by JAKE NUTTING
Looking Back at North Carolina
In this week’s media call, Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins pointed out that Saturday’s 2-2 draw with North Carolina was the first time the Rowdies have given up a two-goal lead in his time in charge. Techincally they did it once before in just his second match after taking over in 2018, but the Rowdies ended up winning that contest against Toronto FC II 4-2, so there wasn’t much harm done that day.
“We’ve got a lot to learn from our second half performance,” Collins said. “Upon reflection we take a lot of positives from our first half performance. I think it really was a tale of two halves. We’re in a sprint, a 16-game season, but we still want to develop as a team and look at the things we do well to get results. We want to win first and foremost, but we know if we perform well we’ll pick up results. We’re just looking to try and improve that second half performance.”
Many assumed Collins’ first change of the night, swapping out Lucky Mkosana for Kyle Murphy in the 53rd minute, was the result of the former’s bad giveaway that directly resulted in North Carolina’s first goal. The truth is Murphy was already waiting on the sidelines to enter before that sequence even occured. The same is true of North Carolina’s second goal. Sebastian Dalgaard was already readying to enter as the visitors pulled even.
Collins is in a tough spot due to the depth of the squad. With Dominic Oduro and Yann Ekra out with injuries, his options for changing the match were limited. Still, waiting until the 83rd minute to make your second substition and then waiting for the start of stoppage time to make your third and fourth is bound to raise some questions when you ultimately give up a two second-half goals.
“I just felt that the options that we had on the bench we’re more to impact the game in a different way than we needed,” Collins said of his mindset duringthe match.
“In hindsight, could I have freshened it up? It’s easy saying that because we lost a goal. I might’ve made the change and we still might’ve lost the goal. It’s something that we’ve discussed and reviewed. We missed two really important midfielders in Dominic Oduro and Yann Ekra. Malik Johnson was only good for 10 minutes at maximum because he’s not been training for two or three weeks. The guys that didn’t come on, it’s not that I think they’re not good players. I just felt the way the game was, the guys we had on the field were the best at dealing with that.”
The issue of depth isn’t likely to go away as Collins indicated Ekra and Oduro remain “touch and go” ahead of Saturday’s match at Birmingham.
The Rowdies are grateful to be back playing, but that doesn’t mean everything is back to normal for the players.
Rowdies newcomer Mustapha Dumbuya has been dealing with his own hardship throughout the pandemic. While Dumbuya has remained in Tampa Bay the whole time, his girlfirend and two young daughters, ages 5 and 3, are back in the UK.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words to be honest,” Dumbuya said of the difficulty of being apart for so long. “I have two daughters at an age where they need their dad. It’s been really hard, but at the end of the day I’m doing it for them. I speak to them every day. I speak to my partner every day. We’re human, you know. For those that have kids, you know being away from them for a long time is not easy. I’m trying my best. I’m a positive person. My girlfriend, she always says ‘Look they’re doing fine. Just do what you have to do.’ I’ll see them in a few months. I just want to win this championship and I’ll see my kids when I get home.”
It’s just one example of the difficulties Rowdies players have dealt with and constinue to face in order to play the sport they’ve dedicated themselves to despite unprecedented circumstances.
“Mustapha is here on his own. His family are stuck back in the UK. He’s not seen his daughters in a long time. These are things that people on the outside forget because they just see them as sportsmen and forget these are boyfriends, husbands, fathers,” Collins said. “There’s all these things going on in the back as well and that we’re always trying to be mindful of. These guys’ dedication is phenomenal but they don’t get the same financial compensation that maybe some of the other sports in this country do. But I’ll tell you what their dedication is the same, which says a lot and I think the players across the league should take a lot of credit for that.”
Back on the Bus
This week the Rowdies are returning to the road for the first time since restarting play. They’ll make the 7-hour buse ride to Birmingham, Alabama on two separate buses and follow the protocols set forth by the league to minimize the risk of exposure to coronavirus.
All of Tampa Bay’s road trips will be done by bus this year as the team plays out a schedule against regional opponents. The trip to Birmingham will be the longest trip of the season. Group H opponents Atlanta and Charleston are both a little over 450 miles from St. Petersburg, while Miami is about 250 miles.
Getting on the bus is a welcome change for Collins and Dumbuya, who both played for years in England where travel by bus is the norm for soccer teams.
“It’s what I’m used to. It’s only when I came over here I started taking flights to games,” Dumbuya said. “It was a bit strange at first. It’s nice for me to get back on the bus. I do love a nice, long bus trip for sure. I don’t mind it. I honestly love a bus trip.”
Collins noted the Rowdies actually utilized a bus for a trip to Charleston for the first time last season. The Rowdies won that matchup 5-0, which is a result they’d obviously love to recreate in Alabama.
“People forget all the logistics with flying,” Collins said. “Getting to the airport, going through security, waiting to board, boarding the plane, getting off the plane. These things are all time consuming. We all know how you fell after you come off after a flight. No one ever feels at their best. I think we also associate flying with going on vacation so maybe going on the bus focuses people a little bit better.”
Dumbuya, who admitted the idea of flying makes him a little uneasy, said he’ll be taking advantage of one of the most important benefits of bus travel has over flying.
“I’ll be stretching.”
No Room For Comfort
Rowdies players may be enjoying the extra space that comes with the bus this week, but there’s no complacency about their start to the season. Currently at the top of Group H, the club holds the biggest points advantage of any team in the league.
That cushion doesn’t really mean much much with just so many 13 more matches to be played, 11 of which are against teams within the group that can drastically change the makeup of the standings in an instant.
“We’ll never get comfortable,” Dumbuya said. “We’re trying to win every game. If you get too comfortable you don’t know what can happen from there. We’re not gonna get comfortable. We’re a team that’s very diligent in the job at hand and we’ve gotta give our best every game. Comfortability is not really something that applies in our game.”
Collins agreed and called the standings “irrelevant” at this point, especially with Miami still waiting to resume play next week.
“I bet you none of the guys have looked at our table yet. I might be wrong but I bet you none of the guys have looked. I’ve not looked… All these teams are gonna play each other four times. That makes it much more of a leveller because you know you can claw back points if you beat the same team twice. Quite simply you pull six points on them, whereas in the regular format you can’t do that the same. We’re very much a game at a time as cliche as it is.”
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies