by JAKE NUTTING
We’re now less than a week away from the start of the first ever Rowdies 2 season. The reserves squad has been training hard in anticipation of their May 8 kickoff against Miami United.
The Unused Substitutes had a chance to speak with Rowdies 2 Head Coach Cheyne Roberts about his path to becoming head coach of the Ocala Stampede in the Premier Development League at only 25 years old and his role in establishing the inaugural Rowdies 2 squad.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Cheyne. I’m sure you’re a busy guy. So how have the first few weeks of training been for you?
It’s been really good getting the guys in. The chemistry and the work rate have all been really good. We’re excited to get to moving into the season here coming. Overall, we’re pretty pleased with the effort level and the mindset the guys have brought in.
So I’ve heard conflicting things. Were you born in Plant City or in Texas? I know you played high school soccer in Plant City.
Yeah, I was born in Lakeland, Florida actually. Then I grew up in Texas and then I moved back to Florida when I was still in elementary school and stayed there. And I did play all my high school years in Plant City.
I know you played as a defender professionally. What kind of player would you were? What were your strengths?
I’d say the big things for me were my athleticism and kinda my work rate, those were my two really good qualities. And then as I progressed, my understanding of the game continued to grow. Those things are what really helped me excel through high school and into college, and eventually being able to play professionally.
I know you had a brief stint with VSI Tampa in the USL. Did you play in that U.S. Open Cup they had with the Rowdies in 2013?
No that was the year after I had back surgery. I played three years in Charlotte and then had back surgery, so I missed the first part of the season while I was doing rehab. That was the same year I was lucky enough to take over the head coaching job in the PDL, but then halfway through the year I decided to sign on with VSI and play professionally one last season. So I wasn’t with the team that night against the Rowdies.
So what went into your decision to retire as a player and move to coaching full time?
I had always played the game with a coaching mindset. After I had a back injury, I wanted to rehab and not let injury stop me from playing. I wanted it to be my choice. When I took over the head coaching in PDL I decided to rehab, knowing I’d miss the first part of the playing season anyway. After that season with VSI, I just made a decision to take the great opportunity to move into fulltime head coaching. But beyond all that, the greater perspective is you only get one body. So it was a good decision for me, my future, and my family’s future.
When exactly did you realize you had that coaching mindset?
I think as I was playing college, I found I really enjoyed the tactical and strategic part of the game. So during that time I really started having the strategic mindset and looking more into the game. I think that’s when I really started to have the desire to coach at a high level. When I was playing professionally in the USL, in the offseason I’d go back and was the first assistant as Palm Beach Atlantic University for two seasons. So I made that commitment to pursue coaching even while I was playing still.
Becoming a head coach at the age you did seems really rare, even in the PDL. How’d you hook up with Ocala?
It was. I knew a minority owner in the team and had connected with him in that offseason when I was injured. Their coach ended up leaving, so through conversations and also where I was personally with deciding to have surgery knowing I’d miss the first part of the pro season, it made sense. Ocala’s not too far from where I grew up, so I thought it’d be a good move for me and my wife to venture that way, looking to make a base for the start of my coaching career. It was unique for me at that age, but it was a really good jumpstart and experience that you really can’t pass up. You just gotta get into it and see what you can make from it.
You had a lot of success on the field in Ocala. Did it maybe surprise you how quickly things clicked for you?
No I think with any job, sports or coaching or anything, you’re expected to perform. You take on the role knowing you can do a good job. Early on, when I took that position, I thought about the type of players that we wanted. We really wanted players that were seasoned from college or had the ability to play at the professional level, and those are the same boxes we looked to check off in the years after that first one. So I wouldn’t say it was easy by any means, but going into the first year I think we lost only three games, and then the next year we only lost one game in the league, and the year after we dropped three games.
We were fortunate to find good results on the field but I think beyond that we wanted to make an impact on the players. I still have relationships with all the guys I brought in and many of them were able to move on and sign pro contracts. I’m personally excited to help those kids’ careers as well.
Is helping out young guys who are on the cusp of reaching the professional game something you relish?
Yeah I think it’s unique. We get these guys at a time when they want contracts. They want to be on the field. It’s a different mix of age, characteristics and experience with players that exist at this level. With the Rowdies, we’re creating a good base of players that the first team can select from. We have a job to get results on the field, but it kinda goes twofold with the goals of the club as a whole. We definitely highly value the group of guys here and the efforts they’re putting in here, and we hope to make an impact at Rowdies 2.
Was it disappointing for you when Ocala ceased operations at the end of last season after so much success?
It was interesting. This was our second trip to the final four where we lost in the semifinals. When we got back, obviously I’d known some things early on in the season that was between me and the ownership, but they didn’t actually cease operations. They actually sold the club and moved it to the Villages right now. So when they made the decision to move that way, it wasn’t disappointing because you always feel like you want to do the best job you can and it wasn’t like I felt slighted or anything. It was just time to move on and I decided not to move into another PDL role. So no, there’s nothing against them. They had to make a choice and I made my choice as well. I think it all goes hand in hand with professional sports.
How’d you end up getting the Rowdies 2 job?
I had brought down the PDL group a couple of times to Tampa to play the Rowdies and give them some games in their midweek. I started to build a relationship with them. I’d known [former Rowdies Assistant Coach] Eric Arbuzow for a lengthy time, and obviously Lee Cohen had experience as a former PDL director. So when I moved back to Tampa and found out what was going on I just kinda started conversations with them. I knew I could do a good job but obviously that’s the club’s decision. I want to do the best job I possibly can for the ownership, for the front office staff, and for Stuart. It was a great opportunity for me and I’m really excited to help them achieve what they want with the Rowdies 2 project. I think we’re off to a good start.
Are there any differences you’ve noticed moving from the PDL to this job where you’re with in a reserve team set up?
Well I think it’s a great project for the club. It adds a lot of value to the organization. It’s different in the fact that we’re not like PDL or even most NPSL clubs. The guys we’ve brought in are professional players. We’re only bringing in players that we feel have the potential to play for the first team. With this group of guys, we’re playing under the first team’s philosophy, playing with the same attributes that Stuart Campbell wants instilled into these players. We want to recreate the environment they’ve created in the first team locker room here with the reserve team. It’s one club and it’s one voice. It’s unique for me in the fact that we’re charged with producing professional immediately and in the near future.
It seems like working closely with Stuart Campbell is an important aspect of this job. How’s your relationship developed with him?
It’s been fantastic. I couldn’t speak more highly of Stuart and all the things he’s doing on the field and in the locker room. It’s been great to be in with the first team group before we brought in the reserves. Being with them on game days helps instill that one club one voice mentality. It’s Stuart’s voice when it comes to the technical pieces of the club, and to be in this role carrying out what he wants done with Rowdies 2 is very important. I think there’s a lot of responsibility with that and I want to make sure we do things properly here.
How are you feeling so far about this first group of players you’ve brought into Rowdies 2?
I feel confident. I think we have a good mix of players that have played professionally already and are still young or they’ll be moving forward soon enough. I think we’re excited with where we’re at after a few weeks training. We’re going to keep pushing these guys to be the best versions of themselves on the field and off the field, showing them what it takes to be professional players. We want to make sure we’re putting them in proper areas for success. We feel good, we’re off to a good start, and we just need to continue on the upward path.