The NASL Spring Season opened for FC Edmonton and the Armada FC with an 1-0 Armada Victory Sunday
For all the changes and uncertainty the past few months brought for Armada FC, the 2017 season began just as 2016 ended: with head coach Mark Lowry celebrating in front of the Section 904 supporters club.
The Boys in Blue opened the season in their new home of Hodges Stadium in style thanks to J.C. Banks’ strike in the 77th minute, which erased what looked destined to be a scoreless finish on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon.
Instead, the new-look Armada FC (1-0-0 NASL Spring Season) walked away in second place in the NASL standings, vaulting over three clubs that have already played twice in the draw-heavy opening weeks of the season.
They did it with seven starters making their debut, including Banks.
“I think everybody that got here is pretty hungry,” Banks said. “All the things in the offseason, we know you have to perform to stay in the business.”
For all that turnover, the result sure looked familiar. Since taking over as head coach in August, Lowry has lost just once in nine home matches.
He was all smiles afterward, whipping some of the 3,472 fans into a frenzy to thank them for their loyalty.
What they witnessed was a win salvaged from a sleepy start. Neither team managed a shot on goal until the 70th minute, and Edmonton finished with zero. While the Armada owned 59 percent of possession and out-passed the Eddies 550-212, they struggled to convert those advantages to scoring chances until Lowry made a tactical change.
“Winning games and championships in this league is not always pretty,” he said. “With about 30 minutes to go, I turned to our staff and said, ‘There’s three points here. We can win this game.’”
To shake things up, he brought on Derek Gebhard for Jonathan Glenn, whom he added is not quite match fit after a shoulder injury.
Gebhard’s speed immediately put the Eddies under pressure and opened up the game, and just five minutes after the change, Banks won the ball, beat two defenders and tucked a shot just inside the far post.
“That’s what J.C. does,” captain and centerback Aaron Pitchkolan said. “He picks up on their mistakes, and J.C. one-on-one is one of the better players in the league. He showed it right there.”
Pitchkolan and Banks were teammates last season at Minnesota United FC, and they were the new signings who made their presence most felt. Nearly every time Edmonton got into a dangerous position, Pitchkolan was there to head the ball away or disrupt a shot.
“He put his body on the line two or three times toward the end,” Lowry said. “They’re the type of players we recruited, and the type of individuals we need to build this team around.”
The Armada have now won all three of their home openers, dating back to the 3-1 win over Edmonton in 2015 that set NASL records for attendance and fastest goal (12 seconds).
They came close to following a similar script on Sunday, when Glenn had a chance to score soon after the opening whistle.
At the end of the first minute, he chased a long ball into the box and outran his defenders for what could have been a clear look at goal, but Eddies keeper Chris Konopka managed to beat him to it.
From there, the first half’s scoring chances could be summed up by Banks missing just wide with a shot from the left side and Pitchkolan breaking up what looked like a sure tap-in goal after a cross to Edmonton striker Tomi Ameobi.
With a clean sheet, exciting finish and happy housewarming behind them, the Armada FC looks to repeat the performance on Saturday, when they travel north for a rematch with the Eddies at 9 p.m. at Clarke Stadium.
JAX (4-2-3-1): Patterson-Sewell, Ryden, Pitchkolan, Beckie, Jérôme, Steinberger, Maripuu, George, Blake, Banks (Johnson 86′), Glenn (Gebhard 72′)
TBR (4-1-4-1): Konopka, Diakite, Watson, Sansara, Nicklaw, Ledgerwood, Fisk (Nyassi 75′), Keegan, Straith (Di Biase 75′), Shiels (Khattab 82′), Ameobi
JAX: Banks 77′
JAX: Glenn (caution) 13’
JAX: Maripuu (caution) 63’
JAX: George (caution) 69
JAX: Blake (caution) 84′