by JAKE NUTTING
It’s February, which means it’s time for another Suncoast Invitational at Al Lang. Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact and Inter Miami FC will travel to downtown St. Petersburg to face the USL Championship’s Tampa Bay Rowdies as all three prepare for the start of their seasons next month.
Montreal is up first on February 15. It will be the first chance Rowdies fans have to see the new 2020 squad at home. So far the Rowdies have played a closed-door match against Chivas Florida U23 against (score unknown), bested the University of North Florida 2-0 in Jacksonville, and fell to MLS side Orlando City SC 2-1.
In Orlando, Rowdies newcomer Kyle Murphy gave the Rowdies a lead early in the second half (his third tally of the preseason), but the hosts rallied for two goals in the final 20 minutes.
— Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies) February 13, 2020
“As much as I want to win every game I try to remember what the objectives are and the first objective here is fitness. From that point of view it’s been great,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “For Orlando, we made changes that we wouldn’t have made if it was a competitive game, but we’re not gonna push lads to the point where they could potentially risk injury at this stage because the bigger picture is getting them all ready for the first game of the season.”
The Rowdies head into their match against Montreal having confirmed 21 players on the roster, ten of which were with the club last year. Collins says they’re finalizing the details on a 22nd player and expects that to be their last addition of the off-season.
“Last year we had 23, 24 players but I think we’ve gotten quite versatile,” he noted. “We’ll wait and see how things pan out before we start diving in to making any more signings right now. I want the boys to have competition. I think we’ve done a really good job of getting competition at every position. But equally I want everyone to feel they’re close to getting an opportunity in the team as well. It’s quite a fine balance.”
This year the Rowdies have an in-state foe to battle for the first time since entering the USL in 2017. Former NASL rival Miami FC has joined the league and has continued its tradition of making splashy roster additions. USL standouts Romario Williams, Sebastian Velasquez, Vincent Bezecourt and Hassan Ndam are some of the signings that have many predicition Miami is in line for a strong season.
Collins credits Miami with making astute moves, though he’s plenty confident with what he and his staff have built for the new season. Several of Tampa Bay’s acquisitions this offseason are players Collins had his eye on even last year. Center back Forrest Lasso was a top target but was unavailable as FC Cincinnati locked him up for their move to MLS. Midfielder Kevin Mendoza was someone the Rowdies had strong interest in last season but they couldn’t free up an international slot to bring him in. The Rowdies also tried trading for Kyle Murphy from Loudoun United multiple times last season. Now all three are in Tampa Bay.
“I’m so lucky that we managed to get every player that we went for. But it means there’s other good players out there that we just can’t have,” Collins said. “I just don’t see the point in having five strikers when we’ve got Sebastian Guenzatti, Lucky Mkosana, Kyle Murphy and Juan Tejada. The budget doesn’t allow it. It means other teams have got good players. It’s gonna be a really tough league and Miami are gonna be up challenging at the top. It’s gonna be a tough challenge for anyone going there. We go to Miami twice in the first 8 games, but that’s the great thing about the standard being raised. It makes it more exciting for the fans.”
The roster isn’t the only area where the Rowdies have undergone change in the last few months. Assistants Cheyne Roberts and Martin Paterson both left the club. To replace them on his technical staff Collins has tapped former Rowdies forward Chad Burt and Premier League Veteran Kevin Foley.
While Foley has no previous experience coaching professionally, he’s a natural pick for Collins. The two are only a year apart in age and were teammates for several years at Wolverhampton Wanderers, helping the club earn promotion to the Premier League together in 2009. Foley has also been working at the Wolves academy since retiring, which is another benefit for the Rowdies as they hope to strengthen their relationships in England’s youth system.
“Ever since I’ve been on the job I thought Kevin would be a good fit to work alongside. He’s a good balance to myself. I know how I am, and Kevin’s a good level-headed guy,” Collins said. “He’s a very likeable guy, someone players will be able to connect with. He’s got a fantastic football pedigree and a good knowledge of football. He’s someone everyone at the club will hold in high regard just because of his personality. On top of that his playing resume speaks for itself. He’s captained Wolves in the Premier League. He’s a quiet guy, but behind that there’s a real desire to do well.”
