The Jacksonville Armada waited 17 days to face Puerto Rico FC on home turf.
Worth the wait?
Thanks to Derek Gebhard, maybe.
The Armada striker’s stoppage-time goal salvaged a 1-1 draw against last-place Puerto Rico, bringing some consolation on a frustrating night at the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium.
“That game should’ve finished 3-1 to us, 4-1, maybe,” Armada coach Mark Lowry said.
Until Gebhard’s goal, the Armada (6-3-6) looked like closing its last home game of an otherwise-solid spring on a miserable note.
* The Armada lost durable Haitian defender Mechack Jerome, who hadn’t missed a minute all season, when he hobbled to the sidelines after 19 minutes.
“We can’t afford to lose Mechack,” Lowry said. “The way that we play, we’re so reliant on him having the ball with his passing ability, his range, on free kicks and things. When you lose that, you lose a massive piece of your system.”
* Drew Beckie, Jerome’s replacement, instead put the ball in the wrong net in a desperate attempt to clear a low cross - a miscue that turned into a potentially game-losing own goal, his second in six weeks.
* Jacksonville fans saw one of their worst misses of the season when Charles Eloundou somehow pulled his shot wide on a one-on-one breakaway after 30 minutes. The striker from Cameroon, who tied for the club lead with six goals last season, remained shut out for 2017.
The Armada’s thrice-scheduled, twice-postponed home game with the Caribbean club finally got dragged into reality, after the earlier attempts to play on June 25 and 26 had been swamped by persistent thunderstorms.
Most of the Armada’s best early moments came when finding the fleet-footed Gebhard behind the defense, but shaky shooting kept Jacksonville from exploiting its clear speed edge in attack.
After 39 minutes, though, disaster struck.
Puerto Rico right winger Giuseppe Gentile broke the offside trap and drove a low cross from the flank, aiming for striker Sidney Rivera in the penalty area.
Beckie knew he had to do something, but his timing couldn’t have been worse - he whiffed with his right foot and the bounding ball struck his planted left, rolling into the net past stranded goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell.
From there, Puerto Rico (1-8-6) and its defense, superbly led by center back Phanuel Kavita, dug in as the Armada created corner kick after corner kick and shot after shot.
And miss after miss.
A 30-yard Zach Steinberger blast was saved by Puerto Rico keeper Trevor Spangenberg, a J.C. Banks header zipped high and a string of Bryam Rebellon crosses eluded every striker before a crowd of 2,153.
“When you dominate games like that, you expect to score two or three goals a game,” Steinberger said. “Right now, it’s just not falling for us.”
Then, two minutes into stoppage time, it did.
Eloundou raced down the left, drove a cross into the box and Gebhard knocked the ball into the net with a combination of his head and chest.
“I saw Charles isolated and I know he’s dangerous when he’s isolated one-on-one,” Gebhard said. “I just made sure to stay in a good position onside.”
The draw cost the club a chance to climb to second place behind confirmed champion Miami FC.
The Armada can still end the spring in second, but they’ll have to win their last spring game Saturday at the Indy Eleven. They’ll then enjoy a brief break before the fall season kicks off on July 30.
At this point, the Armada’s finishing woes have become Lowry’s main concern.
“If we’re not ruthless enough and we don’t have enough quality in the final third, the game’s going to be really close when it shouldn’t be,” Lowry said.