With consecutive 1-0 victories over FC Edmonton and a scoreless draw against San Francisco, the Armada find themselves atop the NASL table after four match weeks. In this post, I will offer some perspective on this start, observations from last night’s match, and some thoughts on the atmosphere at the Armada’s new home, Hodges Stadium.

For a third consecutive time, the Armada won their first game at home. For the first time, they followed that with a win on the road. With the third game being a draw, the Armada had their best three game stretch since posting two (home) wins and a draw (away) in May 2015. Jacksonville had only one shutout win last season, they already have two this season.Three games of shutout soccer equals a streak they had from late September to mid-October last year. Let us not dwell on the fact that in the next game the Armada conceded four goals to the New York Cosmos, Jacksonville’s  next opponent.

To my regret, I did not record last night’s match, “a brutal draw” for Jacksonville and San Francisco. As Florida Times-Union beat writer Clayton Freeman tweeted

 

The match was weirdly chippy and it seemed like the referee had lost control within the first few minutes. The match ended with a total of six yellow cards and with four of them being awarded in the first half, it was a wonder that it ended with all 22 players still on the pitch. I won’t claim with authority that both sides were equally undisciplined, but I will say that there is good reason for both sides to have grudges to settle when they meet next time, on May 19 in San Francisco.

As evidenced by the results so far, the prime defense, Kalem Ryden, Mechak Jerome, Aaron Pitchkolan, Drew Beckie, and Kevan George, is very prime.  I don’t recall any runs of play for the Deltas that if they were repeated three times, would have resulted in a goal at least once. Scarily, though, there is very little back-up for that prime defense. One looks over the roster and becomes very concerned at the thought of the Trinidad and Tobago national Kevan George being on international duty  while one or more of the back four is injured or other-wise needs rest. I would think finding at least one more veteran defender, if not at least a couple more warm bodies, would be a priority for Jacksonville before entering the Fall Season.

The beginning of the Hodges Stadium era

 

3,472 fans attended the Armada’s home opener. 3,512 took in last night’s match. While those numbers are a fair bit below last year’s average (4,055), they fall right at the median attendance for last season (whose mid-week matches dragged down the average). Given that there is virtually no marketing for the games and the franchise is depending on season-ticket holders, youth soccer clubs, and University of North Florida students to spread the word and show up to the games, these are respectable figures. Consider, for instance, that there were only 4,133 in attendance for San Francisco’s season opener and 1,739 for their second home game. North Carolina had 6,058 in attendance for their first home match, but that figure dropped to  4,293 last night. While one would certainly like Jacksonville’s  attendance to be higher, it is at a good starting point.

In the Armada’s old home, Community First Park (soccer branding for the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville)  3,500 was probably about the smallest crowd that felt viable; anything less felt like an empty stadium and it really took around 5,000 to make what seemed to be a good crowd.  In the single stand of Hodges Stadium, 3,500 feels and looks like a vibrant crowd.

During the first two seasons, it seemed that the franchise tried to emulate the Jacksonville Sharks (arena football) approach to entertaining the fans: Loud and constant injections from the PA, whether it be music, exhortations from the announcer, etc. Obviously, there is only so much that can be done in game during a match,  so the emulation was only truly evident during pre-game and half-time, but it was present in-game as well.

Mercifully, in my opinion, this has been dialed back so far at Hodges Stadium, owing at least partially to the franchise’s current low budget existence. However, one could here echoes of the past last night, such as the “When I say ‘Ar’ you say ‘Mada'” plea and the “Ole, Ole, Ole, music”. Given the weak PA system, this did not come off very well. Given that the supporters group, Section 904 is in closer proximity to the fans, they provide an even better atmosphere than they did in the Community First Park era. There really isn’t a need for anyone else to fire up the crowd.

Last night was Naval Appreciation Night and Section 904, spurred on by the heated nature of the match and dubious referring, marked the occasion with an extra helping of saltiness. While this may pale in comparison to behavior in Europe**, I would like to think that Armada supporters are better than those the sort who throw motorcycles from the upper level of stands, throw lit flares onto the pitch, etc. A Supporter’s Group can be critical without being coarse.  Given the aforementioned reliance on youth soccer as a source of fans, it is in everyone’s interest to keep the presence of kids in mind. I would rather have Section 904 provide the atmosphere rather than having others try to inject; if the franchise feels like it has to do so, to keep the environment family-friendly, I wouldn’t like it bit I would see where they were coming from.

Enough of that. The Armada are atop the table, three games into the season, and unbeaten. Let us enjoy.

Here’s to you the famous white and blue
Duval loves you more than you will know
Whoaaaaaaaa

**Chuck Culpepper’s Bloody Confused has a section where he relates being amazed by the language he heard in the stands, even though he was a fairly grizzled American sports writer. Some explained by saying that English children are told by their parents “There are some words we only use at the football stadium. You mustn’t say them anywhere else.” While there may be a certain universal understanding of that in Europe, it certainly doesn’t exist in America and I wouldn’t count on parents adapting anytime soon.

