On Saturday evening, the Jacksonville Armada snagged a point at the death of an intense home match against the New York Cosmos, who won the NASL title last year. Zach Steinberger’s 95th-minute screamer saved the Armada from dropping all three points, but wasn’t enough to keep them atop the NASL table, for the time being. Although the Armada remain undefeated, they’ve taken just 10 points from the 18 available and drop to second place for the first time this year after Saturday’s draw. However, this fact hasn’t dampened the spirits around the Armada camp.
— NASL (@naslofficial) May 7, 2017
Head Coach Mark Lowry was perhaps the most enthusiastic of those in Hodges Stadium on Saturday night, leaping with joy and adrenaline at Steinberger’s volleyed equalizer. A native of Birmingham, England, Lowry was appointed head coach of the Armada in October of last year. He spent just a few weeks with them team at the end of last season, and his first full season in charge has started off well. Lowry holds his UEFA A coaching license and has worked with teams like Wolverhampton and Birmingham City (both of the English Premier League at the time) as an academy coach, as well as with Orlando City’s U-23 squad, more recently.
Coach Lowry was more than happy to sit down with me for few moments after training on Tuesday to discuss the NASL, his squad, and his style of play:
“The NASL is a very high level of soccer. It really is. When you look at some of the names that are playing in the league, some of the names that have previously played in the league, for me it’s not far behind MLS. Level-wise, across the league, it’s very high. For me, it’s the Division Two in terms of quality. Obviously there’s a lot of stability in the USL, a lot more teams, a lot more they can do structurally, which makes their league very strong. But in terms of quality and standard, I believe NASL is level two. But there’s also a good mix of young players. We’ve got quite a few. You still get that development aspect, you’re still all about development, which I like as well. Ultimately it’s about winning games, but can you develop a team? Can you develop individuals, who then can move on? That in itself is a success.”
“For me it’s a great environment where I get to learn and grow, as well. I’m learning a lot every day. This is also a level where I feel I get to experiment a little bit with tactics. It’s also a good ground for me where I can work with good players. I get the experience of managing them but also have the capacity to try things tactically, which is great for me. So far, the guys, the way they’ve taken on board the information, the way they have then applied it on the field, I mean, I’d say every game has been, if I could have visualized it, it would probably be exactly how they have gone out and performed it, just maybe a couple more goals.”
The Englishman’s tactics had been spot on all night on Saturday, but the players seemed to lack finishing quality in the final third for the first 94 minutes of the match. The Armada were fluid with their formations all night, as they have been from the start of the season. The boss likes to move the ball methodically and quickly up the pitch, bringing with it as many “boys in blue” as possible. The squad traditionally moves to a three-at-the-back look when on the ball, with two center backs and a holding midfielder. However, Saturday featured a subtle switch with the debut start of right back Devon Fisher. The young full back bombed forward at the slightest notion of possession, and the remaining three defenders centered themselves in their own half. When off the ball, the team simply slid back to a tradition 4-4-2 and played good old fashioned defense. Tactics like these are most often seen in the top flight of European and South American football, and even then, many teams struggle to get them right. Lowry’s men, however, have maintained staggering good form in the opening months of the season.
The Armada controlled the midfield and dominated defensively on Saturday, as they have all season. They also sat on the ball, having 64% possession at the final whistle. However, Lowry’s side have not managed to score more than one goal in a match, and have a goal difference of just +2 at second place in the league. Saturday’s match saw the Englishman change tactics a handful of times in the second half, and by the end of the match, the Armada had two strikers and a center back up top, waiting to receive long balls into the box. Obviously, these are not ideal methods for sound football. So what is the key to equalizing or even just scoring without resorting to such drastic measures? Coach Lowry had this to say on the matter:
“Gebhard to come in and create chances with his pace and his movement, we were able to combine [on Saturday] with Zach, Derek, JJ. You saw some combinations, which we haven’t really been seeing. There’s nothing more we can do than what we did the other night. If we hadn’t created chances I would be concerned, but the fact that we found a way, whether it was personnel changes, whether it was something we did in practice, we found a way to create a ton of chances against a very good team. Now it’s just a case of being more ruthless in those areas.”
On whether or not the Armada have a 20-goal-a-season guy, or if goals are expected to come from players all over the pitch:
“I think one of them (Gebhard or Glenn) can be [a 20-goal-a-season guy]. I think either of them could be. Both of them won’t, we aren’t going to have that, but they both are capable of it. And then the guys behind them pitching in with five, six, seven goals from midfield.”
“It’s time for one of our no. 9’s to step up and start pitching in. I believe that we’ll get that with one of them, if we can manage both, I’d like to get them both in. For me, we don’t have a set no. 9 right now. It’s up to one of them to take the position by the scruff of the neck. We have two fit forwards, we have two forwards that are hungry, we have two forwards that want to play, so now let’s see which one of them wants to take the position and make it their own.”
The Armada travel north on Saturday to face North Carolina for the first time this season. Coach Lowry will surely be hoping to grab all three points and return to the top of the NASL table amid a congested May fixture list.
For more on the Jacksonville Armada and Coach Lowry, follow Aaron Wallace (@Wallace_LFC) or myself (@furlough43) on Twitter, or continue to visit Offside Football at www.off-side.co.uk.