Photo via Tampa Bay Rowdies

Following a prolonged offseason, the Tampa Bay Rowdies return to the friendly confines of Al Lang Stadium this weekend, and you can count Neill Collins among the many who are excited at the prospect.

“It’s been a long time. You’ve got to feel for the players more than anyone. That long offseason is not ideal. And then, you’ve got the fans and the people that love coming to games, so I think on Saturday night, there’ll be an electricity around the ground.”

The only thing Collins may be more excited about is the squad he assembled to defend the club’s 2020 Eastern Conference Championship.

“The team is in a great place, considering it was a tough preseason – just dealing with the after effects and the climate that we’re currently living in. If a coach isn’t happy with his team by now, you’re never going to be happy with them. We’re happy with the player that we’ve signed, we’re happy with the shape they’re in. For me, now, it’s just a case of the real thing starting and we learn more about the team starting Saturday. Preseason, first and foremost is about getting fit, but now it’s what are we going to be able to do in the heat of competition, but I’m really excited about the group that we have.”

Despite re-signing 15 players from the roster that claimed the Eastern Conference trophy at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville last year, the club did bring in some new faces that will be expected to contribute early and often.

“Well, first of all, I think the 15 guys coming back are as exciting as any of the new players, because how can we keep building those relationships, that chemistry, those units? How can Seba (Guenzatti) and Leo (Fernandes) continue to improve the way they play together? Guys like Zach Steinberger, the back three…”

“But we’ve added players like Connor Antley – very versatile, can play at the back, can play right wingback. Very quick, strong and athletic. Dayonn Harris, Luiz Fernando, two exciting wingbacks that can go 1-v-1. I think we always need to give Leo some more support in that position and not rely just quite as heavily on having to be the creator all the time.”

Laurence Wyke, again very versatile, super hungry, aggressive, athletic, good on the ball and then Steevan dos Santos is something that we’ve not really had in the past two to three years: a back to goal striker that can be a real nuisance for defenders and he can score and will be a real team player that will help other people score goals. Jordan Adebayo-Smith, as someone I think will be really, really exciting and a young player, so we don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders, but he really has an eye for the goal.”

The signing that may have gotten the most attention from people outside the usual Rowdies fan base is GK Raiko Arozarena, whose brother Randy plays outfield for the Tampa Bay Rays and was one of the team’s stars in their run to the World Series last season.

“The goalie, Raiko Arozarena, who’s had a great impact in the small time that he’s been here. Obviously he makes headlines for different reasons but one thing you can’t take away is that he’s a very, very good goalkeeper. We’re very blessed in that position.”

“These players, they’ve exceeded expectations. When we sign players, we’re always positive, but they’ve done really well. The true test is once the season starts.”

Collins also paid tribute to the man charged with leading this group on the pitch, captain Seba Guenzatti, entering his 5th season with the club and nearing his 100th appearance in Green and Gold.

“I think sustaining what he’s done would be a great achievement, because when you’ve had the seasons Seba has had, and being the captain, and the goals that he’s scored, I think being able to maintain that is a big thing. It’s fine doing it once or twice, but can you sustain that? The one thing I don’t have to worry about is Seba’s attitude. In that, he’s great. One of our biggest things here is always about getting better. Again, better doesn’t necessarily mean we need more goals. It’d be great if he managed to add more goals than he already does, that would be fantastic, but it’s the little things, how can he be even better off the field? There may be one little part of his game, he can do better, but as long as Seba keeps bringing the same attitude, it’s not even what Seba can do, but what can we do to help Seba? What can the team do to help him become even better? You know, I think last year, for all our strengths, our strikers didn’t get as many chances as I would have liked. I think we could have done a lot better and provide a bit more opportunity in front of goal. And I think that we can get that from this year, and then all of a sudden Seba can look like a better player. So, for me, Seba’s the ultimate team player, and if we can get more people like him through the team, everyone will benefit.”

When asked for his perspective on the way last season ended and his plans for this season, Guenzatti responded,

2020 was such a good year for us and it was unlucky that we couldn’t play the Final. I’m just going to try to help the team out even more…you know, whatever Neill needs from me and the team calls for, I’ll just have to respond. Like Neill said, we have new forwards that are so exciting and all the new guys are unbelievable. They’ve done a great job in preseason and with the forwards we have, if I’m not there, anybody can do that same job or better, I’m not worried about that.”

Neither Collins nor Guenzatti would single out any of the newcomers as being the most impressive, but some have certainly caught the coach’s eye and could factor into his plans sooner than later.

“…they’ve all made their mark in a different way, and now it’s up to them to take that onto the field. But, I think, like all new players, we just want to give them the best chance to be successful. Some may get an opportunity this weekend, some may have to wait, but they’re here for a reason so they will get a chance.”