Eight days after the North American Soccer League season began, Opening Day has finally arrived for Jacksonville and Edmonton. Here’s a few notes for today’s game.

  • We must of course, start at the beginning of this fixture’s history: Jacksonville’s Jemal Johonson scoring in 12 seconds, the first 12 seconds of Armada history.
  • Jacksonville’s all-time -record against Edmonton is 2-2-2, with both wins occurring in 2015.
  • Jacksonville have scored 7 goals against Edmonton. That is the most they have scored against any active NASL team (They scored 11 against now USL-affiliated Tampa Bay).
  • Edmonton have scored 6 goals against Jacksonville. That is the fewest scored by any of the seven teams against which Jacksonville has a full two season history.
  • Jemal Johnson is the only active Armada player to score against FC Edmonton (Alhassane Keita is Jacksonville’s all-time leading goal-scorer against Edmonton, having netted two).
  • No Jacksonville player has scored against Edmonton since Akeil Barret did so on October 17, 2015.
  • Edmonton’s Sainey Nyassi and Abdoulaye Diakité have each scored a goal versus Jacksonville. Daryl Fordyce, who has two goals and assist to his credit against Jacksonville, now plays for USL side FC Cincinnati.
  • The Armada’s Miguel Gallardo and Edmonton’s Matt Van Oekel were each in the net for five of the six games between their two teams. Gallardo has retired and Matt Van Oekel now plays for Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake. He was named to the MLS Team of the Week after keeping a clean sheet in his MLS debut against the New York Red Bulls.
  • Edmonton’s likely starting goal-keeper, Chris Konopka, made 26 appearances for MLS side Toronto FC from 2013 to 2015. While he was on the Vancouver Whitecaps roster for the latter part of 2016, he did not make any MLS appearances last season.
  • Jacksonville’s likely starting goal-keeper, Caleb Patterson-Sewell, spent 2016 with the Portuguese squad SC Farense.
  • Jacksonville defender Mechak Jerome has started and played every minute of the five games that Jacksonville has played against Edmonton since he joined the team.
  • Jemal Johnson has started in each of Jacksonville’s matches against Edmonton.
  • Today’s referee, Rubiel Vasquez , officiated the September 28, 2016 match between these two teams. He presented four yellow cards in the course of that match.

Here’s a bit of commentary on Jacksonville Armada news since my last post.

The Armada have moved away from downtown and their financially ruinous arrangement to play at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Their new home is at the University of North Florida, which is located in the central part of suburban Jacksonville.

Back in 2014, before the Armada had settled on the Baseball Grounds, I thought Hodges Stadium was a reasonable place to go to, though I did see some downsides. A quick break-down of the pluses and minuses:

  • + Location. The stadium is likely close to dead center to where the fan base lives at. The university is an exit from Interstate 295, so it is very accessible for those coming from St. John’s County (to the south). The only parts of Jacksonville really disadvantaged by the move are the westside and downtown, neither of which are prime living areas for the bulk of the fan base.
    • Fans won’t have to worry about leaving exceptionally early for games to avoid congestion from other events going downtown or bridge closures. They won’t have a repeat of a Saturday night game getting pushed to mid-afternoon in the dead of summer due to a Jaguars pre-season game.
  • + Field quality. The Armada will be playing on an excellent pitch that is used only for soccer.
    • On the most recent episode of the Bold City Soccer Show, the guys discussed how a few players commented on the “fill-in” grass that covered the infield; they could tell the difference and it affected their play.
  • + Credible venue. The stadium seats 12,000. It’s not the only field that has a track going around it (Indy Eleven play at The Michael A. Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium) or is college owned (Indy Eleven and Miami FC, who play at Florida International University).
  • – Simple venue. Unlike Indy’s and Miami’s the Armada’s home consists of a single stand, which runs the length of one side of the field. All bleachers.
    • That means there really isn’t much that can be done to set up different tiers of ticket pricing. For this season there’s three tiers of pricing for season tickets that only vary by $3/game.
    • Concession facilities are pretty limited. Food trucks are the only solution I can think of for this issue, but the layout of the stadium may not make that feasible.

Overall, I’m happy with the move (admittedly easy for me to say as I live only a couple of exits south of the UNF campus). I am concerned though about the challenges that the Armada will face to counter the perception that Hodges Stadium  is a marked step down from the Baseball Grounds.

NASL Releases 2017 Schedule

Only two Wednesday night games this year. Read my previous post to understand why this is significant. It was a little bit disappointing to have our season start one week after everyone elses. However, in 2015, we opened the season at home on April 4. There wasn’t another home game until May 2 and there was another long gap in the fall season that year as well. 2016 also had long gaps in-season. In 2017, the only long stretch between home games, July 1-July 30, straddles the Spring and Fall seasons. Besides the opening “bye week” followed by playing Edmonton twice, there isn’t much quirky about the schedule. I noticed, though, that we will have played the rest of the league twice before playing Puerto Rico on June 25. This is meaningful because I suspect Puerto Rico will be one of the less challenging opponents for the Armada this year.

