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Armada ends season on high note with win over Tampa Bay

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(Jacksonville Armada/NASL)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Eighteen months ago, Jemal Johnson delivered a promise of everything professional soccer in Northeast Florida could be.

Back then, he ripped a long shot just 12 seconds into the Armada’s first NASL match, a strike that set a record for fastest goal and launched a victory in front of a league-record crowd.

It felt like a fairy tale, and on Sunday, Johnson brought that delirious, dream-like feeling back — this time with help from his roommate, Zach Steinberger.

The pair combined for two goals in 60 seconds that handed the Armada a season-ending 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Besides vaulting the club out of last place in the NASL Fall Standings, it also marked their first-ever comeback from a two-goal deficit, and sent their USL-bound rivals out of the league with a nice parting gift.

The emotions of the moment were impossible to miss. After Steinberger slotted home his 84th-minute game-winner, he ran toward the corner flag and leapt, screaming and fist-pumping, before being mobbed by his teammates.

“This whole season, I feel like we’ve been on the other side of that game,” Steinberger said. “We’ve been the ones leading 2-0 or 3-2, 2-1, and getting a [penalty] called against us at the last second or we get a goal scored on us in the last second. For the shoe to be on the right foot tonight, it meant everything. And to send the fans home with a win meant the world to me.”

Steinberger’s goal came after he ran onto a pass in the box from substitute Derek Gebhard, then ripped a low, curling missile of a shot past keeper Chris Glodack at the near post.

Just one minute earlier, he had been celebrating with Johnson, who calmly chipped a beautiful shot into the net after a corner from Steinberger to tie the score 2-2.

“It was an amazing feeling,” Johnson said of the two-goal swing. “I feel like we’ll have a few drinks tonight.”

Those goals completed a comeback started by Alhassane Keita in the 29th (also from a Steinberger assist), erasing goals by Tampa Bay’s Martin Vingaard (a 40-yard strike that caught keeper Miguel Gallardo off his line in the 4th minute) and Keith Savage (a 19th-minute header).

The post-game mood was as jubilant as you’d expect, sort of like a last day of school where everyone aced their exams. Steinberger leapt into the stands to celebrate with fans, players lingered on the field longer than usual, and Bryan Burke yanked Steinberger’s shorts down to interrupt an interview.

If there was anything to feel down about, it was Steinberger’s likely departure. With his loan from MLS club Houston Dynamo set to expire, this may have been his last appearance in an Armada jersey.

Since arriving in June, he quickly became a go-to player, finishing with four goals and four assists, which tied for the team lead.

“The biggest thing for me is that the coaching staff and the whole organization believed in me since day one,” Steinberger said. “They stuck with me, and when that happens, a player can do unbelievable things. They get that confidence, and I attribute all my success here to the coaches and the organization.”

Armada head coach Mark Lowry called Steinberger “unbelievable” and highlighted the need for him to continue playing in a possession-oriented, creative system like what he thrived in in Jacksonville.

But even if Steinberger departs, Lowry has plenty to build off of. Since taking charge in August, he turned the Armada from a struggling squad into a high-energy, upbeat team that will head into 2017 looking to build and grow.

And perhaps most importantly, they recaptured some of the magic that had the First Coast so excited about the club’s inception — coming back to take a match they owned on the stat sheet (66 percent possession, a 17-7 lead in shots, and a 7-3 edge in shots on goal).

“We wanted to put on a performance today and a show between two teams that kind of makes the mouth water and makes them want to come back and experience that again,” Lowry said. “We could have won 3-0 and controlled the game but it wouldn’t have been as exciting. For me that was the perfect game to end the season.”