So far, the 2021 USL Championship season has been going pretty much to plan for Neill Collins and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The club has taken maximum points from their first 3 matches, scoring 8 goals and conceding only one, including a win over the defending Western Conference Champions Phoenix Rising FC at Al Lang last weekend. The defense is as good as remembered and the new signings are as good as advertised. The only negative at the moment is injuries to players like Yann Ekra, Lucky Mkosana, Juan Tejada and new addition Luiz Fernando, but the results at the moment are removing any pressure for them to rush themselves back.

In short, damn it feels good to be a Rowdie – right now the food tastes better, the beers are colder, traffic lights are all switching to green at the right moment and Mercury is nowhere near retrograde. Everything’s perfect…but that never lasts, does it? If the last year plus has taught us anything, it’s that the world is just waiting to kick you in the nuts when you stop to look around. Could danger be awaiting the Rowdies this weekend in the form of Miami FC?

Remember last year when Miami joined USL and everybody and their mother (not mine, give her some credit…) anointed them as contenders for the USL Cup despite them only having 3 guys on the roster that you’d ever heard of before, all being coached by a first time head coach? Yeah…that didn’t quite work out and as expected, there’s been some changes in the offseason. A LOT OF CHANGES.

Gone are the fringe NPSL/UPSL with upside guys, and in are some names familiar to those who follow the “World’s Biggest Second Division,” names like Speedy Williams and Paco Craig, Billy Forbes and Bolu Akinyode. They aren’t quite THAT Miami FC of the NASL days, with Alessandro Nesta on the sidelines and dropping big time transfer fees for Richie Ryan, but they’re definitely an improved side from last year.

Compared to the way the Rowdies have roared out of the gates, Miami’s had a somewhat more modest start to their current campaign, but will arrive at Al Lang on Saturday night sitting third in the Atlantic Division with a chance to go level with Tampa Bay on points with a win. After a two game homestand (win over Loudoun and a loss to Hartford) they picked up a win on the road against New York last weekend which will give them a measure of confidence coming into the first of four games against their in-state rivals (we gotta get a name for this ASAP, by the way.)

One thing Miami will need to do to have a chance in this match is simple: score goals. They’ve scored as many in their first 3 games combined as Tampa Bay did in each of their first two games, arguably against stronger opposition. They’ve definitely got the talent on the roster to score goals and their offense is bound to click sooner rather than later, but I have a feeling that Tampa Bay’s defense will come out on top in this matchup.

One other factor that can’t be discounted is the atmosphere. Miami played both of their first two games at home, but with no fans in attendance. Last week they faced a Red Bull 2 squad that was backed by 510 fans, but with another limited capacity sellout already announced, this crowd of Rowdies Faithful will be at least 4x the size of the ones they’ve played in front of so far.

Something Tampa Bay will have to be on their guard against, and Neill Collins says it won’t be an issue, is an emotional comedown after last week’s not-really-a-cup-final-but-hell-it-felt-like-it win over Phoenix. Energy and emotion was found everywhere on and off the pitch because of the opponent and the narrative. Despite Miami being the closest competitors in the league and an in-state rival to boot, these games have never quite felt like a true rivalry. Tampa Bay and Miami first crossed paths in 2016, the Rowdies final year in NASL, and both games ended in a draw. Next year, Miami claimed a little bit of bragging rights, knocking Tampa Bay out of the Open Cup, but more than 3 years would pass before the two met again last season, when the Rowdies won 3 and drew 1 against Miami.

Prediction? The Rowdies run continues with a 3-0 romp to paint the Tamiami Trail in Green and Gold.

Notes: Mkosana, Tejada and Fernando are all still listed as out, while Yann Ekra could be involved in the match. Newer members of the Rowdies Family might remember Miami captain Lance Rozeboom from his season on the west coast, but may not be aware that Miami’s head coach, Paul Dalglish, led the then-FC Tampa Bay Rowdies through most of their first season back, in the USSF Division 2 Professional League.

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