Armada Adds Defender Aaron Pitchkolan, Forward Jonathan Glenn

Armada FC Signs Defenders Drew Beckie and Michael O’Sullivan

Goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell Signs with Armada FC

Standout Midfielder Zach Steinberger Signs With Armada FC

Only through the pre-season have I been able to appreciate a couple of these items. Aaron Pitchkolan is a veteran defender who is providing leadership to the squad. Drew Beckie has been fun to watch coming up from the back to attack on the right. A goalkeeper with international experience replaces fan favorite Miguel Gallardo (who is doing local television broadcasts for Orlando City this year).

The most immediately exciting news was the return of Zach Steinberger who was on loan to the Armada from the MLS squad Houston Dynamo last season. He generated a lot of excitement for the boys in blue down the stretch last season: 79th minute equalizing goal against the New York Cosmos (before all hell broke loose and the Armada ended up losing by two goals). Two assists in the victory against Miami FC. Two assists and the game-wining goal against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. His is probably the most important of all the roster returns and additions.

The Jersey

In its inaugural season, the Armada had  fairly simple (one color) home and away jerseys for the Spring, with a compressed timeline for preparation being cited as a reason for their simplicity (Upgraded jerseys debuted for the Fall Season). With that experience in mind, it wasn’t a surprise to see simple jerseys for the Armada this season. Maybe not as simple as they turned out to be, but it wasn’t a shock to me.

You really have to admire the effort put out the Armada staffer who was up to the challenge of finding things to point out and praise.

One oddity is that in reverse of previous seasons, the home jerseys are white while the road ones are blue. This may be an effort to keep the Armada in light-colored uniforms as much as possible so that they aren’t cooking in the summer sun.

People will immediately note the lack of a sponsor.This is a consequence of the Armada’s uncertain ownership situation. On the Soc Takes podcast, North American Soccer League interim commissioner Rishi Segal repeated his remark that the league is “making progress” towards finding new ownership (Armada discussion is around 27:15-30:15 marks).

That is the dark cloud over an otherwise hopeful season. The team is operating in a bare-bones manner with very little in the way of marketing and promotion. The team alone will bear the burden of making fans want to come out at watch. As part of his stop in Jacksonville as he makes his way on The Soccer Tour, Steve Bernasconi discussed the operating challenges with the Armada’s head coach, Mark Lowry:

There is no doubt Lowry is up to and enjoys this challenge. After the intra-squad scrimmage in February, a member of the Armada staff commented how from Lowry’s first day as interim head-coach, there was marked change. He posesses a clear vision and he is getting total commitment from his players.

While a number of draws served to obscure the degree of improvement the Armada made after the departure of Tony Meola, there was progress to be noticed. After 26 failures, the Armada finally won on the road. The hot ending to the New York Cosmos match in October showed that the players were still fully engaged and not just riding to the end of the season. That game was followed by consecutive home victories to end the season.

The roster may not be the most impressive, but the continuity in the form of Mark Lowry brings coherence. Unlike 2015, there isn’t a mish-mash of foreign players and locals. Unlike 2016, fans won’t be confronted with not recognizing anyone who’s on the pitch and struggling to understand the match-to-match changes in lineup that were common towards the end of Meola’s tenure.

One week until opening day. I am not the only one who cannot wait to get the long uncertain off-season in the past and get around to watching the Armada in action.

There is a fair bit of uncertainty regarding the upcoming Jacksonville Armada season. Questions abound such as  “Where will the team play?”, (almost certainly not its home for its first two seasons, Community First Park, AKA the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville), “Who will be in goal? (the team does not have any goal-keepers under contract at this time), and so on.

One thing that is certain is the nature of the season. On January 20, the North American Soccer League announced that 2017 league play will consist of eight teams will play sixteen games in both a spring season and a fall season.  After thinking about it for a moment, my reaction was similar to that of Florida Times-Union write Clayton Freeman.

 

Reaction on Twitter from supporters of NASL teams featured a bit of puzzlement, as well. While many were happy that the league’s previous practice of having a spring season that was half the length of the fall season (but whose titles counted equally) was a thing of the past, there was doubt over why the schedule wasn’t balanced. Why not just have 8 teams playing their opponents twice each season such that there would be two 14 game seasons? It seemed so odd to me that I almost seriously wondered if someone made a “fencepost error” and mis-calculated the number of games that would make up a balanced schedule.

The acting commissioner of the league, Rishi Sehgal, has answered the question in a consistent fashion during interviews. This, for example, is from Sehgal’s interview with Raleigh based writer Neil Morris

“Primarily because we wanted to give more games back to the fans. It was a long off-season without soccer, and the desire was to create more excitement about the competition rather than create a short season. I’ve read rumors out there that we had penciled in other teams to play and then canceled them. That speculation is just speculation. The decision was made to have as many games as possible and focus on the competition.”

There is something about adding “bonus” games in this manner that has bothered me. There are 32 weekends from the season-opening weekend to the weekend before the playoffs start (March 25-October 28).  In the past, and Sehgal suggests that this will be the case in 2017 as well, there is a break between the two seasons. That means that there aren’t enough on which to play games. Some games will be played mid-week.

