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Armada and JAXUSL jockey for attention in Jacksonville soccer landscape

Jax Armada .jpg
Will Brown
Jacksonville Today
Jacksonville resident Cole Reasonover was a fullback for the Jacksonville Armada during the 2022 NPSL season. The Armada had the best record in the 92-team competition in 2022 before losing to Tulsa Athletic 2-0 in the NPSL South Region final on July 23, 2022.

Jacksonville is the largest metropolitan area in America that does not have a professional soccer club within two hours of its downtown.

The Jacksonville Armada and JAXUSL are in a race to fix that hole in the soccer marketplace. Both have aspirations to build stadiums here, but the Armada may be closer than their counterparts.

The Armada are moving ahead with plans to build a stadium on the Eastside, just north of the existing Sports and Entertainment District, after City Council voted 16-0 this week to sell 5 acres of vacant public land to the Armada for $1.

“It’s a big step. It’s the one thing we have been craving for a while,” Armada President Nathan Walter told Jacksonville Today. “It creates a solid foundation to build the club, to stabilize the club.”

The team has long sought a permanent home Out East. In 2020, the council approved an option agreement with the Armada’s parent company to reserve the land. The sale approved this week says construction must be done by August 2025.

Dawn Curling, co-founder of the Melanin Market and owner of We Make The Shirt on the Eastside, says the Armada are engaged in the community, but she questions the sale.

Feb. 27 Union Terminal Warehouse-5.jpg
Will Brown
Jacksonville Today
Dawn Curling, center, has owned We Make The Shirts on Jacksonville's Eastside since 2005. She is the co-founder of the Melanin Market. She says any business that will bring people and capital to the Eastside will be welcomed.

“The first problem that I do have is that the city of Jacksonville would sell a property to someone for $1, when this is a business corridor and they could give it to a business owner for $1 to build their own business or to upkeep the business corridor.”

She also wonders whether the team will continue to open its doors for things like kids’ soccer camps and business collaborations with the historically Black community once the stadium is built.

“You have a lot of different cultures here in Jacksonville that appreciate soccer,” Curling said. “My concern is having the traffic of people that are going to visit the stadium. Are they going to support the businesses that are here on the corridor, the restaurants, the T-shirt shop, the barber shops? Are they going to support the local businesses that are in this community? Or are they just going to the stadium and going home?”

Last summer, the Armada drew nearly 1,000 spectators toward the end of its season as it featured an up-tempo approach that attacked opponents in waves. Walter said more than 3,000 have expressed interest in the club’s next match, a U.S. Open Cup contest against Miami United FC, on March 23.

It's a full-circle moment for a club that kicked off in 2015 in the North American Soccer League.

When the NASL folded in 2018, it left the Armada without a league. For the last five years, the club has played as an amateur side in the National Premier Soccer League. Its home stadium has shifted between Jacksonville University, UNF and local high schools.

The Armada’s stadium will have at least 2,500 seats. But, Walter noted that it will have flexibility where it could hold as much as 10,000 “if the market really takes off.”

Soccer has taken off in the United States as North America prepares to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. Jacksonville is not an exception.

JAXUSL Launch-3.jpg
Will Brown
Jacksonville Today
The United Soccer League announced it will field an expansion team in Jacksonville starting in 2025. The ownership group includes, from left, Ricky Caplin, former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Managing Partner Steve Livingstone.

In August, a group backed by local business owner Ricky Caplan and Tim Tebow announced it would launch a United Soccer League franchise in Northeast Florida in 2025.

Mauricio Ruiz, JAXUSL’s business manager, said soccer here is vibrant and growing. There are high quality youth sides and high school sides in the region. Combining that with four collegiate programs within an hour of Downtown gives him confidence there is an appetite for professional soccer.

Ruiz said the JAXUSL group is still identifying and trying to secure land for a stadium of its own. It is leaning toward locations on the Southside or north St. Johns County, but does not have a timetable for a stadium announcement.

“We’re down to four sites that we’re excited about,” Ruiz told Jacksonville Today last month. “We’re going through the due diligence of those sites with the municipalities and the districts and the counties that are attached to that site. … We want to have visibility and accessibility as our two pillars to where we put the stadium.”