The home finale. The final chance.
In three years of soccer, the Jacksonville Armada has never seen a game quite like this.
Held to draws at home in its previous two games, the Armada gets one more opportunity to stake its claim for a North American Soccer League playoff berth against the New York Cosmos at Hodges Stadium.
In the past nine days, the Armada let early leads get away in home draws with third-place North Carolina FC and already-eliminated FC Edmonton. Had they won those games, Jacksonville would be in third and playing to clinch a spot tonight.
Especially painful was Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Edmonton, when the Armada played one of its sloppiest games of the fall against the next-to-last team in the league. That’s the part that irritates head coach Mark Lowry.
“Performance needs to be better. The result is incidental to me after that,” Lowry said. “My disappointment lies in the way we played, not the fact that we dropped two points.”
This challenge, against the 2015 and 2016 NASL champion Cosmos, may be the toughest yet.
Lose tonight, and it’s over. A draw keeps the Armada afloat for now, but the Cosmos can squelch the remaining hopes by beating struggling Puerto Rico next week in Brooklyn.
But with a win, the Armada would leapfrog New York into fourth. From there, a victory next Saturday at the San Francisco Deltas, a team they beat 3-0 on May 19, would clinch the final spot for the North American Soccer League playoffs and a chance that Jacksonville hasn’t seen for a long, long time.
No professional soccer team from the city has played a postseason game since Sept. 9, 1981, when the Jacksonville Tea Men traveled to Jack Murphy Stadium and lost 3-1 to the San Diego Sockers in the old NASL’s quarterfinal round.
They don’t come much stranger than the Armada-Cosmos series this year, with bizarre bounces and improbable twists that will likely haunt whichever team comes up short Sunday through the winter:
* April 22 in New York. J.C. Banks scored in the second half to earn a come-from-behind draw for the Armada, the first time they avoided losing to the Cosmos since 2015.
* May 6 in Jacksonville. Four minutes into stoppage time, Zach Steinberger earned an Armada draw with an acrobatic flying volley, probably the most famous goal for the club since Jemal Johnson’s 12-second strike in the team’s April 2015 debut.
* Sept. 3 in New York. A pair of Cosmos miscues, including a goalkeeping blunder leading to Ciaran Kilduff’s first Jacksonville goal, gave the Armada its first win in the Big Apple.
* Sept. 17 in New York. The one that got away: the Armada went to Brooklyn, seized a 3-0 lead, and then watched it dissolve in 12 miserable minutes of defensive breakdowns in an agonizing 3-3 draw.
“We should have beaten them twice away,” Armada midfielder Jack Blake said. “They’re a good team, but they’re beatable, very beatable.”
Looming over all of that is the club’s home drought, which extends to July 1. Team owner Robert Palmer still hasn’t watched a victory at Hodges Stadium since purchasing the Armada from the NASL office.
But captain Aaron Pitchkolan remains confident.
“As long as there are still opportunities,” he said, “we’ve got a path in.”