As an Armada fan, this concerned me, because there was a noticeable difference between attendance for the weekend matches and weekday matches last season. I mentioned this to Clayton Freeman on Twitter and he helpfully replied with the stats:

Admittedly, the drop of 43% wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. One could argue that the number attendance dropped from was at least as problematic as the drop itself. That is, dropping 43% from a weekend of average of 8,000 isn’t that bad. When you’re only getting 4,000 fans on the weekends, though, the result is games that are money-losers. (Playing in an active baseball stadium, the Armada paid a city subsidized, yet still hefty fee, for converting the baseball field to a soccer pitch; Empire of Soccer cited a cost of $70,00 per match)

Being curious as to whether such drops were common across the league, or a problem unique to Jacksonville, I compiled the numbers for the past two seasons across the league. The figures are pretty interesting.

In 2015, eleven teams played each-other once in the Spring and  twice in the Fall. That meant for five home games in the spring and ten in the fall.  During the fall, most teams played two home games mid-week, while Atlanta played three and Edmonton, Indy, and Tampa Bay played only one. The following table shows each team’s average weekend attendance, weekday attendance, and the percentage difference between the two.

 

Atlanta 4294 2947 -31%
Edmonton 2872 3120 8.6%
FTL 4858 1955 -59%
Indy 9956 8500 -14%
Jacksonville 8261 5760 -30%
Minnesota 884. 8275 -6%
NY 5314 3522 -33%
NC 4728 3307 -30%
Ottawa 5228 4751 -9%
San Antonio 7036 4509 -36%
TB 5619 4691 -16%

 

A few of these numbers are skewed a little bit. Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and New York all had season openers with attendance that was out-sized compared to the rest of the season. Adjusting those towards normal attendance improves the drop by 5% or so for each team.  Un-adjusted, the league-wide figure suggests an average attendance drop of 25% from weekend to mid-week.

As one can see, not everyone was hurt by mid-week games; the 3,120 at Edmonton’s compared favorably to some weekend games that had 2,000 or fewer fans in attendance. Similarly, neither Ottawa’s or Minnesota’s games ranked atop the list of most lightly attended home matches. Elsewhere, however, the attendance drops were significant.

In 2016, the Spring season consisted of eleven teams (but not the same eleven as in 2015, since Miami and Oklahoma City replaced Atlanta and San Antonio) playing each-other once. Puerto Rico joined in the Fall season to make its season twelve teams playing each-other twice.  This made for five home games in the Spring and eleven in the Fall. Jacksonville played one home one-game mid-week in the spring; the only team to do so. Jacksonville played four mid-week games at home during the Fall; again this was exceptional as all other teams played only two home games mid-week. (One of those mid-week Jacksonville games was not scheduled as such; Hurricane Matthew pushed a would-be weekend match against Indy into the week.) As was the case in 2016, some teams, particularly the southern ones, took significant attendance hits during the week.

Edmonton 2092 1836 -12%
FTL 1484 437 -71%
Indy 8585 7075 -17%
Jacksonville 4055 2278 -44%
Miami 5259 4854 -8%
Minnesota 8775 7154 -18%
NYC 3829 3402 -11%
NC 5323 3201 -40%
OKC 3209 3472 8%
Ottawa 5591 4700 -16%
PR 4350 1329 -69%
TB 5992 5076 -15%

The figure for Fort Lauderdale is not a typo; they only had 873 fans total at their two mid-week matches. The crowd for Puerto Rico’s  mid-week games were roughly half the size of that for their most lightly attended weekend match.  As was the case in 2015, Jacksonville and Carolina had big drops in attendance for mid-week games.  The drop for the Cosmos wasn’t as bad… but the figure for weekend-games was worse than in 2015.  Edmonton,Indy, and Tampa managed to keep the gap reasonably small.  The figures for Miami and OKC are a bit wonky. Miami had some games with horrible attendance in the Spring.  OKC managed to have their mid-week games before the franchise started to fall apart. Otherwise, their numbers would have likely been comparable to Fort Lauderdale’s.

Pardon a slight digression as I elaborate on the Armada. As mentioned earlier, Jacksonville played in an active baseball stadium; their home schedule was dictated by the home schedule of the AA baseball team.  As home-stands that wrap around two weekends are not uncommon, the Armada were left with some tight windows for home games, hence the excess number of mid-week games.  Cruelly, those were the games most poorly attended. The crowd for the mid-week Spring game was ~500 fewer than the lowest attended weekend game. Of the four Fall games, only one had higher attendance than the lowest week-end game (that week-end game had 2,516 fans in attendance; it was played on a scorching afternoon in advance of a Jaguars pre-season game). Weather was not a factor for the depressed attendance. In 2015 the only games affected by weather were the season opener (15 minute downpour in the second half) and a Saturday night game that was delayed by lightning. Similarly in 2016, the only games with unpleasant weather were during the weekend. The only mid-week game that had understandable poor attendance was the rescheduled Indy Eleven match; there were still Jacksonville residents without power on the night of that match.

