on goal.

To put that first half in context, those three shots on goal were equal to or better than the Armada’s output in 10 of their first 19 full games this season.

The second half started in more subdued fashion, until the 58th when Beto Navarro failed to clear a ball into the Armada box, and Paulo Junior fired high from just a few yards out.

That seemed to wake up the game. At the other end, Steinberger touched a pass back to an on-rushing Millien, who lashed a shot from outside the box that took a deflection before being saved by Bruno. Then, in the 61st, Keita won a free kick from within the Jérôme Zone, but the defender fired just high.

Jérôme had a greater impact at the other end, where he made a series of crucial tackles.

First, he raced back to dispossess Paulo Junior after a counter-launching ball from former Juventus striker Amauri, passing the ball to safety from his backside. Next, he came out of a physical challenge against Paulo Junior with the ball, and in the 75th he poked the ball away from Amauri just as he was turning to shoot from the top of the box.

Then, he notched two more key tackles in the closing moments, helping ensure there’d be no further heartbreak after Eloundou’s disallowed goal.

“[Jérôme] had two or three unbelievable tackles that looked like he was channeling his inner Karate Kid,” Steinberger said. “He was the man tonight.”

The Armada will be back in action Saturday for their third game in seven days, when they host Minnesota United at 2:30 p.m. The club is teaming up with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars for “Football Night in Jacksonville,” where fans of both sports are invited to support both teams on the same day.

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