As a St. Pete native, Burt is intimately acquainted with the local soccer scene. The ex-Rowdies striker has been working at Strictly Soccer FC in Pinellas County in recent years but has also stayed involved with the Rowdies when possible. Last summer he participated in the club’s Yellow and Green Dream initiative with Norwich City FC.
“Chad has played for the club, he’s worked in the area, he’s worked really hard as a coach. He’s really tried to help the Rowdies out in any way shape or form. To have him here is a great sign to coaches in the area that we’re open minded regarding that,” Collins said. “Chad and I didn’t really have a personal relationship prior to getting the job, although I’d been impressed with some of the things I’d seen Chad do. I’m really enjoying working with him. I think it’s a good opportunity for Chad, but equally it’s good for the club to have someone that’s played for the club and knows the area and can fill Cheyne Roberts’ role.”
An under the radar addition to the staff this offseason is Eric Rudland as the Rowdies’ Chief Scout. Rudland has served as coach of the NPSL’s AFC Ann Arbor but also has a well-regarded reputation when it comes to talent identification as the founder and director of the Midwest Pro Soccer Combine.
“It’s impossible for us as a staff during the season to constantly watch these games at the level you need to to find these next stars.” Collins admitted. “ I feel Eric will give us that opportunity to keep broadening the horizon and widening the net and finding that untapped talent that’s in the college system. It’s a great chance for us a club to get more value for money and I think Eric will be a great addition. I wouldn’t expect things to happen overnight. It’s gonna be a longer process, but one we’re keen to keep developing.”
On the local level, the Rowdies continue to expand their reach with youth players in the area. This year the club will launch Rowdies Women in the WPSL and relaunch the Rowdies U23s in USL League Two. The former will be run in conjunction with Pinellas County United SC and the latter will be in partnership with Chargers SC. Both sides will also be coached by former Rowdies players. Don Tobin will head Rowdies Women, while Andres Arango will spearhead the U23s.
“People are working behind the scenes to do things that haven’t been done before. That’s not going to change things overnight, but what it’s going to do is keep building positivity toward the Tampa Bay Rowdies, keep getting more and more people bought into the club as a whole. All these things are interlinked, so it’s exciting times to be quite honest.”
The rebirth of the U23s is evidence of the club’s renewed commitment to building bridges between the first team and the large youth soccer community. Last year, Tampa Bay United players Jack Casey and Robbie Soronellas signed academy contracts with the Rowdies and saw action in the U.S. Open Cup. So far this preseason Hayden Morgan (TBU), Femi Awodesu (Chargers) and Landon Ameres (Chargers) have all participated in the Rowdies preseason.
Morgan is only 15, so the hopes are for him to keep developing and factor in more further down the road. However, Awodesu and Ameres are in the mix to follow in the footsteps of Casey and Soronellas.
“We’re in a position with 22 players, say you take away a couple because of injuries and you’re at 20. Then you take away three goalkeepers and you’re trying to get all these guys minutes when you’re down to 17. It’s tough. It leaves you kind of short,” Collins said. “We need these (academy guys). We’re not like an MLS club that can just pull from our II team or pull from a big academy. That’s where we’re trying to get better. These lads have stepped in and have done really well. Long may it continue and hopefully we’ll see them representing the club in the first team this year.”
Collins has further leeway to plan for the future and set more long-term goals after inking a new multi-year contract to coach the Rowdies. Along with that contract came the title of technical director. It’s more responsibility for Collins, but also a sign of confidence in the path he’s set the Rowdies on for hopefully years to come.
“Taking the job in the first place was a great honor but I think I’ve shown the people above me that we’re taking the club in the right direction. Giving me the opportunity to do it for the long term is huge. It doesn’t make me any less desperate to succeed. It makes me more desperate to succeed. It makes me more desperate to show these people that they’re right,” he said. “You can look at last season and take away many different things, but I think people on the inside and those that come and watch us regularly can see huge strides. We’ve changed a lot of things. Last year’s team was younger. We’ve changed how we sign players and what type of players we sign. If we keep developing that we’re only gonna go one way. I’m so pleased that I’m getting the opportunity to do that because I feel that we’ve made a lot of strides in 18 months but there’s lots and lots to keep improving on. I’m so excited by what we can achieve as a club.”
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes