No one was quite sure what to expect from the mostly new-look Tampa Bay Rowdies as they entered the 2019 USL Championship season. After losing just one of their first 20 matches, though, many took notice of head coach Neill Collins’ squad as a contender to win it all.
However, results became much harder to come by in the final two months as the Rowdies dropped half of their final 14 regular season matches. Coinciding with that skid was the rise of several other Eastern Conference sides who all pushed the Rowdies outside of the top four in the standings and forced them to open the postseason on the road against eventual USL Cup runner-up Louisville City FC.
When giving Unused Substitutes his evaluation of the season as a whole, Collins couldn’t avoid the deflation of the way things ended.
“We raised expectations quickly. I think that’s why coming out of the season I certainly, and I think most of the staff and the players, felt disappointment. We felt we were good enough to do better.” he said. “We’ve made a huge amount of progress. Yes, I’m very competitive and I want to win, and the club wants to win. But we want to do it a certain way. It’s easy to judge wins and losses but I think this year, if you look at the big picture, there’s been lots of positives that we can grow on for the future and that will help our chances winning longer-term. So it’s a very balanced approach. There’s always things to do better, but I don’t think we’re far away from being very, very competitive in this league.”
The work of dissecting the season and looking toward 2020 started immediately after the postseason exit. Nine players were eventually confirmed to return to the Rowdies, including captain and leading scorer Sebastian Guenzatti, creative midfielder Leo Fernandes and fan-favorite Juan Tejada.
Among the departures were some key pieces to the record-breaking season. Youngsters Jordan Doherty and Caleb Richards returned to their parent clubs in England as their loans came to an end, but a dozen other Rowdies were gone after their contract expired or the club declined their contract option. This list includes defensive stalwart Papé Diakité and starting keeper John McCarthy, and the high-profile attacking midfielder Kwadwo Poku. All three players’ contracts expired at the end of the season.
The only player not mentioned in the announcement was attacking midfielder Andrew Tinari, who the Rowdies hold a club option on through the end of November. Collins confirmed the Rowdies have already secured several new signings that are likely to be announced in December.
“For two thirds of the year we were as good as any team in the league. We were pretty much top of the league for all that time. The last third of the season we fell short. I know why we fell short, so it’s about rectifying those reasons and trying to get better for next year,” Collins said of the roster cuts. “One thing was we relied on 8 or 9 players probably too much at times. We need a bit more competition at times. We need the ability to have players fit and available and ready to play.
“Of course we’ve got a budget to consider, and where players might think they are in that budget and where we think they are. All these things come into account. But ultimately it quite simply comes down to is this person going to make us better next year? Is this person part of the team, and are they wanting the best for the Tampa Bay Rowdies? So that’s very, very important. I think there’s no doubt that there’s good players that we let go. I mean, there’s so many great players out there as well. You just can’t sign them all. It’s about finding the right ones and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
While Collins didn’t definitively rule out the possibility of any of the outgoing players from eventually returning, his words didn’t exactly make it seem likely.
“(Those players) are by and large not returning to play for the Rowdies. Many of them have been steady, good servants to the club. People like Papé Diakité, Tarek Morad really served with distinction and have been part of improving standards and taking the club to a new level. All these guys that put on the jersey this year took the club to another level. It’s up to us to replace them. I’m not concerned about that.”
Collins is not afraid of making the tough call. A year removed from his decision to let go of Rowdies legend Georgi Hristov, Collins contends Guenzatti’s emergence as a club leader and career-best 19 goals shows how a difficult decision can pay big dividends.
“The word legend gets thrown around with Gerogi, and rightfully so. He’s a top goalscorer. But I did it for the best of the club. I didn’t do it for any other reason than I thought it was the right thing to do for the club,” he said. “Now you look at someone like Sebastian Guenzatti, who has taken the opportunity and scored 19 goals. Now he’ll try and chase Georgi’s record. That’s the good thing about great clubs. They have their heroes, but then you’ve always got to go and find new ones. That was a big decision last year that worked out, and we made a couple that didn’t.”
Still, retaining only nine players seemingly makes the task of building off the success of this impressive season, and turning it into the foundation for successful seasons for years to come far more challenging. Collins admits it’s not the ideal situation for continuity, and that he originally envisioned bringing back at least 11 or 12 players.
In the case of some players leaving it was a matter of reality. Doherty and Richards were both big contributors, but the Rowdies knew those were one-year deals and were happy to take that trade off. With McCarthy it comes down to practicality. The Rowdies signed the stellar keeper to a one-year deal knowing his ultimate ambitions were to prove himself to MLS teams.
“I think it’s important as a club that we provide good players that opportunity,” Collins noted. “It’s not to the detriment of the Rowdies, but if you keep some of these guys more than a year either they’ve not played to the standards they’re expected to or someone out there just can’t see how good they are. In John’s case I expect him to sign for an MLS team. There’s many options ahead for him.”
In many other cases, though, the decision to cut ties was an acknowledgement that things just weren’t working out. Shawn Barry and David Najem both undoubtedly possessed great skills and talent, but that was largely negated by their struggles with injury. Others dealt with injury and fitness issues as well, and others were never able to push their way into consideration for significant minutes and consistently challenge those starting in front of them.
“We’ve got some of our recruitment spot on. Maybe there’s been a few mistakes, but that’s not so surprising when you’ve got a blank sheet of paper. This year it’ll be much easier because we know what areas we need to improve and we know the standards of the guys that we’ve got. We’ve got a process, and it’s about refining that process.
“The good thing was we had control of over 90 percent of the decision making process for our squad. So I think if we’d wanted to keep x, y, and z we could have done that. That’s the important thing. We always try and give ourselves as much control as we possibly can. So that if we’re making big changes it’s because we want to be making big chances. If we keep players, it’s because we want to keep them. I’m delighted with where the club’s at with the players we have coming back and the three or four good signings we’ve already made.”
Collins aims to lean into the areas where he and his staff found success in building the 2019 roster, and hopefully improving upon on those methods now that they have more experience. He’s heading to England next week to hopefully find the next Richards and Doherty and foster even stronger connections in that country’s youth academy setup. Later in the offseason the Rowdies plan on inviting college players from across the region for tryouts in hopes of discovering another Tejada that has slipped through the cracks.
The Rowdies want to look anywhere and everywhere they can to maximize their resources.
“The fans will know some of the names we bring in because we’ve played against them, and some of them they won’t know,” Collins said. “If anything I think we showed this year with Juan, Caleb, Jordan that the proof of the signing is always when they play on the field. That’s when they get judged. When you sign a player you always think you’ve got the right player but ultimately it’s about how they fit into the club, how they fit into the area, how they fit into the system. We try our very best, but we don’t have a crystal ball. We’re going to get an even better squad put together this year with plenty of exciting talent.”
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes