Last year, Jacksonville Armada fans could hardly keep up with the revolving door in the lineup.
In April, coach Mark Lowry has applied the brakes.
A more settled squad is paying dividends for the Armada, entering Saturday night’s improbable first-against-second clash with the San Francisco Deltas at the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium.
The Armada, with two wins from two games, leads the North American Soccer League with six points, two ahead of the expansion San Francisco franchise.
And the franchise seems to be finding stability on the field.
The same 11 players have started the first two games, both victories against FC Edmonton. In 2016, the Armada repeated the same lineup from one game to the next only twice all year - on June 4 and 11 and again on July 9 and 13.
There’s no reason to expect a big shake-up Saturday.
That consistency is making a difference for several Armada players, including some newcomers who weren’t used to that experience at their former clubs.
“I feel like I have more of an important role on this team,” midfielder J.C. Banks said. “The coaches are having trust in me right now, and I’ve just got to keep earning their trust and keep the wins coming.”
Lowry cited Banks and defender Drew Beckie, to name two, as players who are faring better in the Armada’s more stable tactical framework.
“They need time to fit into the role and understand it and learn it,” Lowry said. “You can’t do that in just one game and move to another position. It doesn’t work like that.”
The Armada, though, isn’t the only surprise team plyaing at UNF on Saturday.
The first-year Deltas have a high-profile founder (Silicon Valley entrepreneur Brian Helmick), a former NASL coach of the year (Marc Dos Santos) and the payroll to acquire seasoned NASL talent like goalkeeper Romuald Peiser and striker Tom Heinemann.
“They obviously have a decent budget, to get the players that they have,” Lowry said. “Even though they’re an expansion team, it doesn’t matter this season.”
A victory would give Jacksonville a second consecutive week at the top of the standings and extend an advantage that few saw coming.
“We just have to make sure that we’re concentrating, that we’re committed defensively,” Lowry said. “I believe if we keep playing the way we’ve been, we’ll break them down, and then we’ll have to take our chances.”