League-wide, I calculated the 2016 drop in attendance from weekend to weekday games to be 27%, nearly identical to the drop observed in 2015. The drop isn’t so big to suggest that the average fan does not go to mid-week games. It is certainly large enough, however, to suggest that adding games to the schedule yields diminishing returns if the games in question are going to be played mid-week. A 28 game schedule fits into the given March 25-October 28 window fairly nicely; 14 week-end games each season and each team gets a week off as well as a two week break between seasons. Fitting a 32 game schedule into that window with a a an equal amount of rest means that each team would have to host two mid-week games each season.

If franchises are going to be on the hook for that many mid-week games, it appears that some will have to put some serious focus on how to make those games better attended. It certainly appears that Tampa did something that the other southern teams didn’t.

The other puzzler with the unbalanced schedule is how it’s going to work. It would be more evident if the teams were more evenly distributed geographically and everyone had a local rival. Under those conditions, it would make sense for the extra games to be merely just an extra home and away game against the rivals. Alas, the 2017 NASL is not like that.  Here’s my best effort of making the unbalanced 32 game schedule work in a cost-efficient manner :

  • Each team plays each-other home and away twice
  • Puerto Rico, Miami, and Jacksonville play each-other home and away an extra time.
  • Indy, New York, and North Carolina do the same.
  • San Francisco and Edmonton: Y’all are going to love to hate each-other!  Two extra matches, home and away!

This, of course, could make things a wreck balance of competition-wise. From a competition stand-point, the only fair way to do it would be to assign the extra games pseudo-randomly.  As a few have noted though, that could bring delights such as Puerto Rico making extra trips to Edmonton and San Franciso, etc. Adding those extra trips, for any team, doesn’t make sense.

Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to  have extra games that one can reasonably expect to have reduced attendance. As a season-ticket holder who is concerned about the feature of his team and its league, I am not in support of this unbalanced schedule as it has been presented.

 

 

 

 

Books for Christmas

December 15, 2016

Nobody asked me, but here’s five recommendations for the avid reader on your list:

 

  • Liar’s Poker – Michael Lewis
    • I figured I would start strong. If this isn’t my favorite book as an adult, it’s definitely on the short list.  It is humorous, entertaining, and enlightening. There is just so much to get out of it:
      • A story of a guy’s first job out of college
      • A story of 1980’s Wall Street
      • A story about a company losing it’s culture as it rapidly expands.
      • A story demonstrating how investment banks initially made mortgages an item of speculation.
      • The book that established Michael Lewis’ career as a writer. (I saw Michael Lewis speak once and he mentioned a former high-school classmate (maybe Sean Tuohy) saying that the classmate remembered him as the doofus in the back row and couldn’t for the life of him figure out how Lewis managed to become a respected writer).
  • Under the Wire – William Ash and Brendan Foley
    • The story of a Texan who went to Canada to join the Royal Air Force in 1940 is action packed and worthy of a movie. After getting shot down and eventually captured by the Gestapo, Ash became a serial escape artist and rubbed elbows with many of the legends of World War II prisoner of war camp escapes.
  • Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby
    • Given how many soccer related books I’ve read in the past couple of years, there was nil chance of one not getting onto this list. The acclaimed novelist wrote about his life-long obsession with Arsenal Football Club.  Perfectly readable if you’re not a soccer fan, it is equally so if you are. Among other things, it captures a long period of top-level English football just before its scene changed dramatically.

 

My Soccer Life

December 13, 2016

Having spit out a few thousand words about the Armada, I felt obliged to let everyone know where I’m coming from as a soccer fan. I think I’m a little bit of an oddball as I have never played the game in any organized fashion other than  junior high/high school Physical Education class.  LikI ae most of what I’ve written on this blog, this is an exercise for myself; I certainly don’t expect anyone to be interested in every last detail of what I put out here.

I am the son of a (now retired) Navy officer.  As you will see, I moved around a bit.

My first memories as a child come from living in Jacksonville, in the early 1980’s. I have no memory of the Jacksonville Teamen, who played in the original North American Soccer League after moving from Boston and subsequently played in the American Soccer League and United Soccer League before shutting down. Given how young I was, I guess it isn’t surprising that I’ve no memory of the Teamen, but I do have ever so vague memories of the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL.

We moved from Jacksonville to southern Maryland. I have one distinct memory of kicking around a soccer ball with my best friend next-door. The organized sport we participated in was tee-ball, though. If soccer was being played in our area (and I suppose it was), it was completely off our radar.

Things were a little bit different after the family’s next move. When I arrived there, Stephen Decatur Elementary School, which served the children of Navy Air Station Sigonella (Sicily), did not have any playground equipment for third graders.  There was a black-top, though and every recess, it played host to the most chaotic, direct, soccer ever played by Americans, I reckon.  I remember participating in it from time to time, but never becoming a determined participant in it. About half-way through 4th grade, basketball hoops were added and I stuck to that.

