by JAKE NUTTING
Rest easy, Rowdies supporters. You only have one more week to get through before you get to see the Rowdies take the field for the 2016 NASL season.
Before the home opener on April 2 against Indy Eleven, though, we thought it would be useful to review Tampa Bay’s eight-game preseason that just wrapped up this past Tuesday with a 3-0 victory over the University of Tampa.
Things got off to a bit of a bumpy start in the inaugural Suncoast Invitational against MLS competition as the Rowdies dropped their first two matches to D.C United and the Philadelphia Union. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the Rowdies to gain their footing, and those opening matches ended up being their only losing results of the preseason.
Regardless of results, the important fact is that this roster demonstrated the most important factor you can take away from preseason — progression. They got stronger as they preseason wore on and showed encouraging signs against stiff competition on their trip to England.
D.C. United (L, 1-0)
Philadelphia Union (L, 2-0)
Montreal Impact (D, 0-0)
USF (W, 3-1)
Nottingham Forest (D, 2-2)
Notts County (W, 3-2)
Stoke City (D, 1-1)
UT (W, 3-0)
Goals Scored: 12
Goals Allowed: 9
Scorers: Tommy Heinemann (3), Darwin Espinal (2), Freddy Adu (2), Kalif Alhassan (1), Danny Mwanga (1), Darnell King (1), Michael Nanchoff (1), Junior Burgos (1)
Assist Leaders: Heinemann (3), Georgi Hristov (2), King (1), Adu (1), Nanchoff (1), Tamika Mkandawire (1), Justin Chavez (1)
Formation: Based on the frequency of use, it appears as if head coach Stuart Campbell may be settling on the flexible 4-2-3-1 formation to start out the new season. Given the composition of this year’s roster, it looks like Campbell will be hoping for his midfield to be a main source of strength. This formation allows him to achieve that, while maintaining some malleability.
Stacked Midfield: From top to bottom, this year’s midfield is shaping up to be the most technically proficient unit the Rowdies have fielded in the modern era. Fans were delighted to see Freddy Adu return after his promising showing late last year, but the club wasn’t content to sit back after that. Adu now has some serious competition for a starting spot from Kalif Alhassan, Junior Burgos, Eric Avila and Darwin Espinal, who all add a level of attacking dynamism that has been missing from the midfield for the Rowdies since Luke Mulholland departed. Even veteran Georgi Hristov has had a positive preseason in a playmaking role. The only possible downside to this slightly undersized midfield is it could find itself physically outmatched against some NASL opposition.
Nanchoff the Linchpin: Another one of those impressive midfielde additions is Michael Nanchoff, who may have done the most to cement a spot as a regular. The Rowdies had to deal with a revolving door of holding midfield partners for Juan Guerra last year, but Nanchoff has stepped in and made the job look easy this preseason. He’s shown he can play one half of that two-man pivot in the 4-2-3-1, or even move up to an advanced attacking role if need be.
High Rate of Assists: A possible sign of encouragement heading into the season is the high number of goals that were scored on assists this preseason. 10 of 12 finishes benefiting from an assist suggests the team is coalescing and working hard for each other in the final third.
Espinal Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Darwin Espinal has made it clear that his debut season last year was no fluke. The 21-year-old looks as hungry as ever and has made a strong case for a starting spot this year after being primarily used as a substitute last season. There’s no telling if Campbell has been swayed by the rookie’s swagger yet, though.
Heinemann Rising to the Top: Perhaps no player’s stock has risen more this preseason than Tommy Heinemann. The imposing forward arrived in Tampa Bay arrived with a heap of expectations on his back after a career-year in Ottawa. He’s met them all so far, finishing preseason action leading both goals and assists. The starting role is his to lose now, and Tampa Bay’s championship aspirations could depend on how he fares throughout the year.
Left Back Battle: Zac Portillos has returned from his season-ending Achilles injury without missing a beat and as a result has put tremendous pressure on the guy who filled in for him last year with great aplomb, Ben Sweat. Both players have performed at a high level during the preseason, meaning the only sure thing we know is that one talented left back will be left out of the starting line up on opening day.
Experience at the Back: Campbell has kept the majority of the back line that finished last year with the third fewest goals allowed intact for this season. The only additions he has made are the returning Rowdies great Frankie Sanfilippo, longtime Sheffield United center back Neil Collins, and MLS veteran Jeremy Hall. Incorporating seasoned veterans to a pool of defenders that showed well last year should hopefully keep things running smoothly at the back.