After a surprise 3-3-4 run in the spring had them in 6th place, a 5-4-11 fall performance brought them crashing back to earth and last place as they tied for least points, least goals scored, and worst goal differential in the league. Issues abounded. An inability to win on the road, logging only three points outside of Jacksonville all year. The top two leading players in yellow cards, the leading player in reds. Three head coaches across 2015, one who received an extension through 2019, then was fired less than three months later.
But the 2016 Armada are ready to go.
“It was frustrating, sitting on the sideline as the rest of the league were playing. We’re excited about the weekend, we know the challenge ahead, we know the opponent, we know what they’ve done, we know how good they’ve been at home,” Armada head coach Tony Meola recently told TICC in an interview, speaking about last weekend. “It might be a sort of a new look Cosmos, but new look with same results. That’s the most important thing we need to deal with.”
The 2015 Armada side faced many changes starting with head coaching. After Guillermo Hoyos was dismissed before year’s end, Eric Dade was given interim control of the team to finish the 2015 season before Meola was brought in during the offseason. Among other changes made were a large number of releases from the roster, most of them not made by Meola.
“Right before I got here, there were nine guys released,” explained the former USMNT goalkeeper. “I agreed with all of them based on what we’d seen on film, but I didn’t really have anything to do with them.”
Meola’s restructuring of the team then began. And he began to search for leaders for a team looking to move out of the basement.
Pick-ups like Richie Ryan and Pekka Lagerblom were important. Ryan, a holding mid with the Ottawa Fury last season, brings no small measure of NASL experience to the sophomore side and is a proven winner at this level, something the Armada desperately need. Lagerblom, formerly linked to the Cosmos in 2014, brings a wealth of overseas experience including playing time in the Bundesliga and for the Finnish MNT.
Lagerblom is recovering from injury and will not appear this weekend at the Cosmos game, but is a month away from returning, so we may see him in the fall.
Meola is also unafraid to take risks already with his roster, choosing to transfer Jamaican forward Akeil Barrett to Sweden to free up an international spot for trialist Charles Eloundou. Barrett looked dynamic on the Armada attack last year and contributed three goals and an assist while making 10 starts out of 23 appearances. His replacement, 21-year-old Cameroonian Eloundou, joins after spending time with the Colorado Rapids and Charlotte Independence last season.
“He’s come in and done very well for us,” said Meola of Eloundou. “It made sense for us to bring him in. And with that, we obviously had to make a change on the foreign player front, because we could only have seven. So we had the option to move Akeil, who we thought needed some more minutes, to a place where we thought he would be successful so we made that move.”
Mechack Jérôme, a survivor of the 2015 Armada releases and a current member of the Haitian MNT alongside teammate Pascal Milien, was also highlighted as a player that had really impressed the coaching staff.
Arguably, the shakiest part of the Armada team to survive release is goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo whose inconsistent performance and often poor decision-making resulted in nearly 40 goals surrendered. However, as the most experienced keeper among the team’s trio, expect him to get the nod.
It’s difficult to tell what line-up and system the new coach will go with, but expect some familiar faces in center back Jérôme, full back Shawn Nicklaw and attacking players Milien, Alhassane Keita, and ex-Cosmos Jemal Johnson. New players like Ryan will probably be in the XI and we could see players like defender Bryan Burke, the 2015 USL Defender of the Year, Honduran attacking mid Junior Sandoval, and 2015 Golden Boot and MVP Matt Fondy.
Even though Meola’s playing career was a goalkeeper, don’t expect changes in the attacking mentality of the Armada. “If I had to choose between am I a defensive coach or an attacking coach, I’d have to choose attacking if those were the only two choices.”
But maybe not to the extremes of last season.
“The first thing we need to be is organized. Whether we’re attacking in the play or whether we’re defending in the play, we’ve preached organization and balance on the field,” he said.
“But, I still think there’s a balance,” he explained further. “Last year, they did attack with numbers. Problem is they did it at the expense of giving up too many goals. Giving up goals at crucial times, coupled with the fact that we led the league last year in yellow cards and were second in red cards, if I’m not mistaken. Those things just add up to a really, really bad formula over a long period of time. “
Coming from a club that experienced such a poor outcome, what would Meola consider a successful year?
“We have never given a goal for this team. We have to think about playing on November 12th. That really is the only goal,” he stated. “I never thought about anything else as a player. As a player, all I could think about was winning the championship. I’m not naïve enough to think that you’re gonna win a championship every year, but I don’t have another gear to give the players. I would almost feel like, if I said to the players, ‘hey, our goal is to make the playoffs,’ that I would be selling them short. So, our goal is to win a championship and other people will decide if whatever happens during the year is successful or not, but that’s the only thing we ever talk about.”
Hear more from Tony Meola in our interview with him!
And I’m going 3-1 Cosmos.
This is a tough one to judge because on one side of the spectrum, you have the Armada at a disadvantage not being able to get a game under their belt coming into this Sunday, however, on the other side you have the Armada, whom no one has seen play under Tony Meola so there is no tape or notes to prepare for.
As Luis mentioned, the keeper position was one of concern for this team last season but with Meola as coach, you have to imagine an improvement.
Richie Ryan brings a level of interest to the Armada as a team that often rolled out a 4-3-3 now has one of the better holding midfielders in the league and we could see a formation change. Tony often refers to the Cosmos and seems to have a lot of respect for Coach Savarese so I would not be shocked to see a 4-2-3-1 out of the Armada this week as he seems very aware of the potent attack the Cosmos bring.
This game will be trickier than the first game but the Cosmos should be strong enough to see off the Armada. I predict a tough win of 2-1.