One area that saw some change in the offseason was the forwards unit, with some departures and arrivals joining holdovers like Guenzatti and Panamanian Juan Tejada. Most notable here is veteran Steevan dos Santos.

“Like Neill said, he’s something different that we haven’t had – a big target forward…This guy is a monster, if you see him, especially up close, it’s kind of scary playing against him. Everybody brings the same energy, but Steevan brings something that we really haven’t had in the past.”

In terms of tactics, Neill discussed some of the things they’ve tweaked from last season and look to implement this season.

“…Something we spent time on in the preseason, in terms of being able to play through the lines essentially. Zach’s really improving all the time, becoming more comfortable in the role that we want him to fit. Matt Srbely has actually really, really been very impressive…we ask for so much energy from those players in that spot, but he’s also very smooth, very easy on the eye. I think that Zach, Matt & Seba are very good at dropping back into those pockets and that’s where we want to improve and become better as a team. We want the threats to come in from everywhere.”

“The wide players obviously have been one of our keys and if we can add that central part, then it will really make us a difficult team to deal with, but it’s going to be an ever evolving process. The funny thing about coaching is you feel like a scientist at times, you’re adding in a little bit of something and then you’re taking away a little bit of something else until you just get the ingredients just right. And it’s always changing and your teams go through spells where they’re not conceding a lot of goals, but they’re maybe not scoring as many as they’d like, and then they start scoring, but they maybe start conceding more. The whole job of the coaches is to just get the balance right. And that’s what we’re doing right now, trying to get the balance right.”

The Rowdies will be looking to start Saturday’s game off on the right foot and play strong from the opening moments of the match. As far as what he’s looking for as a coach, Neill said:

“We’ve put a lot of work in and I think if you have not put the work in, you’re a little bit more anxious, a little bit more nervous, but for me, I’m just looking forward to watching the players.I trust them. I trust them a lot. My focus will be on them and obviously implementing our game plan and on Charlotte, because that’s one of the things that we really don’t know what to expect. So for me early on, I just expect the team to go there and put all the hard work and just go and let it go. I think when you’ve prepared, you just go out and do it. That’s what I want to see from the players, just going out and then enjoying it because they look forward to it. So when you get that opportunity to just go and enjoy it, because you never know – it’s the first game of the season, many things can happen, but I’m looking forward to, as I say, watching the lads.

What about the players? What’s their agenda for the start of the match on Saturday? Guenzatti says:

“Bring that energy, you know, we did everything we had to do in preseason. I think having the fans back in the stadium is going to be amazing. We’re looking forward to that and we’re excited. I think everybody is ready, and some players are for the first time stepping in the stadium at Al Lang and I’m sure it’s exciting, so we have to bring that energy.”

Last year’s season ended a game sooner than expected when an outbreak of COVID-19 in the squad forced the cancellation of the USL Cup Final vs Phoenix. With so many players from that team returning, there is definitely a sense of unfinished business, according to the captain.

“…The guys that came back were unbelievable last year. Our defense is so solid. We have Forrest (Lasso), Aaron (Guillen) and Jordan (Scarlett) in the back that were unbelievable last year. We were one of the teams that got scored on the least. So it feels good to have them in the back for security and the guys that we have back like Leo, Lucky…just everybody that came back has such a good year. Everybody’s so positive with the team that it’s a joy to play with them. Every day we come in and enjoy it, we push each other on and, I think this Saturday, everybody’s going to be pushing the same way. So we’re going to come off strong.”

One thing that will carry over from last year is the cancellation of the US Open Cup, often a fan favorite competition. Both captain and coach had opinions on the situation.

Guenzatti “Definitely a big disappointment. As a player, you always want to play at the highest level and especially a cup that’s been around for so long and one of the oldest cups in the US. I’ve played in it and the atmosphere is unbelievable. When you get two crowds from different leagues and two teams that are hungry, that when you know, this is something big for their club and it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t play it this year either, but now we have to concentrate a hundred percent on the USL and right now that’s the main target.”

Collins “The Open Cup for me is all about the players and that opportunity to go on a cup run, to test yourself against the opposition from a higher level. And equally this year, the amended format, can give you an even greater opportunity to get to the final, but disappointingly enough, it has been canceled. We’ll just need to focus all our energy on the league and pick up a trophy that — I should add that, I think it’s very interesting, all the hullabaloo that surrounded the Super League recently in Europe, you know, how many people really didn’t like that, we’ve got the equivalent in the MLS here already, you know? So,there you go. Quite funny, Europe isn’t ready for that format.”

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