The Jacksonville Armada FC has been an off-the-field model of how to launch an expansion club in NASL. From superior marketing to outstanding market-wide branding the Armada have been a hit. However, on-the-field the squad has lagged behind in-state NASL rivals Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale both of whom entered the final weekend of the season with an opportunity to qualify for the NASL’s unique four club postseason “The Championship.”
Tampa Bay’s 2-0 loss on Long Island to New York on Saturday opened the door for the Strikers to claim the final postseason position if they could get a result in Jacksonville on Sunday against the Armada. The Strikers controlled effort which saw Jacksonville keep most of the ball, but create very few clear cut chances ultimately ended in a 1-0 victory in front of an announced crowd 9,000 fans, record for a soccer game at Community First Park. Fort Lauderdale benefited from the team’s largest traveling party of fans this season who had packed multiple vans and cars to drive up I-95 for the critical match.
A sense of purpose dominated the Strikers second half performance, with a squad that was missing several key players due to injury and illness still buzzing around late on to try and get a result. For a club that is accustomed to playing in front of many empty seats at home, the sellout crowd and buzzing atmosphere seemed to actually help Fort Lauderdale in the second half. Rather than tail off and become complacent since the Strikers simply needed a draw to advance, the side got stronger as the match wore on and were ultimately able to take all three points.
NASL’s decision to buck international tradition and the scheduling formula the league used in 2011 for staggered start times on the final weekend added perhaps more drama than otherwise would have been present over the course of 26 hours. Ottawa’s failure to defeat Atlanta on Saturday afternoon gave New York the opportunity to claim the overall number one seed in the NASL postseason. Saturday evening New York defeated Tampa Bay opening the door for the Strikers who played the next day. Marlon Freitas game-winning goal sends Fort Lauderdale to New York for the Championship semifinals next weekend.
Fort Lauderdale’s postseason qualification makes them one of only two teams, joining Minnesota to qualify for times for the NASL postseason. We will have a much closer look at the failure of Tampa Bay to miss the postseason at Fort Lauderdale’s expense tomorrow. The Rowdies had looked one of the joint-favorites to win the NASL title with New York in the early portion of the season, but fell away badly winning just four times in the team’s final 19 matches. On the flip side, the Strikers dumped some of the club’s highest profile players from last season, many of whom signing with Tampa Bay and yet STILL finished ahead of the Rowdies this season. The criticisms of the Strikers ownership by many fans seems to ignore the simple reality that Fort Lauderdale was able to put together a squad at a far lower cost than the Rowdies and still outperform the club’s traditional rivals on the field.
The Strikers have never beaten New York in league play, but did the Strikers take a three goal lead in the club’s last meeting on August 8th. The Cosmos stormed back to claim a 3-3 draw which at the time left Fort Lauderdale with just one win in seven matches. But that collapse provided the impetus for the revival of the Strikers under Head Coach Günter Kronsteiner. The Strikers picked up 23 points in the 13 matches since that Cosmos draw, compared to just 18 from the 17 matches which culminated in the draw.