The Jacksonville Armada traditionally struggled against Miami FC, but strong showings in the 2018 series have filled the Armada with confidence entering Saturday's Sunshine Conference final.

Once upon a time, hearing the words Miami FC meant nothing but trouble for the Jacksonville Armada.

So it's a change to hear the mindset of Armada captain Ciaran Kilduff entering his club's biggest game of the year.

"We should approach that game with nothing but confidence," Kilduff said.

The Armada sails further into uncharted waters in the final of the National Premier Soccer League's Sunshine Conference, a Saturday night clash with longtime foe Miami FC 2 at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.

Kilduff's view illustrates the Armada's new perspective on the conference's top-ranked foe: Miami merits respect, but not fear.

In 2017, Miami denied Jacksonville through five nights of frustration during the North American Soccer League season, not even conceding a single goal to the Armada.

This year, though, the balance of power has tilted northward.

The Armada battled to a 1-1 draw in Miami in the April 28 season opener and beat their South Florida rivals 1-0 on June 6, when the defense locked down the net to ensure that Derek Gebhard's early goal paid off.

But the recent reversal of the series doesn't mean Miami has declined. For Jacksonville head coach Mark Lowry, Miami is strong enough to thrive at levels above the largely-amateur NPSL.

"They definitely still have more quality and the higher-money players on their team," Lowry said. "You look at their 11, most have been in MLS or played abroad. It's still a team that would probably win the [second-division] USL."

Write down a list of the top players from last year's NASL, and a lot of them line up now for Miami:

• Keeper Daniel Vega, often ranked as the NPSL's best, formerly played for Argentine giant River Plate.

• Raiding playmaker Ariel Martinez played more than 50 times for Cuba's national team before defecting to the United States, joining Dylan Mares, Jonny Steele and Don Smart in a midfield of proven NASL stars.

• The defense, led by the central pair of Mason Trafford and Rhett Bernstein, gave up just five goals all season.

"It's going to be a good game of football, and it always has been against them," Kilduff said. "It's two good teams trying to play the right way."

The Armada will get one break, though: Forward Jaime Chavez, Miami FC's leading scorer, is suspended after receiving a red card in the regular season finale against already-eliminated Boca Raton FC.

"We're familiar with them since we played a lot of those guys last year," Armada midfielder J.C. Banks said.

Inconsistent in front of goal for the first part of the season, the Armada has opened fire in the past two weeks with 10 goals in the last three games, four each from Kilduff and Banks.

A victory would not only extend the season but bring Armada fans at least one more match at the University of North Florida's Hodges Stadium. The winner plays Tuesday against the winner of the Southeast Conference, either the Atlanta Silverbacks or Chattanooga FC.

"This club deserves a nice bit of success and a good few wins like this," Kilduff said. "I wouldn't be betting against us on Saturday night going and doing it again."