In the must-winningest of must-win games, the Jacksonville Armada knows what’s at stake.
“We’ve only got one option,” midfielder Zach Steinberger said.
If only it were that simple.
That’s because to reach the playoffs, it’s not enough for the Armada to win its North American Soccer League regular season finale at the already-qualified San Francisco Deltas.
The Armada must also hope the New York Cosmos lose at home to struggling Puerto Rico FC, which would give Jacksonville a chance to spring past the Cosmos into the fourth and final playoff position.
Because New York kicks off around 7 p.m. in MCU Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., an hour before the Armada begins, Jacksonville can know its fate by around halftime.
But head coach Mark Lowry said the team won’t be scoreboard-watching from Kezar Stadium, the long-ago home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
“We know we have to beat San Francisco,” he said. “Nothing else really matters. If we don’t beat San Francisco, New York and Puerto Rico can do whatever they want.”
Three weeks ago, before three consecutive home draws against North Carolina FC, FC Edmonton and the Cosmos, the Armada looked likely to escape this predicament.
If the Armada had won even one of those, they would control their own fate now. With two, they would have needed - at maximum - only a draw. With all three, the team would have been able to punch its playoff tickets a week ago.
Three games. Three leads that slipped away.
Lowry isn’t pointing the finger at his defense, instead focusing on the Armada’s missed chances to extend its advantages.
“We needed to get the fourth goal to make it 4-1 [against New York],” Lowry said. “Against Carolina, we needed to get the second. Against Edmonton, we needed the second. It’s more about us converting our chances, as opposed to what we’re doing defensively.”
At least the Armada has reason to feel confident about its prospects against San Francisco.
Jacksonville tied both home games and routed the Deltas 3-0 on their first-ever West Coast trip on May 19, behind two goals from Steinberger and one from Derek Gebhard.
“We’ve matched up well against them this year, so there’s no reason we can’t go over there and do it again,” goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell said.
The Armada doesn’t know whether the Deltas might rest players ahead of their semifinal next week.
“If we make it, great,” Patterson-Sewell said. “If we don’t make it, at least we controlled what we could control.”
Playoffs aren’t the only things on players’ minds.
After season’s end, the roster moves begin, and Armada players recognize - even apart from the far-from-clear status of the NASL for 2018 - that next year will look very different.
“There’s a very real possibility that it may be our last time suiting up on the field together with this group of guys,” Steinberger said. “If that’s the case, then we’re going to really enjoy it, and do what we can to make it last one week longer.”