While I believe there was organized soccer offered on-base, we lived off-base, about an hour away (outside of the town of Nicolosi).  I distinctly remember a conversation with our landlord’s son, Marco (a teen-ager) who schooled me a little bit about soccer. He made sure that I knew who the greatest player alive was (which I knew) that the greatest player in the sport at that time was Diego Maradona (which I didn’t know).  My parents had a television for picking up Italian stations. I don’t think I ever watched or happened upon a game during that time, oddly enough (as opposed to memories of watching the Seoul Olympics via that medium; due to the time differences between Korea and US compounded by the lag in broadcasts on AFN at that time, watching the games in English were not preferred).

I did, though, watch soccer, in Italian, on television when we lived in Pennsylvania.  Our cable package included a random New York City Station that on Sunday mornings,  had RAI’s  Serie A game broadcast. I couldn’t tell you which games I saw or who I saw play, but I do remember watching a few of those broadcasts. I only found out recently that the Italian government paid television stations in “Italian” US markets to broadcast the games. That combined with the chance of having the particular New York station on our cable is what made my experience possible.

There was plenty of organized soccer going on where I lived in Bucks County, but I never participated in it. Despite enjoying (and seemingly being at least a little bit skilled) playing in gym class, I never had any interest. The only sport I played in school was basketball, in seventh grade. I must admit that I now do imagine an alternate path in my life where I actually played organized soccer ( to go with all of the time I played keepy-upy and did make-shift footwork drills).  Oh well.

From Pennsylvania, I went to Brunswick, Maine. The high school was a bit of a state power in the sport. I remember my mom, sister, and I going to the 1992 Class A State championship in which Brunswick was soundly beaten. It was an absolutely freezing morning (I don’t remember for certain how cold it was now, probably mid 20s; these days we like to recall it as being negative 50) the chill compounded by sitting on steel bleachers.  We left after my school fell behind by three goals and decamped to a K-Mart where we promptly took in some hot chocolate.

I was a high-schooler living in Chesapeake, Virginia during the 1994 World Cup and watched most of the games. Was crushed by Italy’s defeat in the finals.

Having been a fan of most of the DC based sports teams, I was nominally a fan of DC United when MLS was formed. With little coverage in the paper and not many opportunities to see them on television, I didn’t become attached to them, though.

I did, though, go to my first soccer game during this time though. I ventured out to First Colonial High School to watch the Hampton Roads Hurricanes of the USISL play. I got a t-shirt, which survived a few moves, but I believe ultimately got thrown out, alas. I also remember getting a set of team cards (and getting one signed by the goal-scorer that night); I’ll have to try to find those.

My family returned to Jacksonville after my father’s retirement from the Navy. I was working during the 1998 World Cup and listened to many games via Spanish language radio (and actually watched a few games with the sound muted and the radio on).

I apparently had no awareness that there was a soccer team in Jacksonville at the time (the Cyclones of the A-League). That means that I missed the day Leicester came to town. I also somehow missed the US Men coming to Jacksonville, when they beat Germany 3-0. That was four days before I shipped out for boot camp, so I guess that’s somewhat understandable.

I was in A-School in Pensacola during the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The final was a big deal and the common area of my barracks room was packed with guys watching the game.

The 2002 World Cup found me in the Med, on deployment. I was scarcely aware it was going on. Somewhat similarly, I was away from home for the better part of the 2006 World Cup and in a hotel room whose television didn’t have ESPN2 (!). I didn’t see much of the 2010 World Cup, either.

I did see the key games for the US down the stretch of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The game against Brazil is one of my all time favorites of any sport. I was subsequently locked in for all of the team’s games in the 2012 Olympics.

By this point, of course, I was becoming re-acquainted with the game. Sara and I saw the US Men play Scotland at Everbank Field in May 2012. She also made it out to see the US Women play the following year (I had a scheduling conflict, much to my disappointment).

Due to Formula One, I was already a viewer of NBC Sports when they won the Premier League contract. I watched the early games with some interest, nominally a fan of Fulham (due to Shad Khan’s ownership of the team). They never took with me though, and they were, of course, relegated during that year anyhow. I did, however, become captivated by “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and subsequently became a Liverpool supporter. The Premier League has since become a part of my weekend routine (and Everton-Arsenal are on my television as I type this).

As mentioned in my first post about the Armada, I got season tickets not long after the details of the team were settled. I made it out to a couple of the World Cup Watch parties (at The Landing for the Ghana match and the now gone Nippers for the crushing Portugal match). I’d been pretty ignorant of what had been going on in professional soccer in the United States since the formation (and early struggles) of MLS, but I started to become acquainted with the scene.

As one may have figured by my mentions of the Women’s World Cup, I enjoy women’s soccer. I have been to (almost) all of the University of North Florida matches I’ve been able to attend during the last three years. I also trekked out to Tallahassee and cheered with the Renegades for a couple of games in 2014 (I wasn’t able to make the trip to Boca to see FSU win the title, alas).  I also centered a 2015 trip to Blacksburg around a Virginia Tech-Florida State match. Sara and I made the trip to Orlando to see the Pride’s debut in the NWSL (we have talked about, but never actually followed through, on going to an Orlando City MLS game). I finally got to see the US women in person when I traveled to Tampa to see the She Believes matches between France, Germany, England,and the United States earlier this year.

