The Armada Situation
This Saturday, May 6th, the Jacksonville Armada will host the New York Cosmos at Hodges Stadium. The Armada sit atop the table after an undefeated start to the season. However, their play has not been perfect. The Jacksonville side have yet to score more than one goal in a game.
Manager Mark Lowry has steadfastly refused any inquiries that deal with changing formation or personnel. As he put it “Football players need consistency.” The Armada have been consistent. The starting eleven has not changed since opening day. The back four of Kalen Ryden, Aaron Pitchkolan, Mechak Jerome, and Drew Beckie has played every minute of the season together.
Unfortunately that streak will not continue. Aaron Pitchkolan, the Armada’s captain and defensive rock, will be unavailable for the Cosmos match. It will mark the first change in the starting eleven since the start of the season.
Defense has not been an issue for Lowry’s side this season, largely due to Pitchkolan’s leadership. In the post-match interview following the tie against Indy Eleven defensive midfielder Kevan George said
“Pitch is always calling out to us, left, right. It helps us a lot and makes our [defensive midfielders] job a lot easier.”
Pitchkolan, a thirty-four year old veteran, will not be easily replaced. There is no one on the bench that can match his leadership and experience. However, Mark Lowry and Nathan Walters do have a variety of options that will fill the line and maintain the team’s resiliency.
A left-back by trade, Peabo Doue has played in the fourth and third tiers of U.S. soccer. He would not be a direct replacement for Pitchkolan, rather his inclusion would mean that current left-back Kalen Ryden could slide over to the center-back position.
Ryden is strong and capable on the ball. However, he lacks the aerial presence of Pitchkolan. Also there is the same eternal worry with full backs that move to the middle; they like to wander a bit. Pitchkolan’s positioning is what makes him so effective in Lowry’s defense, and the team does not get that with the inclusion of Peabo Doue and the Kalen Ryden shift.
Michael O’Sullivan would be the most accurate replacement for Pitchkolan in terms of position. However, O’Sullivan is at the exact opposite end of his career. While he is a product of the Orlando City Development Academy, O’Sullivan is yet to make his professional debut.
Teams always talk about giving youth a chance, and building a team the right way. Handing a debut to O’Sullivan would go a long way in demonstrating principle, but ultimately is a bit naive. The Cosmos are averaging less than a goal a game, but would undoubtedly take advantage of O’Sullivan’s lack of professional experience.
The most interesting solution, and the most exciting one. Kevan George has excelled in his defensive midfielder role. He works well in a partnership with Nicklas Maripuu and is capable of matching up against speed and strength. Like Pitchkolan, his qualities would complement Mechak Jerome’s skill set.
George has a lot of what Pitchkolan has. George’s positioning is superb. He is absolutely fearless when challenging for the ball. He is tall, and solid in the air. The trouble is that the Armada rely on his quality in midfield to maintain possession and break up the opposition.
Moving George to center-back merely moves the problem to the center of the park. The question then becomes about the formation, one defensive midfielders or two, etc. The midfielder cupboards are not bare. Zac Steinberger is back from a stomach bug and capable of playing in the middle, meaning the introduction of Charles Eloundou or Jemal Johnson on the wing. Bryam Rebellon and Danny Barrow are also available for selection.
The issue is not completely about who will replace Aaron Pitchkolan. Saturday’s match is representative of how the Armada respond to change and adversity. Mark Lowry has preached consistency regarding the starting line-up and tactics from day one. However, his hand has been forced for Saturday’s match. How will he respond?