Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer says his club will be playing soccer this year - whether the North American Soccer League is ready to join him or not.
Palmer announced Monday that the club is exploring options outside the embattled NASL, which has already lost three of its franchises from last season and has postponed the start of its 2018 campaign.
Although the Armada’s league for 2018 is uncertain, Palmer said the team will take the field at some level.
“The most important thing is that the Armada plays,” he said.
Palmer said he is having conversations with “multiple leagues” and plans to make the decision in the next three or four weeks.
Palmer specifically mentioned the National Premier Soccer League and United Premier Soccer League, which are not fully professional, as well as the National Independent Soccer Association, a proposed league headed by former Major League Soccer and NASL executive Peter Wilt.
Though those leagues lack second-division status, which the NASL held until the U.S. Soccer Federation denied to renew that status in September, Palmer said that’s not critical to the franchise’s success.
“When the Armada was clearly and unquestionably Division II earlier in the year, we were drawing less than 1,000 fans,” Palmer said. “At the end of the season, after our Division II sanctioning had been taken away by U.S. Soccer… we drew over 7,500 fans. I think that’s a clear indication that we can be successful in Jacksonville regardless of the divisional tag.”
He said that the club’s TV deal, sponsorship and home field at Hodges Stadium will not be affected, and reiterated his long-term plans to develop his own stadium.
The Armada’s apparent exit adds to the woes of the NASL, under greater strain than ever. The league fielded 12 teams in 2016 and dropped to eight last year.
The NASL nearly collapsed after the 2016 season, but regained its footing enough to play in 2017. In September, however, a fresh blow struck the league when U.S. Soccer ended the NASL’s second-division status, citing its insufficient number of teams.
Since season’s end, North Carolina FC jumped to the rival second-tier United Soccer League, a path taken by the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury the year before. Two other teams, FC Edmonton and the champion San Francisco Deltas, ceased operations.
On Friday, a report from Indianapolis-based soccer website SocTakes indicated that the Indy Eleven was also expected to leave the NASL for the USL. Only the New York Cosmos, Miami FC and Puerto Rico FC are currently set to return for 2018.
Earlier Monday, the NASL announced that it was shifting to the international calendar, similar to the season used by most European leagues, with an expected kickoff date of Aug. 11 - in effect, appearing to abandon hopes of playing this spring.
That move drew criticism from players including Armada goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell, who posted his objections to the NASL’s schedule switch on Twitter.
“Everyone is bailing so they spring this to save face. Not buying it!” he said, adding that “players can’t sit for 6 months. It ruins careers.”
The NASL filed suit in September for a mandatory injunction that would bar U.S. Soccer from dropping the league from Division II. Judge Margo K. Brodie denied the initial bid in U.S. District Court in November, and the league is still awaiting the ruling on its appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
“If the NASL is able to win the injunction and the owners are all willing to come back together and put teams on the field, we’ll be a part of that,” Palmer said. “If that doesn’t happen, though, I’m committed to making sure the Armada plays soccer in Jacksonville.”
Significantly, Palmer did not mention the USL as a potential home for the Armada.
He said that the USL had been in negotiations to put its own team in Hodges Stadium, something he said he did not know until the day before he concluded his purchase of the club.
That, along with concerns about independence and club branding under the USL’s structure, discouraged Palmer from making a move there.
“My bigger issue with USL was the competing ownership group,” Palmer said. “They’re going to be my competitor. They’re not going to be a place for me to land.”
The announcement is the latest major change for the Armada, which began play in April 2015. Palmer purchased the club in July, six months after original owner Mark Frisch returned the franchise to the league office.
Signs of change had been building for the Armada for days. On Friday, the club’s website went down, resurfacing Sunday without links to other NASL franchises.
After finding its league, the next step will be assembling a roster for 2018. Though the team has yet to publicly announce the moves, several Armada players from last year, including defenders Peabo Doue and Bryam Rebellon, have already signed with other clubs.
Palmer said that he is willing to pay players their current salaries, although he acknowledged that some may choose to move elsewhere to remain at second-division level.
“I’m not going to hold them hostage,” he said.
He also said that club president Nathan Walter and head coach Mark Lowry had the option to leave, but chose to remain.