To finish out the list of games we’ve been to… Sara and I were at the Fulham-DC United friendly at Everbank last year (which was followed by a Carrie Underwood performance and the debut of the new video boards). I went to the Florida Cup games at Everbank (Koln, Fluminese, Bayer Leverkusen, and Corinthians).

So, I sit here a devoted fan of Liverpool from afar (Sara is a somewhat less devoted Everton fan; she was a fan of Cardiff, who were relegated the same time Fulham was. We do keep track of the team’s performances in the Championship with a bit of ado for the Fulham-Cardiff matches) and of Armada FC at home. I don’t have an MLS team and here’s hoping that (short of the Armada eventually joining that league) I never will.

 

 

 

In my post yesterday, I neglected to  mention one of the high points of my Armada experience last season:The team hosting and winning a US Open Cup match, which set up a game against visiting Major League Soccer side Orlando City. Played in the immediate wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, with a healthy amount of traveling supporters, it was a great evening of togetherness.  On the field, the Armada put up a good fight, and held the scoreline even for an hour before conceding the winning goal. A good night of action on the field and a great night in the stands. It was a night enjoyed by only 2,055 fans, alas.

A scarf that was a give-away on the Armada's Pride Night, roughly one month before the Orlando City match. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shootings, Armada fans who managed to snag one of these (plus one of the limited number of tickets to the match) wore it to the game. After the match, an Orlando City fan offered to trade his scarf for this one; an offer I selfishly declined.

A scarf that was a give-away on the Armada’s Pride Night, roughly one month before the Orlando City match. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shootings, Armada fans who managed to snag one of these (plus one of the limited number of tickets to the match) wore it to the game. After the match, an Orlando City fan offered to trade his scarf for this one; an offer I selfishly declined.

Allow me a slight digression as I review what lead to that night (I feel obliged to point these matters out and regret not having done so at some earlier point).  The US Open Cup is a tournament for all of the soccer teams in the United States. It starts with amateur teams and those of the lowest levels of professional soccer. As it progresses, teams from the top three levels of professional soccer (the United Soccer League, the Armada’s North American Soccer League, and MLS). Supporters of non-MLS teams dream of their team slaying giants and accumulating upsets against the teams from the league’s higher up the ladder than their own.

Armada fans did not come close to realizing that dream last year. Fielding a mostly second-string team, the Armada traveled to USL side Richmond Kickers and got stomped 3-0 (trust me, the scoreline does not come close to capturing how awful the game was for Jacksonville).  It’s not clear whether the manager thought the second stringers would be enough to compete against lower level competition of he just didn’t care and was perfectly content to fall out of the tournament immediately.  It was disappointing for fans though, as an Armada victory would have brought an MLS squad to town for the next round.

The memory stuck. During the Town Hall Forum with then newly hired coach Tony Meola, a fan inquired as to whether Meola would take the tournament seriously. The coach pledged to do so and in marked contrast with that of his predecessor, the line-up showed it. The Armada defeated a pesky Charleston Battery squad with a thrilling goal in extra time.  As was the case in the previous season, fans and team knew that a victory in the opener would give the Armada the opportunity to host an MLS team. Having gotten the job done this time, the team got to host Orlando City.

So, we had one of the big boys coming to town. A chance for an upset against a team from the big league. A team close enough to Jacksonville for its supports to easily travel for the game, even with it being on a Wednesday night. This had all of the makings of a big event. And yet, there was no chance for it to be.

The current home of the Armada is the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville (re-branded as Community First Park on Armada game-days). The primary tenant, of course, is the baseball team, AA side Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (formerly the Suns).  As such, the soccer team’s scheduled home games are squeezed in-between the lengthy home-stands of the baseball team. Such an arrangement is not conducive for holding relatively “on-the-fly” events such as US Open Cup matches. Because of that, the matches were held at Jacksonville’s Southern Oak Stadium, an attractive, yet tiny facility. And that’s how there came to be only 2,055 fans to take in a night that ought to have been taken in 3-4 times as many, at least. The stadium situation is certainly one of the challenges for the Armada organization, going forward.

The current home, itself, is quite nice. It’s a stadium for a AA baseball team that was built to AAA standards. It is very well equipped in terms of concessions and is a pleasant place in which to watch a match. I haven’t been to any of the other stadiums belonging to NASL teams, but it does seem to be one of the nicer ones. It isn’t the only baseball stadium either, Tampa Bay (who has now departed the league, alas) plays in a converted baseball stadium as does Puerto Rico FC. The Armada isn’t the only team that has a home that isn’t quite its own, either as a few teams play on university grounds (ones significantly larger than that of Jacksonville University, one should note).

