The Jacksonville Armada has a pressure problem.
For most of the North American Soccer League spring season, the Armada found ways to work around opponents that tried high-pressure tactics.
Now, that’s changed.
Opponents’ high-pressure tactics have driven the Armada’s course toward the NASL postseason into choppy seas, and they’ll turn even rougher if the club can’t reverse its skid Saturday night at North Carolina FC.
Last week, Puerto Rico FC chased the Armada all the way to the goal line, harassing defenders into turnovers and sending Jacksonville to a 1-0 defeat - the fifth straight game without a victory.
“A lot of it comes down to our decision-making,” defender Aaron Pitchkolan said. “We got caught a couple of times under pressure and didn’t make the right decisions, and kind of shot ourselves in the foot.”
So head coach Mark Lowry and his team are in search of the remedy to High Soccer Pressure.
“No matter how teams press onto us, if we pass the ball quick enough and we move to support each other quick enough, they’re not going to stop us,” Lowry said.
Just as in basketball’s full-court press, breaking through pressure isn’t all about the first man who gets the ball.
For the defenders to link with the right targets, it helps if the forwards upfield are in position to receive the ball, whether by tracking back to take a pass or by streaking forward to spring a rapid counterattack.
As the Armada integrates new strikers Tony Taylor and Brian Shriver - Irish forward Ciaran Kilduff remains stuck in visa limbo, though Lowry hopes he can join the club next week - nailing the communication between newcomers and established starters can be a challenge.
“You’ve got to figure out the timing aspect of it, when to make your runs and when to find the gaps to come in and give the guys support,” Shriver said. “Mark and the staff have been great at showing video and stuff on the board, so I can grasp the system a lot faster.”
One classic weapon against full-field pressure: speed.
Shriver, naturally direct in his approach, has plenty of it. So does Derek Gebhard, dropped to the bench last week after eight straight starts.
Time that speed perfectly against a team that’s pressed too far forward, and the resulting one-on-one breakaway has a powerful way of dissuading opponents from repeating the tactic.
“Once you break them down a couple of times, they stop pressing you because then they’re worried,” Lowry said. “Then they drop off you, and you have time on the ball again.”
The sluggish start to fall has dropped Jacksonville to fifth in the NASL combined standings. A loss to North Carolina, which holds the fourth and final playoff spot, is the last thing the club can afford.
Whatever the solution, the Armada needs to find it fast.
“There’s a kind of transition process the team’s going through,” Lowry said. “While we’re going through that, things aren’t really perfect, but once we come out on the other side of it, we’re excited for what it could look like.”