JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Momentum is all about perception, and the Jacksonville Armada’s 1-1 draw against Indy Eleven was open to interpretation.
On one hand, the Boys in Blue blew a shot at three points after giving up a 73rd-minute equalizer.
On the other, they snapped lengthy scoreless and losing streaks, and put in a gutsy performance against unbeaten Indy despite major absences and a difficult matchup.
Afterward, the Armada opinion was clear. The pint glass was half-full.
“A point is better than zero points, right?” said midfielder Danny Barrow.
Indeed, that point was a welcome sight after four straight shutout losses.
Left back Matt Bahner put an end to 464 minutes of attacking frustration with a first-half screamer, and though Justin Braun found the net to tie it for the visitors, the Armada (1-2-5 NASL Spring Season) found solace in what they saw as a leap forward heading into Wednesday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup third-round tilt with the USL’s Charleston Battery.
“Certainly we wanted three (points),” Bahner said. “It’s a tough stretch for us with three games in seven days, so we’re trying to build momentum. … If we keep doing the right things it’s only a matter of time until things get working, and I think this is the first step for that.”
Bahner’s goal comes at a great time. With two games left in the Spring Season, there’s still a chance to find attacking cohesion before heading into the clean slate of the Fall. And what’s more, a win over the Battery would mean hosting in-state MLS foe Orlando City SC on June 15.
That attacking turnaround was clear to see in the first half, as the Armada repeatedly pounded on the door of an Indy side (3-5-0) that came in allowing fewer than one goal per game.
A nice headed pass from Barrow led to an Alhassane Keita shot that went just wide in the 26th, and Junior Sandoval’s free kick ricocheted off the wall and then the post in the 28th.
Two minutes later, Bahner found pay dirt.
Standing outside the box, waiting for a chance at a rebound, he got his wish. The ball popped out to him — one of “the ones everyone salivates about” — and he fired a left-footed missile that beat Indy keeper John Busch at his near post.
“It was pure joy,” said Bahner, who called it one of the sweetest goals of his career. “As I was going up to the ball I was trying to decide what to do, and I think I shocked the keeper that I shot and was able to put it on frame and in the back of the net.”
The Armada kept riding that wave early in the second half. A slick one-two between Keita and Barrow put the Guinean through on goal, and though Keita did get the ball past Busch, the Indy 'keeper slowed it down enough to keep it out. Thirty seconds later, Barrow set up a Sandoval shot that forced a deflection and save.
It was a marked improvement, and head coach Tony Meola called the period around Bahner’s goal the team’s best sequence of the season.
“The way I want to play is really what you saw in that 20-minute stretch in the first half,” he said. “[Indy] couldn’t stop fighting over who was going to mark who. … Sure, that’s a game where we probably need to score three goals, and I think we will moving forward.”
At the other end of the field, the Armada dealt with the Eleven’s surges up field, largely thanks to 25-year-old goalkeeper Sebastian Evers. Evers was the big surprise in the lineup by replacing stalwart Miguel Gallardo, who had started every game this season but committed a costly error in last week’s 1-0 loss at Ottawa.
And Evers did his part, with a fingertip save of Eamon Zayed’s 17-minute header, followed by a denial of Braun from close range and a punch-out of a dangerous cross in traffic at the end of the half.
But while the Armada handed Indy their first halftime deficit of the year, it wasn’t to last.
Evers’ fairytale debut hit a snag in the 56th, when he pulled his groin on a goal kick and had to come off for Gallardo in the club’s first-ever keeper substitution.
Already short-handed, that wasn’t a sub they could spare.
With four attack-minded players in the starting lineup, Nicolas Perea and Kevan George had to hold the midfield with minimal backup, thanks to multiple absences.
They did an excellent job, helping disrupt Indy’s passing lanes on the attacking end. But eventually, the Eleven’s size and barrage of long balls wore down the defense. Jair Reinoso sprinted down the right wing and sent in a cross for Braun, and he beat center back Beto Navarro to a cross and blasted a header into the net. Following the equalizer, he posed in front of the Armada’s supporters club, Section 904, who answered with a few choice projectiles.
The Armada didn’t back down, and they very nearly snatched a late winner through Keita. In the 87th, substitute Matt Fondy went on a winding run and sent a waist-height pass. With his back to goal, Keita stuck out a leg to stop the ball, turned his defender inside out, cut to his left and slipped a shot past Busch with the outside of his right foot. But Indy right back Marco Franco came racing in and stopped the ball just a few yards off the goal line.
It was a frustrating sight, but again, there’s a half-full view.
“I keep telling them, if you keep creating they’re going to fall, and you’re going to find a game where you put a four- or five-spot on the board,” Meola said. “I think what you could probably see is the cohesion we’re looking for and what we’re trying to get to.”
Wednesday’s 7 p.m. matchup with the Battery at Jacksonville University's Southern Oak Stadium would be a great time for that outburst of goals. And having won the U.S. Open Cup twice himself as a player, Meola has no plans of tossing out a weakened lineup.
“We’re going to take it serious,” he said. “The best team is going to play, no doubt about it.”