After another winter of suspense, the Jacksonville Armada has finally confirmed its new league for 2018.
Armada owner Robert Palmer announced Tuesday that the fourth-year club will be playing in the National Premier Soccer League, which currently occupies the fourth level of American soccer, instead of its prior home in the North American Soccer League.
Palmer said the Armada will play in the NPSL from April to July, with games continuing at the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium as in the past.
He also said that “five or six” of the players from last year’s Armada squad would remain with the club, as will head coach Mark Lowry.
“My No. 1 priority was to ensure that the Armada would play soccer in 2018,” Palmer said in a statement.
The move comes in the wake of continued turmoil for the NASL, which was stripped of its second-division status from the U.S. Soccer Federation in September and has lost most of its franchises since the end of 2016.
The league continues to await the appeal of its bid for a court injunction that seeks to restore that second-division status. That case was argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Dec. 15.
Within the last three months, North Carolina FC and the Indy Eleven have jumped to the rival second-tier United Soccer League, while FC Edmonton and the San Francisco Deltas have ceased operations.
In contrast to the NASL, which held second-division status with the U.S. Soccer Federation during the Armada’s first three seasons, the NPSL is larger (more than 90 teams last year) but not fully professional, with large numbers of its players from the college ranks who play there during the NCAA off-season.
The club would presumably play in the Sunshine Conference, which contains several other teams from Florida. Traditionally, NPSL schedules have been based within the conference, which would leave the Armada playing a steady diet of in-state opposition.
In past years, the Armada U-23 squad competed in the NPSL. The club has yet to specify the status of that squad for the coming season.
Armada fans will likely spot a familiar opponent there. Indianapolis-based website SocTakes reported last week that Miami FC, the winner of the NASL’s spring and fall seasons last year, is also moving to the NPSL.
For longtime Jacksonville soccer observers, the move brings echoes of the city’s original professional team, the Jacksonville Tea Men. After three years in the old NASL, the Tea Men dropped down to the lower-level American Soccer League in 1983.
Palmer hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing in the Armada’s original league later this year. The NASL has said previously that it intends to resume play in August on a fall-to-spring calendar, though only the New York Cosmos and Puerto Rico FC remain from 2017.
Palmer also said that he’s creating a task force to explore several possibilities, including operating an unsanctioned professional league. Such a league, he said, “would be an option if the other leagues are not able to successfully navigate the political landscape of the USSF.”
An unsanctioned league would face multiple challenges, including opposition from not only U.S. Soccer but also world governing body FIFA. Last September, NASL lawyer Jeffrey Kessler had stated that an unsanctioned league was not an option.
The next step for the Armada is building a roster, which will likely look drastically different in 2018.
Though the club has yet to announce roster moves, several longtime Armada players have already departed. Jemal Johnson, the last remaining player from the Armada’s debut on April 4, 2015, has signed with the USL’s Fresno FC, while defensive midfielder Kevan George signed with the USL’s Charlotte Independence at the start of the week.