by JAKE NUTTING
Now that everyone is enjoying the high of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ first three-match winning streak of the year, allow me to dampen the mood a bit.
Even with the Rowdies recording wins in four of their last five outings, they currently only have a 33 percent shot at clinching a postseason spot, according to Five Thirty Eight. Those are certainly better odds than they were facing a month ago, but it shows just how deep of a hole they have dug for themselves during a season full of inconsistency.
Following Saturday’s victory over the Richmond Kickers, Rowdies head coach Neill Collins laid the stakes out pretty clearly when he said, “Tonight was the most important match of our season. Wednesday will be our most important match of the season. Then the one after that will be our most important of the season. That’s the position we’ve put ourselves in.”
The Rowdies could win all of their remaining four matches (A significant feat considering they’ve only won four straight matches once in the modern era, the 2012 Soccer Bowl season.) and still miss out on the postseason. Most results around the league have aided their cause, but will that continue?
By no means am I writing off the season. Crazier things have happened in soccer, especially in the lower divisions. Every supporter also has a right to question how a team with the Rowdies’ resources could miss the postseason. However, my expectations shifted during the summer when it became obvious how much work this club had to do just to find a modicum of consistency. Before this current streak, the last time the Rowdies earned at least a point in consecutive matches was at the start of July.
What I really want when the 2018 season is all said and done is to feel that the Rowdies are in steady hands and heading in a positive direction, under someone with a clear plan and an identity in mind. That’s a hard thing to quantify. Sure, wins look great on paper and clawing your way into a postseason spot is impressive, but I’m not sure those should be the most important factors when evaluating the job Collins has done.
To be honest, I had a lot of apprehension about Collins taking over for Stuart Campbell. It had little to do with Collins and more to do with the similarities to the way Campbell took over from Thomas Rongen during the 2015 season. I was concerned Rowdies owner Bill Edwards was falling into the comfortable trap of the familiar by appointing Collins as fulltime coach from the jump rather than doing the work of searching for an outside hire who might rock the boat and question the way the club operates.
In an interview with The Unused Substitutes last month, Edwards explained his thinking behind the decision to go with Collins.
“It was something that had to be done,” Edwards said. “I had some choices. The choices were go out and get some experienced coaches that were available. By the time they figured out who the players were and everything I thought I’d lose my season. I thought my best shot at this was to pull in a guy I know had 18 years experience in the game and knows this team and would be the best guy for the job. I think I’ve made the right decision.”
It’s unfair to look at the appointments of Campbell and Collins as like for like situations, though there are surface level comparisons. Campbell, who took over a few months later into the year, also faced a mad dash to reach the postseason in the final weeks of the season. He came up a couple points shy of the goal, but Edwards retained him anyway. Nothing during those final two and a half months totally convinced me Campbell was the person to move the club in the right direction, but I was willing to give him the benefit a full offseason because, like Collins, he was a well regarded player put in a tough spot.
In the following season, Campbell led the Rowdies to the exact same amount of points, though they finished farther down the standings as other teams improved their lot. 2017 saw the Rowdies finally make their way back into postseason soccer in their USL debut. Despite this achievement, there were still troubling signs as the Rowdies’ chronic road woes continued and less than half of their 14 wins were against club’s that reached the postseason.
But the Rowdies were playing playoff soccer! They won their first playoff match! They could’ve made a real run at the cup if not for a bitter loss in extra time!
Those feelings smoothed over a lot of the trepidation many had. We were so wrapped up in results and postseason soccer that we overlooked how the Rowdies were often playing predictable soccer week, failing to address recurring issues and instead falling into complacency. That became harder to gloss over this year when most of the eastern conference caught up with them.
One thing I’ve found appealing about Collins so far is his disinterest in emphasizing results. He has an identity in mind for the Rowdies, but isn’t too rigid to adjust based on what’s in front of him and seems to have an eye of the bigger picture. It’s been a while since I’ve felt the Rowdies had the latter.
“I look at two performances here — Charleston we drew nil-nil and North Carolina beat us 2-nil. Those performances were a real turning point for me, because we should have won both of those game and we didn’t,” Collins said on Saturday. “You just pray that people on the inside and the players know what they’re doing is right and they stick with it. People on the outside who don’t have as great a knowledge of the game can look at results and make judgments. That’s fine, that’s part of the job. But I’m pleased with the players cause they’ve stuck with what I’ve asked them to do. Right now it’s paying dividends, but we need to keep improving.”
The task Collins has had managing this roster given numerous injuries, multiple midseason retirements, and a frustrated locker room devoid of confidence when he took over is not an envious one. He’s almost completely overhauled the roster since he took over (7 of Saturday’s starters signed after the coaching change), yet the organization, chemistry and commitment from the players all show signs of steady improvement.
“Everything with Neill is transparent. He talks to every single player,” Edwards noted. “There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind what’s going on. In other words, if you’re not in this week, there’s a reason why you’re not in. If he’s playing you over here, there’s a reason. He takes the time with these guys that I haven’t seen in the past from any of the coaches that I’ve had aboard.”
The odds suggest this will not be Tampa Bay’s year for USL Cup glory. That’ll be decided soon enough. More importantly, whenever Tampa Bay’s season does come to a close, hopefully we’ll know beyond a doubt that Edwards made the right call putting Collins in charge.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes