Jacksonville Armada bid to come out of woods



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Jacksonville Armada will get a new stadium Image: Kasper Architects & Associates and Jacksonville Armada

The professional soccer team Jacksonville Armada FC recently released video renderings of its proposed Eastside stadium and scheduled its groundbreaking for early 2024, planning a return to professional soccer with the Major League Soccer (MLS) Next Pro league.

‘jacksonville.com’ stated that in a presser held at the City Hall in Jacksonville, Florida (US) recently alongside the Mayor of Jacksonville, Donna Deegan, the franchise took steps toward resolving two of its longstanding question marks -a permanent stadium and a stable league – since the Armada’s formation in July 2013.

The Jacksonville Armada FC is a professional soccer team based in Jacksonville, Florida (US). The team was founded in 2013 as an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League (NASL). They played in the NASL until the league folded in 2018.

The Armada are now an independent club in the MLS Next Pro league. They are targeting 2025 as their first year in the league. The Armada will break ground on their stadium in January 2024.

The 12,000-capacity Hodges Stadium is a multipurpose stadium at the University of North Florida, US, and serves as the home ground of the Jacksonville Armada FC.

The North American Soccer League (NASL) was the top-level major professional soccer league in the United States and Canada that operated from 1968 to 1984. It was the first soccer league to be successful on a national scale in the United States.

New York (US)-based the MLS Next Pro is a men’s professional soccer league in the United States and Canada that is affiliated with Major League Soccer (MLS). It launched in 2022 with 21 teams and now comprises 27 reserve sides of MLS clubs. The MLS Next Pro is classified as part of the third tier of the United States soccer league system.

New York (US)-based the Major League Soccer (MLS) is a men’s professional soccer league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, which represents the sport’s highest level in the United States. The league comprises 29 teams – 26 in the United States and 3 in Canada – since the 2023 season.

‘jacksonville.com’ further stated that the Armada Owner Robert Palmer said the new stadium, which would seat an estimated 2,500 fans in the first of two stages, will break ground in January barring any unforeseen delays in the permitting process.

Said Palmer, “It felt like it was never going to get here. But today, it’s finally here.”

The club in September selected the Jacksonville-based firm Kasper Architects + Associates to design the project.

Palmer said the venue would be constructed using entirely his own funds on Jacksonville’s Eastside, less than a mile North of the sports complex that includes the 67,838-capacity EverBank Stadium, the 15,000-capacity VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena and the 11,000-capacity 121 Financial Ballpark.

The move to MLS Next Pro, meanwhile, links the Armada with a two-year-old league directly organized by the Major League Soccer. While the majority of MLS Next Pro’s membership consists of MLS reserve affiliates, like the Orlando City B and the Los Angeles FC 2, the league – classified with third-division status by the United States Soccer Federation – has also announced the launch of independent clubs in Cleveland, Ohio, and in High Point, North Carolina.

Added Palmer, “Here we are, I believe in the best position that we could possibly be. And I would not trade where we are today for anything in the world.”
 

Armada Stadium Plans Take Shape

The stadium site is on the East side of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard, just North of the expressway linking the Eastside with Arlington by way of the Mathews Bridge. Palmer initially obtained a land option for the property through a City Council vote in January 2020, just prior to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, and the City formally approved the sale in March.

The stadium construction, Palmer said, will consist of two stages. The first, including round 2,500 to 3,000 seats and costing around $30-35 million, is intended for completion prior to the 2025 MLS Next Pro season. The second stage, which he said would raise the cost to $60-80 million, would expand the seating capacity above 10,000.

In addition, the facility would include 25,000 square feet of office space. Palmer said he envisions the commercial real estate as a co-working space that could be used by one of his own companies, LPT Realty, as well as professionals in financial and other industries.

Palmer said the club is still evaluating short-term options for the club’s U-23 selection for the 2024 season in the National Premier Soccer League, since the new venue will not be ready for next Summer.

The National Premier Soccer League is an American men’s soccer league. The NPSL is a semi-professional league, comprising some teams that have paid players and some that are entirely amateur.

The Jacksonville Armada FC President Nathan Walter said that the club is now opening season ticket reservations for fans ahead of the MLS Next Pro kickoff. He also said the club is planning events during the coming months to build connections with the Eastside community.

