The Jacksonville Armada will join the MLS Next Pro league in time for the 2025 season, and the club will play in a new stadium on the Eastside, on which it plans to break ground in January, the team announced Thursday.
MLS Next Pro is a development league with reserve teams for 27 of Major League Soccer’s 29 teams. The Armada will join as an independent team with no affiliation to a major league club.
The Armada kicked off in 2015 in the North American Soccer League. After the NASL folded in 2018, the club has played as an amateur side in the National Premier Soccer League, while bouncing between Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida, Edward Waters University and local high schools.
“We were patient. We waited. We sat back. I remember somewhere around late 2020, we got the call that MLS was opening up a league that would be perfect for the Armada,” team owner Robert Palmer said during a Thursday news conference. “We want to be in a competitive league. We want to be in a league that fosters other great independent clubs in addition to MLS, lower-division teams. We realized that the ultimate vision was exactly what the Armada needed to be successful.”
Palmer says the club needs fans, a league and a home to be successful. Its supporters group, Section 904, has remained committed during the Armada’s amateur years. Now, it’s also time for a home.
Armada team President Nathan Walter says this is the ideal time to make the global game a permanent part of the Jacksonville community, with a new soccer stadium just north of EverBank Stadium, because of growth of professional soccer and the fact that the U.S. will host international men’s tournaments in the next three summers.
Jacksonville is the largest media market in the country without a professional soccer club within two hours of its downtown, he notes.
The stadium will be on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard, close to 121 Financial Baseball Grounds and the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, and a short drive to the rest of Downtown.
When the Armada initially launched its plan to erect a stadium Out East, some neighbors and business owners were skeptical. In the years since, the club has met with community stakeholders, held soccer clinics and sought to integrate itself into the Eastside community.
During Thursday’s announcement, Eastside residents, community leaders, and nonprofit executives stood among the local soccer supporters, business executives and elected officials.
Chavella Rochelle, a Mandarin resident and member of Section 904, says she is excited for the club’s professional revival. She was a football and basketball fan, but her children play youth soccer, so she began to follow the sport.
“We have a lot of locals play for the team. We have people that (head Coach) Tommy (Križanović) has brought to the team. They want to come back to the team. They want to come back to Jacksonville,” she says. “And, it’s a really great family atmosphere. We all love each other and fight like brothers and sisters, but we love each other.”
Križanović played for the club during its NASL era and graduated from Wolfson High School. Thursday, he stood in the back of City Hall, in an navy suit with an Armada pin, capturing the moment on his cell phone.
MLS Next Pro President Charles Altchek says the passion surrounding the Armada was noticeable to the league’s leadership. MLS Next Pro is also starting independent clubs in High Point, North Carolina, in 2024 and Cleveland in 2025. Where the Armada differ is the club was in existence prior to joining the developmental league.
“We’re here because Jacksonville deserves a professional soccer team,” Altchek says. “When you bring together what we’re building and Robert’s vision and his commitment to this community, that’s a perfect match because we’re going to be growing this league, growing this sport and growing this club together.”
Lead image: The Jacksonville Armada defeated Miami United FC in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at Hodges Stadium. | Will Brown