Jacksonville’s new pro soccer team, the Armada FC has been the toast of the town. The First Coast which has hosted multiple well-attended US Men’s National Team friendlies in recent years was long an expansion target for the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL). When Jacksonville was announced in the summer of 2013 as new side in NASL, many including myself felt it would be a big hit locally.
Owner Mark Frsich and President Steve Livingstone have done an outstanding job of marketing and building a fan base. As I can attest it is not always easy at the lower division in the United States to turn fans of the national team or those who watch the English Premier League weekend mornings on NBC’s plethora of channels into ticket buying fans of a local team.
The Armada are second in attendance in NASL and have arguably already achieved greater market penetration locally than Tampa Bay or Fort Lauderdale who compete in the same league. It could be even strongly argued that Jacksonville is further along market recognition wise than Orlando was in its first USL (third division) season of 2011. By 2013, Orlando was considered a strong enough market to make the jump to the first division MLS.
The NASL has stated openly its desire to achieve first division status to compete with MLS. But in the meantime NASL is a second division, and the Armada FC are sitting at the foot of the league’s table. Today Manager Guillermo Hoyos and GM Darío Sala were sacked by the club according to published reports. The timing was curious as the Aramda last played on Wednesday against Fort Lauderdale and next play Saturday at home against Tampa Bay. This change could have been made Thursday or Friday.
Still the move is long overdue. Hoyos and Sala built the Armada squad based largely around international player pedigree disregarding for the most part the need to have experienced players from the lower divisions in North America to help guide the team through the long slog of a season the NASL has. NASL is a more physical league than where many of the Jacksonville players previously featured, has much longer road trips and difficult travel than most leagues around the globe and requires a level of fitness many don’t realize because playing in the summer humidity in Florida isn’t easy. Sala in particular was naive in his building of the squad which was surprising given his own history in MLS, work with the players union and time as a player agent.
In the preseason I spoke on a few different NASL preview shows about my feeling that Jacksonville had built its squad all wrong. In the early portion of the NASL season though, I looked to be off the mark as the Armada looked a safe midtable bet who might even push for a postseason spot. However, reality has set in now and with Wednesday’s 2-0 loss in Fort Lauderdale, the club now sits 10 points from a postseason spot with just seven games to play.
Jacksonville can hope to finish the season strongly and then build for next season.