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Short-Handed Armada draws with Rowdies, in spring finale

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In a tale of two Juniors, the Jacksonville Armada and the Tampa Bay Rowdies drew 1-1 in front of 4,013 fans at Community First Park on Saturday.

Junior Sandoval’s 52nd-minute missile nearly gave the 10-man Armada an impressive finale to the NASL Spring Season, but Rowdies sub Junior Burgos answered with a long-distance strike of his own in the 84th to tie the score.

While it wasn’t an ideal finish, the draw did keep the Armada (1W-4D-5L) unbeaten against in-state foes this year, while driving a stake through the Rowdies’ faint hopes of a league title.

Tampa Bay (4-4-2) came in needing to win by at least six goals to have a shot at the Spring Season title, and while they went with an attack-minded lineup, scoring chances were hard to come by early.

Former English Premier League star Joe Cole (West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Aston Villa) had three of the best looks of the first half, forcing Miguel Gallardo saves from the back post (6th minute) and from a 28-yard free kick (36th). Cole was also part of a would-be counter attack goal that was ruled offside in the 24th.

At the other end, Jemal Johnson and Charles Eloundou both hit low, hard shots that forced goalkeeper Matt Pickens into action, but neither found the net.

It was, frankly, a sleepy 45 minutes that Meola called the “worst half of soccer we’ve played” during a halftime interview.

But the match got a jolt just on the other side of the break, when Armada left back Shawn Nicklaw went in with a two-footed tackle on Cole and drew a red card.

It seemed that would be the beginning for the end for the Boys in Blue. The Rowdies immediately surged forward and Gallardo had to stop a dangerous Juan Guerra shot.

But in a stunning reversal of fortune, Sandoval flipped the match on its head in the 52nd.

The Honduran attacking midfielder chested down a cross-field pass, let it bounce twice and then lashed a right-footed blast to beat a diving Pickens at the far post.

With 40 minutes between them and an impressive three points, the Armada brought on new signing Anthony Wallace to fill in at left back, tossing him into action just over 24 hours after the club announced his arrival.

His proved to be a wise signing. Besides being the Armada’s first ever player with a U.S. national team cap — he’s also a former U.S. youth system prospect with experience in both MLS and with the Rowdies — Wallace offered cover in Nicklaw’s place.

And rather than bunker down, the home side went for more.

Eloundou, who subbed on for an injured Danny Barrow in the first half, lined up as the lone striker in the second and was a constant threat.

He nearly chipped Pickens in the 59th, then came close to finding the net just seconds later after a good ball from Sandoval. He also had several long, tireless runs that likely would have led to chances had the Armada been at full strength.

And after resolutely defending for most of the half, the Armada finally were broken in the 84th, when Burgos took a pass from Cole and blasted it through traffic and past a diving Gallardo at the back post.

The Armada will be back in action Wednesday for a showdown with another in-state rival, taking on MLS foe Orlando City SC in the U.S. Open Cup fourth round at Jacksonville University. The match will kick off at 7 p.m.