Though head coach Pat Cannon didn’t think it was his squad’s sharpest performance, Jacksonville Armada U-23 found a way to clamp down and earn its fourth-straight win in a 2-0 decision over Fort Lauderdale Strikers U-23 on Sunday at Jacksonville University’s Southern Oak Stadium.
Leo De Smedt netted his team-leading third goal of the season and Victor Rojas found the back of the net for the second time this year, but it was Armada U-23’s backline play by Juan Arguedas, Ciaran McKenna, Diogo Quirino and Jay Bolt combined with goalkeeper Kyle Nasta’s clutch reflexes that stole the show.
Jacksonville (4W-1L-0D, 12 pts., 1st NPSL Sunshine Conference) firmly controlled the pace and possession in the first half but found itself in several dangerous situations in the second. Nasta stood tall in each situation and finished with 10 saves in earning his first clean sheet of the season and leading Armada U-23 to its second-straight shutout.
“I told the guys after the game that if you look back at teams that either win championships or make runs through the playoffs, they find ways to win even when they don’t play well,” Cannon said. “Today we look at it as we found a way to win although we didn’t put our best performance on the field. Hats off to Kyle Nasta, who made some fantastic saves tonight.”
Armada U-23 set the pace early, keeping a strong hold on possession and establishing a strong attack. In the 10th minute, Jacksonville got on the board first when De Smedt converted on a penalty kick that zoomed past the diving reach of Strikers U-23 ’keeper Matias Reynares and into the right upper 90 of the goal.
Striker Helge Pietschmann set it up for De Smedt when he attempted to run onto a ball crossed into the box and was obstructed by Fort Lauderdale defender Fabricio Ortiz to draw the foul.
Bolt orchestrated a second goal in the 33rd minute when his cross from the wing on a breakaway flew in perfectly for Rojas, who ran on to it and headed it in to give Armada U-23 a 2-0 lead.
Dennis Zapata nearly upped Jacksonville’s lead to 3-0 in the 44th when Pietschmann flicked a perfect ball ahead and Zapata had a one-on-one with Reynares, but Reynares charged out to cut down Zapata’s angle and got a fingertip on the shot to force it wide.
Zapata had another near-strike in the 49th when hit a shot on a rope from the top of the box, but Reynares got a hand on it just in time and tipped it over the goal. In the 73rd, Armada U-23 sub Ricky Prestridge hit a solid cross from the wing close to the goal that looked like it was destined to be headed in, but Pietschmann was called offside.
Both Zapata and Pietschmann finished with a team-high three shots each.
Armada U-23 will hit the road next weekend for a crucial showdown with 2015 conference champion Miami Fusion FC at 7 pm on Saturday at Ives Estate Park in Miami.
“The mindset this week is we will give them tomorrow off and we will get after it on Tuesday,” Cannon said. “It’s going to be a very difficult training session for the boys on Tuesday and then taper down a bit, but I told them after the game that next weekend could be a deciding factor for us if we want to make it in (to the NPSL playoffs). (We will put in) hard work this week and get tactically ready for the game.”