At the risk of stating the obvious, four months is a long time to go between your first and second match of the season.

The Unused Substitutes spoke with Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins right before the season opening win at New York Red Bulls II on March 7. We had the same chance a little over 24 hours before the Rowdies are set to restart the their USL Championship season on July II against Atlanta United 2 at Al Lang Stadium.

Surprisingly, Collins’ messaging hasn’t changed much from then to now. The work remains the same for him and his staff — figuring out how to maximize the potential of this squad made up of about a dozen newcomers. Neither a half dozen preseason matches or a few weeks of proper training after a global pandemic suspended your season are the ultimate test of what a team is capable of.

Only the environment of a real gameday can provide that answer.

“Coming out of New York, for me, we were still trying to develop the starting XI and build relationships, finding out what partnerships worked. Just learning together on the job as a team, really. So we may be a week or two away from where we were (compared to season opener) but we’re not a million miles off,” Collins said.

“Honestly, I think we start learning about this team again tomorrow night. Things really start in earnest tomorrow night and from that point we start learning about the group and how they deal with adversity. Who steps up to the plate off the bench. Who steps ups to the plate from the start.”

Collins praised his players for maintaining a high level of fitness throughout the shutdown. Still, it’ll be a huge challenge moving straight back into matches after only fully training for a couple weeks, especially now that the Rowdies are down to just 21 senior players after the departure of Norwich City loanee Louis Lomas.

The USL’s change to allow for five substitutions in a match offers some relief for teams as they ease back into playing. It’ll help coaches ensure their players aren’t being pushed too far and also possibly encourage them to make earlier tactical changes.

“I don’t think we’ve really got anyone that I’d say couldn’t go 90 minutes. Most of the players, if they have to, they’d give 90 minutes,” Collins said. “We’re very fortunate with the five substitutions we can make changes when needed. And also with the five subs now, if I feel a change needs to be made at halftime, you’re more inclined to do so. Whereas in the past you’re maybe not so inclined to do that because you’ve only got three substitutions and you’ve got to consider injuries or cards. It give us more options.”

Many have pegged the Rowdies as favorites to get out of their group with Atlanta, Miami FC and Charleston Battery. However, it’d be a mistake to dismiss Atlanta outright. The Rowdies have only defeated the MLS reserve side once in four tries.

“Atlanta’s a club with a strong identity in terms of the way they want to play. Like everyone they’ll be dealing with challenges right now and will probably be missing players due to the MLS is Back tournament. They’re a hotbed of talent in Atlanta. They’ve got loads of good, young players coming through. They caused us problems at home last year. They were very difficult and they had a strong end to the campaign. They’ll be disappointed to lose their first game this year because they actually played relatively well. We give everyone real we play against real respect. We always make sure that we do our homework, but equally we’re always very focused on our own performances, our own principles, our own identity.”

Rowdies matches will be closed to the general public for all of July. Only around 100 select guests — mostly members of Ralph’s Mob and the Skyway Casuals and some players families — will be allowed into Al Lang. With some teams opening up to larger crowds, Collins is grateful the Rowdies were able to get permission to allow at least some fans in for matches.

“I can’t be more happy that the club has managed to do that for the players’ sake. I think it’ll help to no end having fans in the stadium. The club can take a lot credit for putting us in the position that we can do that. The stadium’s looking excellent. It’s a real shame the pandemic happened when it did because everything the club has put in place with the safe standing section was really exciting. I’m really looking forward to that in the future. But for now, the fact that we’ve got some fans in the crowd and people are able to watch at home puts the club in a great light.”


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