The Unused Substitutes spoke with Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins about a handful of topics this week. The first part of that interview, focusing primarily on the recent cuts to the roster and looking back on the 2019 season can be found here.
Below is the rest of our interview with Collins, in which he elaborates on some of the plans for the offseason and future.
Unused Substitutes: There’s been some discussion recently about the lack of movement of USL players to MLS. Why do you think that is?
Neill Collins: I think part of it is the restrictions of MLS. I don’t think it helps MLS and I don’t think it helps their players, because MLS is unique to any other league in the world. If you look around world football, players constantly move between leagues in their own country. But MLS is structured much more like the NBA or the NFL. You’ve got drafts and waivers and TAM and GAM and everything in between. I think we’re doing players in this country a disservice. I think there’s a slight ignorance to the talent as well. There’s a slight ignorance to just how good some of these players are. That’s a shame as well. It’s slowly improving, but there’s still a long way to go. I want to be a club that can win first and foremost, but I want to be a club that people can come and look at and say they’ve got young, good talent and it’s worth having a look at them because you might find a good young player. I think we’ve made good strides with that this year and I want to continue that so players want to come and play for Tampa Bay. One, because it’s a great club and two, because they feel it’s going to better their career.
US: Not many USL clubs have taken two young players from England on loan like you did with Caleb Richards and Jordan Doherty? How are you feeling about that experiment and do you think it’s something you’ll be leaning on again going forward? Obviously you have the relationship with Norwich City.
NC: When I took the job I felt we needed to, from a recruiting point of view, use the great asset that we have in the brand and the history and where we are and start trying to look far and wide to how we can bring in better players. I think part of that was using those contacts. I think that’s been successful. Caleb played every minute of every game and Jordan was fantastic whenever he did play. That’s by and large down to the two individuals, but what I think it shows is that the academy culture in England is producing good players and it’s one that we’re trying to tap into more. We know that we only have them for a year and the whole point is that hopefully that they can go away better players and go to another level in England. If some day down the line they decide to come back to Tampa Bay it’d be a privilege to have either of them. But right now for their development they need to go and try back in England. Maybe another loan is something that we’re looking at. I’m actually going to England next week to work, to try and build these connections and find the next Caleb, the next Jordan.
US: That kinda goes into my next question about where you’re looking for players to build the roster. It sounds like you’re hoping to cast as wide a net as possible and maximize your resources.
NC: I took the decision last year to try two loan players from England with the understanding that it might not work. We might get two young players that were not ready to play at that level or maybe they’d get homesick. We are trying to refine what areas we have had success in and try to get a bit more in that. And work out which areas have not worked and find out why. Juan Tejada is another example. He’s someone that came to our combine and came through our preseason, so that’s something that we’re looking to do again. I think there’s good talent in college. I’ve been at college games. I think we need to find the next Juan Tejada, or we need to find the best player that doesn’t get drafted. We’ll host open tryouts, and I think that’s worth doing in this country because there’s talent that can fall through the cracks quite easily. So that’s why we want to host our own combine or invitational for university and college players that we can attract for certain positions. That’s something that I’m learning about and eager to develop.
US: One of the things you’ve indicated was an important area for you was fostering the relationship with the local youth clubs. We saw some Tampa Bay United players factor into things this season. How do you feel the process is going now that you’re about a year and a half into the job?
NC: I think we’ve taken big strides. We had two local players make their debuts in the Open Cup, which was huge. Robbie Soronellas was on the substitutes bench in Charleston and unfortunately didn’t get on. They played in preseason games for us, they played in training games. If anything we’ve shown the local youth players of Tampa Bay that there is a pathway to the Rowdies. It’s about improving that. It takes time. Luis Cuccatti behind the scenes is trying real hard to build these relationships with all these youth clubs. We were happy it was two TBU players this year. We have an affiliation but we are not bound to any one youth club. We want to have access to all the best talent in Tampa Bay, if not wider. I’ve done some sessions over the last couple months to find the next group of talent that can come through and help the first team training and playing in reserves games. Who knows, we might end up finding someone who ends up playing on the first team. We’ve got a couple of real good prospects that we’re excited about. That’s where we are. We’re a big club in the USL, but we’re not a big club in terms of the world, in terms of the staffing that we have and the resources that we have. I’m one man and a small staff. We try and do the best we can. We need to help these youth clubs. They’ve all been good, and they’ve all been accessible. It’s one year on from where we started and I think we’ve made huge strides.
US: I imagine just showing that you care and are actually engaged with the local youth soccer community is important in this effort.
NC: That’s right. My priority is the first team because I want to keep my job. I don’t want to lose my job. But it would be remiss of me to just ignore the youth side of things. To have these guys I think is important to helping the senior team win, but then equally I think as the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the only professional team in the area it’s important to be a flagship for these young players being watched or perhaps considered to play at one point if they’re good enough. It’s about us as a club being seen as trying to do our best for the youth in Tampa Bay. If we’re not trying to do our best for the youth in Tampa Bay, who is? We’re slowly building those bridges and slowly building back that trust It’s a long process. I hope to see a young local player playing for us in the future.
US: We’re coming up on the anniversary of the ownership change. Now that you’ve been working with and for them for a full year, what can you say about their commitment to the project and giving you the resources you need to be successful?
NC: From a coach’s perspective, as far as takeovers or buyouts or whatever you want to call it, it couldn’t have gone any better. They couldn’t have been any better. Everything I’ve asked for by and large has been given. From my interactions with the Rays and the staff of the Rays, they’re properly committed to helping me produce a winning team, but on top of that I think they’ve grown the Rowdies brand. It’s gonna be great next year to have the safe standing behind the goal. I think that’ll really help us on the field and off the field. They’ve been really supportive in the background. I’m very fortunate to work at a club where the technical staff know how to do their jobs the way it should be done. That’s not always the way it’s done at some clubs. Those bigger questions about stadiums and first flight, that’s really not my place at this moment in time. They’re making renovations at Al Lang, which I think is one of the best stadiums in the league. They’re making the atmosphere even better and that’ll help us on the field.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes