by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and the entire sports world received reminders this week of just how quickly this resumption of play can be put in danger.
Within the Rowdies’ own league, it was reported that two more players from Austin Bold FC tested positive for coronavirus recently, bringing the total positive cases on the team this month to five. As a result, Austin’s matchup with Tulsa has been moved to September. The latest weekly report from the USL league office stated that four individuals from four clubs tested positive from tests administered between July 13 and July 20.
Outside of soccer but within Florida, the Miami Marlins’s restart has been put entirely on hold as the virus has sidelined a significant amount of their clubhouse. The USL Championship and Major League Baseball are two of the first leagues to resume play in America with home and away games. Other leagues like MLS, the NWSL and the NBA elected to to play within a bubble.
“This weekend travelling to Birmingham the first time was our first real test out of our comfort zone,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “I feel we prepared as best we could. In my own personal opinion, there’s so many unknowns about the whole thing. We’re just trying to mitigate the risk as much as we can but that doesn’t mean someone doesn’t become exposed to it or that situation doesn’t arise. Up til now we’ve done a great job and the USL seems to do a good job but it’s about never taking anything for granted. When you hear a story like (Miami) it certainly makes you understand why you go through all the two buses and the single hotel rooms, the wearing the masks on the bus. You’re just trying to guard against that.”
Rowdies President Lee Cohen is hopeful that the fact the Rowdies and others in their league have an advantage over other sports when it comes to controlling the risks because of the way the sport is set up.
“What we’re looking at from a club standpoint is continuing to control what we can control and let the outside environment dictate how they’re being dictated,” Cohen said. “We’re gonna continue to follow the protocols that are put in place. What happens today may be different from what happens tomorrow, but we know that our guys are following what we have in place. Something we do differently (than baseball) is we do everything outdoors. The guys don’t come in to the locker rooms until the day of the games. The exposures and the controls are so much more controllable because we’re outside all of the time. We’ll continue to do that for the duration of the 2020 season and, who knows, maybe for the start of the 2021 season.”
Makeshift Video Sessions
Since players and staff are not permitted to spend extended periods in the locker room or any indoor facilities in large groups the Rowdies have had to get creative with how they prepare players during the week.
With no concessions being sold at Al Lang being for the foreseeable future, the Rowdies have been utilizing the empty space to set up makeshift areas for video sessions and small meetings.
“The staff that we’ve got are really great at getting together and finding solutions to problems,” Collins said. “When we were first starting we were saying we’re gonna need video, we’re gonna need meeting spaces. So where the concessions are normally in the stadium, we’ve got TVs out there on rollers. We’ve got all the players chairs, everything’s set up there. So when we’re going over video we’re out there. The players get access out there. We can have individual team meetings there. It’s not ideal. It’s better to be in the air conditioning. It’s better to be inside spending a little bit more quality more time together. But honestly the players have never complained once about the setup. I wouldn’t say that we’re really missing out on anything right now from that side of things. There’s no excuses there because of the guidelines. We’re making the best of it.”
Building Malik Back Up
Fans have been missing the electricity of watching attacker Malik Johnson blow past defenders this year. Injury kept the winger out the season opener in March and another knock severely hampered his fitness level coming into the restart.
Johnson was able to make his debut with a few minutes in the draw with North Carolina, but Collins noted at the time that was about all he was able to give beause of how much training he’d missed in the week’s leading up to the restart.
“He’s a real threat in this league. He’s a one-of-a-kind. He’s vital to how I want my teams to play,” Collins said of Johnson. “My wingbacks are like wingers. They’re not fullbacks, generally. We want to get him back involved. By the same token we’re trying to create a system here that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Malik has bought into that, but equally he’s a young player that needs consistency to fight his way back. Everyone is fighting so hard for their spots on the team.
“When the time’s right he’ll be back in. Until then it’s important he trains hard. I put a big emphasis on training as well. Everyone’s got to come to the party at training because very few players can just turn it on when the lights come on a Saturday night. It’s no like that. We need everyone to be at it. By and large Malik has been. But hes just missed so much training. We’re building him back up slowly. Hopefully he comes back with a bang. There’s nothing more exciting than watching Malik go past players at Al Lang.”
As teams settle into life in the reformatted USL season, we’re starting to some make roster moves. With the start of August already a few days away, teams are anxious to make some tweaks to their squads before games really heat up in the next two months and you’re out of the postseason picture before you know it.
The Unused Substitutes has learned that the Rowdies are close to finalizing a roster addition and an announcement could come soon. That would bring the squad up to 22 players and give Collins and his staff a little more flexibility and breathing room in the weeks ahead.
Lucky Mkosana has been an undeniable boost to the Rowdies since rejoining the squad through trade last summer. The only question is whether he’s been more effective as a starter or an option off the bench.
The stiker has netted 7 goals for the Rowdies since his return, and he’s scored 5 of those after coming off the bench.
“Lucky’s a victim of his own success off the bench,” Collins said. “He’s always been a great goalscorer off the bench. He’s always been good at picking up a game whenever you need to change it. He comes on and seems to have an intuition about where to go and what to do. He’s also had good games where he’s started but I just feel he’s not been quite as effective at times. When you know you’ve got this guy that has a great impact coming off the bench, he’s a great weapon to have.”
He’s started once so far this year in the match against North Carolina. That night ended with an unfortunate giveaway by Lucky that led directly to a goal for the visitors, but Collins is not letting that cloud his assessment of the veteran attacker.
“Lucky deservedly got his opportunity against North Carolina. I don’t hold the mistake against him at all. It happens. He’s been great since he came to the club. That was a mistake hopefully we don’t see too often from anyone. That was a freak mistake. Luckys got a huge part to play, as do all four of the strikers. If he keeps doing what he’s doing in training and off the bench then he’ll find himself in the starting XI. All the strikers are going to get their opportunities. We’ve got a really busy schedule coming up and I need Lucky, Seba, Juan and Kyle Murphy all contributing.”
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes