JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Just before kickoff, a group of Carolina RailHawks fans who made the more than 400-mile journey south held up a banner in their corner of Community First Park at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Playing off a "Battleship" theme, the banner showed a ship with four red pegs stuck into it, which, in the board game would leave it sunk.
That banner proved prophetic, as Jacksonville Armada FC was submerged by halftime.
Carolina's four first-half goals propelled them to a 4-0 victory Saturday night, spoiling the Armada's first-ever sell-out at Community First Park (8,573 fans), snapping their perfect home record and ending their slim hopes of a North American Soccer League Spring Season title.
Now, their path to the league playoffs hinges on either winning the Fall Season or finishing with one of the top-two best overall records among the rest of the field.
But that seems a long way off now. With two games remaining before the summer break - including one against the likely Spring Season Champions New York Cosmos - the focus is just to stop leaking goals after consecutive losses of 3-2, 3-0 and 4-0.
Against Carolina, three of those goals came in an eight-minute stretch near the end of the first half, when the Armada were pushing ahead for an equalizer.
"When we started losing 1-0 we went into a little bit of a desperate mode trying to recover," said head coach Guillermo Hoyos. "They caught us unguarded."
A mid-week loss in the U.S. Open Cup could have left Jacksonville a bit below full strength, and they were also without injured star striker Alhassane Keita, but the RailHawks were in the same boat having also played Wednesday and with co-leading scorer Nacho Novo on the bench.
The visitors didn't look any worse for wear, even after the Armada controlled the opening minutes.
Early on, Jacksonville struggled to convert possession and slick passing into clear scoring chances. Shots from distance were blocked or off target, and winning corner kick after corner kick held little threat against the RailHawks center back pairing of Connor Tobin (6-foot-1) and Futty Danso (6-foot-3).
When Carolina countered in the ninth minute, Armada right back Matt Bahner went sprinting after it in hopes of clearing out for a throw-in. His hustle drew deserved applause as he went sliding off the field into an advertising board, but the ensuing corner silenced the crowd.
Carolina midfielder Nazmi Albadawi came forward to take a pass from the corner at the edge of the penalty area. When five Armada players rushed out to meet him, he cleverly chipped a pass over the top that the captain, Tobin, buried for a 1-0 lead.
The next 24 minutes were marked by the Armada reasserting control of possession and hunting for an equalizer, but the tone of the match took a drastic turn in the 33rd minute.
Jacksonville holding midfielder Lucas Scaglia fouled Albadawi, earning a yellow card and sending the injured RailHawks midfielder to the locker room. Three minutes later, Neil Hlavaty picked up a loose ball at the top of the box and coolly curled it into the top right corner to double the lead.
"I think this week is one of the best weeks for this team to learn from, to find strength and to know who we are," Millien said. "This is not something we can be proud of, that we lost a game 4-0 and lost three games in a row, but a month from now - it's a long season. And we're coming. We're going to keep getting better and better."
The Armada will take the field next on Sunday, June 7, hosting the Ottawa Fury at 4 p.m.