The Tampa Bay Rowdies may be the new kids on the block in the United Soccer League, but that hasn’t stopped many from selecting them as early favorites to take the league’s Eastern Conference title.

Being counted among the top contenders in the league heading into the season is surely only adding to the mounting pressure the players and Head Coach and Stuart Campbell are feeling to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since the 2012 championship season. The USL’s competition format is more forgiving than the North American Soccer League’s, but the Rowdies expect the team they have built this offseason to be among the best in the league and make a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup.

Matt Pickens has returned for a fourth season in Tampa Bay and will be backed up this year by former North Carolina FC (RIP Carolina RailHawks) veteran Akira Fitzgerald and first-time professional Nico Campbell. Fitzgerald was once considered one of the best shot-stoppers in the NASL, but he’s had a rough time matching that quality the last few years.

The defensive unit for Tampa Bay remains mostly unchanged. Darnell King is back for a third year to hold down the right side of the back line, while longtime Orlando City defender Luke Boden has joined up to play on the opposite side. NASL journeyman Kyle Porter and third-year Rowdies left back Zac Portillos are the other outside options for Campbell.

In central defense, the Rowdies have three options. Last year’s captain Tamika Mkandawire and Scotsman Neill Collins are both back in tow. Joining them for consideration is Jamaican international Damion Lowe, who spent last season on loan to Minnesota United FC from the Seattle Sounders.

Much of the buzz around this year’s squad has to do with the talent in the midfield. The attack will be spearheaded by Joe Cole again after the former England international excelled in the NASL with nine goals and seven assists. Flanking him on the wings are players that represent the pace Campbell hoped to inject into the team in the move to the USL. Seattle Sounders product Darwin Jones, ex-New York Cosmos midfielder Leo Fernandes and Lakeland native Alex Morrell will all look to spark the attack from the wings.

The addition of Marcel Schäfer as one of the holding midfield options is a major boon the Rowdies’ ambitions. As VFL Wolfsburg’s all-time appearance leader and a former Bundesliga champion, Schäfer’s experience is invaluable. He could be partnered with returnees Michael Nanchoff, Keith Savage, Martin Vingaard or Justin Chavez if Campbell goes with two holding midfielders as he did in the preseason.

Tampa Bay is also bringing its leading scoring in the modern era to the USL. Georgi Hristov increased his total tallies to 34 last year with 11 goals while also recording four assists. The new forwards in the mix are Deshorn Brown and Northern Ireland’s Martin Paterson. Brown is a Jamaican international who notched 20 goals in two seasons with MLS’ Colorado Rapids and matched that total the past two years in Norway and China.

2016 Finish (NASL)

9W-12D-11L, 5th Spring Season, 10th Fall Season, 9th Combined Standings

Incoming Players

Goalkeepers – Nico Campbell, Akira Fitzgerald
Defenders – Luke Boden, Kyle Porter, Damion Lowe
Midfielders – Leo Fernandes, Alex Morrell, Darwin Jones, Marcel Schäfer
Forwards – Deshorn Brown, Martin Paterson

Outgoing Players

Goalkeepers – Diego Restrepo, Chris Glodack
Defenders – Ben Sweat, Stefan Antonijevic, Frankie Sanfilippo
Midfielders – Juan Guerra, Eric Avila, Freddy Adu, Kalif Alhassan, Walter Ramirez, Junior Burgos, PC
Forwards – Tom Heinemann, Darwin Espinal, Carlos Preciado

Players to Watch

Joe Cole – With a full season ahead of him, Joe Cole has to be on the shortlist to be on the list of MVP candidates by season’s end. Beyond the obvious offensive productivity (he accounted for almost half of Tampa Bay’s goal’s last year) Cole brings to the table, the Englishman is also a fierce competitor that dictates so much of what the Rowdies do.

Marcel Schäfer – The Rowdies have never had a player of Marcel Schäfer’s level take up the role of holding midfielder before. It’s not the position Schäfer is best known for as he played primarily as a left back or left midfielder, but it’s not brand new to him. He held the position for many matches during Wolfsburg’s run to the Bundesliga title in the 2008-2009 season.

Deshorn Brown – All the aggressive play in the world doesn’t mean anything of you don’t have players to finish. Tampa Bay’s system provided ample scoring chances for a team to succeed, yet many of them went wasted as the signing of Tom Heinemann proved to be a bust. A Rowdies team with a player of Brown’s finishing abilities can be a dangerous thing.

Fortifying Al Lang

Last year saw the Rowdies pick up just six wins out of 16 league matches at Al Lang Stadium. Granted they only lost three of those 16 matches, but seven draws means they left far too many points on the table at home. Turning this trend around should a priority for the Rowdies.

Unforced Errors

Only three teams conceded more goals than the Rowdies last year. The most frustrating aspect of that statistic is that so many of those goals were the result of unforced errors, penalties or just plain bad luck. With a defense that possesses the amount of experience that the Rowdies do, there’s no reason why the team should be topping the list of goals allowed in the USL.

The Schedule

Unlike the split season format of the NASL, the USL’s regular season is a straight shot to October. The 30-team league is split evenly into Eastern and Western Conferences. Tampa Bay will pay each team in the Eastern Conference home and away, and will also play four additional matches to fill out the league’s 32-match schedule. The four extra matches for the Rowdies will be home matches against Ottawa Fury FC and Charleston Battery, another trip to Orlando City B, and an away day to San Antonio FC in the Western Conference.

The Rowdies kick off their season with a three-match homestand, giving them an ideal scenario to rack up some points at the outset. April will also be the busiest month of the year for the Rowdies as they are slated to take the field six times.

Twice the Rowdies will have to take three-match trips (June 17, June 22, July 1 and then September 2, September 6, September 9). A challenging stretch awaits them starting at the end of May and carrying into the first week of July when they play six of eight matches away from Al Lang.

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