For two years of spectacle and struggle, the Jacksonville Armada often found ways to lose.
Now, on a shoestring budget, they’re creating a new habit. Winning.
With two wins in two games against 2016 playoff qualifier FC Edmonton, the owner-less Armada leads the North American Soccer League, an unexpected start for a franchise that neared the brink of extinction in December.
“We’d have been happy to come away with a win at home and a draw away,” midfielder Jack Blake said. “To come away with two wins, it’s fantastic.”
There’s a firm, cohesive defense - Jacksonville hasn’t allowed a goal yet.
There’s an opportunistic attack - the Armada has punished opponents’ miscues.
And at the heart of it all is a trio of newcomers who were cut loose by Minnesota United, when that club ended NASL play to launch an expansion franchise in Major League Soccer.
Enter Aaron Pitchkolan, Blake and J.C. Banks. Arriving in a three-week span from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, they haven’t let Armada coach Mark Lowry down.
“Whether it’s Pitch at the back, Jack Blake with his industry and work rate in midfield or J.C. creating goals for us, all three have come in and done fantastically well,” Lowry said.
But while their old club is leaking goals in MLS, giving up nearly four per game, the trio has helped revitalize Jacksonville.
“They’re three fantastic guys,” Lowry said. “They just fit in with the group because of their character and their attitudes.”
Blake hadn’t even played 20 professional games when he arrived in Jacksonville - not exactly the resume one looks for when assembling a team almost from scratch.
But Lowry looked beyond the experience factor.
“He played at a good level in England, came through a good system,” Lowry said.
The Armada took a chance on the former Scotland Under-19 international player, placing him at the center of the attacking midfield.
“I knew it was going to be a target of mine to start, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” he said.
Having a pair of familiar faces from Minnesota nearby eased the transition.
“Coming in, they were the only guys I knew,” Blake said. “So it definitely helped, especially off the field.”
He passes, shoots and does a bit of everything, and last week, he set up the game’s only goal in Edmonton.
Blake perfectly timed a short corner kick to Zach Steinberger, who had rounded a thicket of Edmonton players, setting up Steinberger to shoot past an unsuspecting defense.
“I think once he scores,” Lowry said, “his game will go to a whole new level.”
The indoor-outdoor man
An energetic scoring midfielder with serious soccer bloodlines - his father Jimmy played alongside former Armada coach Tony Meola on the 1990 U.S. World Cup squad in Italy - Banks has always looked for ways to get onto the soccer field.
Even if it meant moving indoors.
During his time in his native Milwaukee, Banks played indoor soccer, the fast-paced, high-scoring, arena-style version of the sport that flourished in the 1980s.
“It’s almost a totally different game … Everything is in tight spaces. You get harder tackles,” Banks said. “Playing under pressure just gets you better.”
Under the Florida sunshine, he’s found the right niche in Jacksonville.
In contrast to Minnesota, which struggled to find the best role for Banks, Lowry has deployed him as an attacking midfielder with room to connect with Blake and Steinberger.
“J.C. was bounced around as a nine [center forward], as a 10 [midfield playmaker], as a wide player,” Lowry said. “I think players need consistency.”
Banks’ knack for finding the right spots on the field paid off in the season opener, when he stole the ball off an Edmonton midfielder and dashed clear to score.
“Here, I’m trying to have more of an impact, bringing more of what I’m good at to the system,” he said.
Pitchkolan has been playing professional soccer since some of his Armada teammates were still in elementary school.
At 34, the MLS and NASL veteran could have called it a career when his time in Minnesota ended. Instead, the central defender decided to take on a new challenge.
“It’s a different role for me,” Pitchkolan said. “The last couple of years in Minnesota, I wasn’t even the oldest guy on the team.”
That experience, Lowry said, helps him provide vocal leadership to complement the speed and power of Mechack Jerome.
“Mechack’s got wonderful athletic ability, technical ability, but he needs someone next to him that’s a little more experienced and can organize that back line,” Lowry said. “That’s what Pitchkolan does for us.”
In his first games in Jacksonville, he’s been a shot-blocking machine, throwing his body at every loose ball in his path with a league-best 17 clearances in the Armada’s first two games.
“We go over where we’re supposed to be, and guys are buying into it,” Pitchkolan said. “We’re pretty organized, so it’s been nice.”