When I decided that I wanted to write a little bit about each of the three soccer games I was planning to attend over eight days, I figured it would make the most sense to organize my thoughts in chronological order based on when the games were. I thought I could take my observations from each event and allow them to affect my subsequent view on the next game, thus strengthening my understanding of the sport and its effect on American cities. The Jacksonville Armada proved me wrong.
I think, however, I can justify writing about the final game I attended as the “second” game in my series for a handful of rational reasons. The Tulsa Roughnecks play in USL, the third division of U.S. professional soccer, and the Jacksonville Armada play in NASL, the second division, so my composition could be tiered in the same manner that the USSF has (sort of) developed the teams within its associated leagues. Tulsa and Jacksonville are both new teams whose opening matches I attended, thus the two games might have some similarities and differences that could make for an interesting topic to study. However, my reasoning for writing about Jacksonville first transcends the organization of the soccer teams themselves and rather allows me to explore another convoluting topic: Floridian culture and the fact that the Jacksonville Armada match was exactly what one would expect Floridian culture to produce.
You think about Florida and a transient nature comes to mind: going to Disney World with the family, going to PCB with the college friends, going to some 55-and-over active living community with your retired spouse. Regardless of age or reason, Florida is associated with a temporary stop in which amenities are provided for you in addition to sunshine and sandy shores. Nothing requires pulling up your bootstraps and getting to work (in your mind anyway). Everything has the right amount of pop and pizzazz, and the Jacksonville Armada took this model to heart when preparing for their opening match against FC Edmonton.
Like the Tulsa Roughnecks, Jacksonville will be playing most of their home matches at a minor league baseball stadium. Their first match, however, was to be held at the Jacksonville Jaguars football stadium a half-mile (or one football stadium parking lot) away with the hopes of breaking a modern NASL attendance record. The pregame ceremonies were filled with commemorations to the “visionary” team owner, who got to raise a flag (though I think they called it something much more seafaring). There was also the “release of the Kraken”, or the release of air into a giant octopus balloon animal on the other side of the stadium from where everyone was sitting. I think it was somewhere between the Pirates of the Carribbean clip on the Jumbotron and the roller coaster-esque announcement to cover your ears when the foghorn goes off that warns you that they’re about to fire a cannon that I thought, “Am I on a Disney World ride disguised as a soccer match?”
I wanted to root for the team and become part of the ebb and flow that a traditional soccer match creates, but from that realization onward everything seemed a little fluky. The Armada started with the ball, quickly began attacking, and flipped a goal into the net within the first thirty seconds seemingly without much defensive effort on Edmonton’s part. The crowd cheered and I cheered with them, but I didn’t consider the lead to be legitimate until a couple fairly impressive goals toward the end of the first half. The action of the game was peppered with ads and calls for applause from the PA announcer, something that generally never happens at professional soccer matches. Halftime was host to a remarkable fireworks and laser show that, though it had this crowd in an uproar, would probably make the traditional European football fan a tad nauseous. Even the weather seemed to be planned: A constant drizzle that briefly picked up to a downpour during the second half solidified the nautical undertones that the Armada ad team was promoting.
There were still glimpses that a showcase this superficial could transition into a similar atmosphere to what the Tulsa Roughnecks were able to create once the team settled in a bit. They were able to break the attendance record and create a vibrant group of fans (at the expense of leaving two-thirds of the stadium completely empty), and the supporters sang their cheers and waved their flags with might that could surely rumble a more intimate venue. Both teams played with a certain flair that I had never noticed at an American soccer game–the NASL style is one of many dangerous offensive attacks and shots on goal, with trick plays and maneuvers sprinkled in as a way to get oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Sure, the Armada won. Sure, they set the attendance record. Sure, they released the Kraken. Still, the fact of the matter is that for the Jacksonville Armada to become a significant piece of the social fabric of their city, they need to settle in and become something that reads as deeper than a soccer-themed Disney ride. The key to accomplishing this could rest in honing their style of play and promotion in way that infuses with the game they are playing and promoting. This particular match took many cues from traditional American sports: the announcements and piped-in music from the stadium speakers and the sideline reporter who could double as a DJ yelling at the crowd to make some noise, to name a few. The pace of the game and the chants of the supporters can accomplish this just as well and give those supporters a reason to show up for their new team. Even the flashy NASL brand of soccer could aid the team in garnering attention as they continue to build a reputation in Jacksonville.
What does this team and this opening match experience say about the transient nature of Floridian culture? In a place so societally and economically tied to the transient nature of its citizens, it has proven many times over to be a challenge for sports teams to become truly engrained with the social fabric in which they play. Many residents of Florida have geographical ties and sporting allegiances with other areas that remain unbroken despite their relocation. In how many cases, however, does a soccer team enter that equation? If the Jacksonville Armada can play with a certain style and flair that comes with the territory of Floridian culture while also incorporating the change of environment that new American soccer teams can provide (see Tulsa), can this sport become something that allows a city like Jacksonville to gain a cohesive identity? How addicting can this atmosphere become?
It comes down to a certain style of play and a belief of the city’s residents in what the team can accomplish to transcend what everyone believes Floridan culture represents. It takes deeper meaning to create something more than a Disney ride. And finding a soccer team in Florida that fit this ideal style and had an impact on the social fabric of a Floridian city didn’t happen in chronological order.