The Armada project adds to a frenetic pace for sports construction in the heart of Jacksonville – including the July opening of the National Football League (NFL) team Jacksonville Jaguars’ Miller Electric Center practice facility and $25 million in renovations to the 121 Financial Ballpark – as discussions continue ahead of proposed large-scale renovations to the Jaguars’ home pitch – the EverBank Stadium.

For Walter, the above news appears to bring the Armada closer to a respite from a near-decade of choppy waters.

“The sails certainly straightened up at the end for us,” said Walter, a part of the club for nearly its entire history.

Since the first months of promise, drawing more than 16,000 fans in its April 2015 debut in the North American Soccer League, the Armada has hit rough weather.
 

Staying Afloat

Eight stadiums. Three ownership entities (the NASL office operated the team for several months after the original owner Mark Frisch exited the club at the start of 2017). Soon, a third league.

The Armada kicked off through 2015 and 2016 at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, which required costly conversions from baseball to soccer and back. They moved to the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium for 2017 and 2018, then a variety of high school and college venues since.

Finding a stable league proved equally frustrating. Plagued by departures and organizational woes among several of its clubs, the NASL lost its Division II sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation in 2017, leaving the Armada a club without a league – and, for a while, left Palmer without a clear path – “The whole world for the Armada crumbled around us. And at that point, we had a tough decision to make. I remember going home to my wife, Jill, and saying, ‘What are we going to do? This thing just fell apart.’”

Still, the Armada remained afloat, though at a far more modest level. For the last five years, the Armada has fielded a U-23 team of mostly college players in the NPSL, unofficially classified as the fourth tier of American soccer.

Chicago (US)-based the United States Soccer Federation, commonly referred to as U.S. Soccer, is a 501 nonprofit organization and the official governing body of the sport of soccer in the United States.
 

MLS Next Pro: Armada’s Next League

At the start of the 1980s, the Jacksonville Tea Men played in the old North American Soccer League. At the end of the 1990s, the Jacksonville Cyclones lined up in the A-League. Now, after the Armada’s NASL and NPSL stints, add MLS Next Pro to Jacksonville soccer’s alphabet soup.

When Palmer purchased the Armada in 2017, he expressed his support for the more independent structure of the second NASL, the club’s league at the time. Over time, though, he said the success of MLS convinced him that alliance with the top-flight league was a necessity – “For the Armada to have the success, after all of that research and soul-searching, that we had to be aligned with Major League Soccer. The problem was, at the time, there was no league under MLS to play in.”

That changed in 2022 with the start of the MLS Next Pro, originally built around the MLS reserve teams that formerly competed in the United Soccer League. Jacksonville’s addition, the MLS Next Pro President Charles Altchek said, harmonizes with the league’s goal to extend its reach outside the MLS markets.

He said, “This is a great opportunity for us to have a very strong and vibrant independent team playing alongside [MLS-affiliated] teams. That is going to bring a lot of energy and positive things to our league.”

In the just-completed 2023 season, 27 teams competed in the MLS Next Pro, with the Austin FC II capturing the championship on October 22nd. Palmer suggested that with continued future expansion, the MLS Next Pro could evolve into a structure with two separate divisions – “Our goal would be to move up to the higher of those two and build out a great national platform with the most competitive soccer possible, which I believe is only possible because of that alignment with the MLS.”

With the Armada’s pending move to MLS Next Pro, the Northeast Florida could potentially find itself with two professional soccer teams in direct competition for fans, albeit in different leagues.

The JAXUSL ownership group, which launched in August 2022, received a franchise to begin play in the USL Championship – a U.S. Soccer Division II league – as well as the women’s professional USL Super League. However, the JAXUSL group, including the former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, has yet to confirm a club name or a stadium site.

Because MLS Next Pro membership confers eligibility for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it’s not unthinkable that the two Jacksonville teams could someday face off in the national knockout tournament open to soccer teams at all levels across the United States. The U.S. Open Cup could even match the Armada against the MLS opposition – even Lionel Messi, if the reigning World Cup winner remains active with Inter Miami by the time the Armada plays its first MLS Next Pro season.

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