by JAKE NUTTING
It’s not something you see often among rivals, but the Tampa Bay Rowdies are giving credit where it’s due and acknowledging that the path set by the New York Cosmos last year with their NPSL reserve side Cosmos B is one they’d also like to go down with Rowdies 2.
“Our mindset is to operate this as a pro team, very similar to what the Cosmos did with their team last year,” Rowdies COO Lee Cohen told The Unused Substitutes in an interview this week.
The easy point to bring up when praising Cosmos B is that the side claimed the NPSL championship in its first year, but titles are not the intended goal of any of the reserve sides NASL teams are fielding in the NPSL.
Instead, Cohen is quick to highlight the success story of Ruben Bover, a midfielder who was cut by MLS’ New York Red Bulls in March of last year and joined up with Cosmos B shortly after. The 23-year-old went on to win NPSL MVP honors and became an important depth player for the Cosmos first team in the final month of the regular season. Bover even made the bench for the club’s successful postseason campaign, appearing as a second half substitute in their semifinal victory over Fort Lauderdale.
“That’s crazy if you think about it,” says Cohen. “At the start of the season for the Cosmos, who have a very strong team, he wasn’t even in their first team roster. And then by the end of the season he’s appearing in the postseason and he won the NPSL MVP. It just goes to show you that there’s that kind of player out there and we all can be doing a better job trying to find players.”
Cohen believes that the club will primarily be targeting younger players who have slipped through the cracks or “missed their window” after leaving college when building the Rowdies 2 roster, though he also mentions the possibility of recruiting slightly younger players on the local level.
“How many Bover’s are out in the world? How many younger guys are out there that just don’t get the unique opportunity? Hopefully this allows us that opportunity to bridge the gap with some of those guys that aren’t ready, or guys you just don’t know anything about.”
Cohen elaborated, “You think about the NFL, the NBA or even MLB. The scouting systems they have are phenomenal. The NFL uses college football, the NBA uses the NCAA and MLB uses a crazy amount of scouts here in the U.S. alone. With soccer, the scouting system isn’t quite there yet. So this is another way for us to test those markets, which is really unique.”
The topic of scouting and development usually raises the issue of an academy system, and Cohen calls the issue an important question when determining the future of the club, but also says that it’s not a primary concern at the moment.
“I think our focus here is to make the top really, really strong and start to fill on down. So this is, in terms of our progression, the next step in Rowdies 2, and I think that’s where we’ll continue to remain focused right now.”
So with the development of players for the first team the prime directive of Rowdies 2, the club still has a number of pressing questions for their new reserve squad, number one being a coach to lead the team. Cohen says it’s too early in the process to know if they’ll go the same route as the Cosmos and promote someone already on the coaching staff. He admits, though, that they have interviewed multiple candidates, so an outside hire remains a viable possibility.
The Rowdies exec also says they have yet to make a decision on whether Rowdies 2 will compete in the U.S. Open Cup. A recent change to the competition rules by the U.S. Soccer Federation banned all MLS-owned USL teams from participating, but the semi-pro nature of NPSL means NASL may still enter their reserves squads in the Open Cup if they wish.
On the issue of finding a primary home for Rowdies 2, Cohen revealed that is not a foregone conclusion and they could even end up playing outside of Pinellas County.
“Once we get the [NASL schedule} we’ll be able to determine what type of flexibility with facilities we’ll have within Al Lang. Keep in mind, when the Rowdies aren’t here, the idea is to program this facility so it’s definitely running all the time. So maybe Rowdies 2 is an option for that, but it’s also maybe another option for us to continue to try and grow the brand outside of the near market right here. So it could be somewhere else in St. Pete, it could be somewhere in Tampa, or it could somewhere down in Bradenton.”