After seeing two defenders score their first goals with the Jacksonville Armada, head coach Mark Lowry thought the team’s luck against the New York Cosmos was finally changing.
“You see Drew [Beckie] score and Kalen [Ryden] score, and you’re like, ‘OK, this could be our day today,’” Lowry said.
Instead, Sunday saw the return of a Jacksonville soccer nightmare.
The Armada failed to hold a second-half lead against the Cosmos for the second time in five weeks, watching the visitors come back for a 4-4 draw at Hodges Stadium to leave Jacksonville’s playoff hopes dangling by a thread.
With three goals in 19 minutes from Eugene Starikov, Lucky Mkosana and Jimmy Mulligan, the Cosmos erased Jacksonville’s 3-1 lead, just as a home crowd of 7,611 fans was expecting a win that would have put the Armada on the brink of the playoffs.
Those were the defining moments in a wild, intense, gritty and thrilling match with eight goals, 20 shots, five first-time scorers and a postgame charge of the officials.
Armada substitute Charles Eloundou scored off the bench 10 minutes from the end to tie the score and Aaron Pitchkolan tested Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer with a flying volley in stoppage time.
But it wasn’t enough.
“For some reason, we stopped doing what we had success with in the second half,” midfielder Jack Blake said. “As a result, we ended up chasing the game.”
At the final whistle, Armada players sank to the ground in a finish that evoked memories of the Sept. 17 match when Jacksonville blew a 3-0 lead in the last 12 minutes against New York.
The Armada (3-5-7) isn’t yet out of the postseason chase, but they’ll need an unlikely combination of results: a win in San Francisco coupled with a Cosmos loss next week against last-place Puerto Rico FC.
“We were going to throw everything we could at each other,” Ryden said. “We knew it was going to be physical, we knew it was going to be a battle. There was blood drawn, and we were expecting that.”
The game started fiery with four yellow cards in the first 20 minutes and ended positively aflame. Irate Cosmos players charged toward referee Geoff Gamble after the final whistle, protesting Gamble’s decision to end the game with New York on the counter and the Armada net empty.
The Cosmos (3-3-9) shifted their tactics at halftime, found more room for midfield creators Andres Flores and Javi Marquez and created new dangers for an Armada midfield missing suspended ball-winner Kevan George.
Lowry said that he regretted his decision to leave Pitchkolan, the usual team captain who had missed only one game all season, on the bench until the 60th minute.
“I wish I would have brought Pitch on earlier, to deal with those longer balls in front of Mechack [Jerome] and Drew,” Lowry said. “If I’d brought him on five minutes earlier, they wouldn’t have scored their second goal.”
Before the Cosmos’ switch, Jacksonville held the early edge.
The game opened fast. Zach Steinberger tallied his eighth goal of the year from Derek Gebhard’s assist after four minutes, only for New York’s David Ochieng to score his first moments later.
Then defenders Beckie and Ryden finished off precise crosses from Blake, who served as captain in place of Pitchkolan, putting Jacksonville 3-1 up at 25 minutes.
Beckie had never scored in five years of professional soccer - his last goal came Nov. 2, 2012, for the University of Denver against Air Force - and Ryden hadn’t scored in 29 games with Jacksonville.
But the Cosmos’ comeback - capped by a 30-yard blast from right fullback Mulligan, who hadn’t scored all year - left the 2015 and 2016 NASL champions in the crucial fourth spot.
And it left Jacksonville winless at home for the fall season.
“We didn’t win second balls in the second half, and they came right at us,” Beckie said. “They had guys going forward, we turned the ball over in bad areas and we paid for it.”