That said, it does seem to be a limitation for the growth and development of the team. Besides the issue of the primary tenant restricting availability of the stadium, its downtown location causes other events to affect the Armada’s games as well. A would-be Saturday night match against Minnesota United became a mid-afternoon match due to the Jaguars having a pre-season game on that night. The result was a match played lethargically in brutally hot conditions (the Armada supporters group Section 904 decamped from their usual haunt behind the east goal to the southwest corner of the pitch, located somewhat more comfortably in the shade.

Armada owner Mark Frisch made public remarks that playing at the Baseball Grounds would be a three year deal with the end goal being the Armada having a home of its own sometime after that. I’ve heard second-hand that in private remarks he’s said that he would want to have a consistent base of at least 5,000 fans before considering such a venture. While things were looking good for that to happen in the first year, things have since gone awry.

The Armada’s season ticket renewal campaign apparently went as well as the campaign of the Spanish Armada. The failure was apparently part of the reason for the firing of club president Mark Livingstone in early February. While the books show 8,147 fans attending the team’s 2015 opener at Community First Park (the season opener was at EverBank Field), they indicate only 5,112 in attendance for the 2016 opener. The same records show the 2015 low point for attendance being 5,652; 2016 did not have a high point that high.

A brief aside at this point. I will elaborate in a future post, but I am a fairly long-time soccer fan, but one who only re-immersed himself into the game a few years ago, with the  2014 World Cup and NBC Sports winning the Premier League contract being major factors. My earlier fandom was fairly shallow and I’ve come to realize that there were a lot of things that I didn’t know back then. The point of mentioning this is that there’s a lot of things going on that have a back-story longer than I’ve been closely following the game. I’ve done a fair bit of reading to fill in my (massive) knowledge gaps, but I will freely admit there are matters for which others will have (much) more informed opinions (such as judging the quality of play in the NASL).

The author has read a little bit about soccer doing the past two years.

The author has read a little bit about soccer doing the past two years.

 

The $64 question, whose answer I do not come remotely close to knowing, is the nature of the fans who attended games in the Armada’s debut season but did not show up in the second season.  Let us consider a few possibilities:

  • Devoted soccer fans who are fans of the game, but do not feel a need to be attached to their local team.  They might have found a little bit to like in the game-day experience, but didn’t find anything attractive to watch on the field. This is not a problem restricted to lower-level teams in the United States; it is a bit of a global issue. As the highest levels of play have become more accessible on television, some fans have gotten so accustomed to watching the high level of play that they cannot stand to watch anything that’s even a little bit lower. That is a tough fight for any team outside of the highest tiers football, one that is a bit of a fight for even Major League Soccer.
  • More casual fans of soccer, maybe even people who are mostly unfamiliar with the game. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the team last year had a brutal stretch of scoreless play. On the field, there wasn’t much in the way of excitement to draw in and keep the uncommitted fan. Too many times, the games appeared to confirm the worst stereotypes of soccer.
  • Folks who fell somewhere in between who took spent their money elsewhere. It would be wholly unsurprising to find many took their money across the street (to EverBank Field) as there were wide expectations that this was going to be the break-out season for the Jaguars.

Of course, none of these possibilities are exclusive of one another. Without knowing the nature of those disappearing fans, though, it is a nearly impossible task to suggest a course of action for the Armada to get them back and solve this worrisome issue. There was a stretch during the late part of this season where attendance was clearly at a negative tipping point. When you have fewer than 3,000 people in a stadium that has a  capacity three times greater, the atmosphere suffers, regardless of how lively the attending fans are. The Armada tried gamely to entice fans with various special ticket promotions; one fears that it started to verge on desperation and started to give an air to the public that the tickets couldn’t be given away.

Complicating matters for the Armada is the future of their league. Major League Soccer in one fashion or another (either by directly bringing in a NASL team or announcing a franchise in a NASL market) has severely squeezed the league from the top. Below, a few teams have recently fled NASL to USL. Throw in a couple of teams on financially shaky ground and the league is looking at having fewer than 8 teams playing next season. While the original NASL survived dropping to 5 teams before its growth in the 1970’s the landscape is completely different today and a repeat is unlikely.

To a great extent the issue of leagues is a conflict of visions. MLS has a distinctly American sports approach including looking to ultimately have the same number of teams as the NFL, et al. It appears that the USL is becoming subsumed as a minor league (in the sense of minor league baseball) counterpart to MLS.  The NASL has tried a different approach, something closer to European soccer norms than American sports. For a number of reasons, I have found myself disliking the MLS outlook and preferring that of the NASL. It appears, though, that this battle is all but lost.

It now seems that the Armada’s immediate will be predicated on joining the USL. I hope that they do so without becoming a minor-league affiliate (I admit gross ignorance on the nature of the league; from my limited knowledge, I find it odd to have a league have both independent squads and ones that are developmental/reserve squads for MLS teams).

I will conclude with one final bit from the Orlando City match. Before the game, I was participated in a radio interview with a reporter who noticed my pride scarf. During the interview, I mentioned the Armada organization being a solid member of the Jacksonville community and one  that I was proud to support. That remains true today and it is why I have felt compelled to write this post as well as yesterday’s.