by JAKE NUTTING
What comes next, even in the midst of a season, is on the mind of most head coaches. This was with case for Neill Collins last year.
Knowing that Caleb Richards would be returning to Norwich City at the conclusion of his one-season loan, the Rowdies head coach knew he’d have a big hole to fill on his back line.
Rowdies newcomer Aarón Guillén was instantly at the top of Collins’ list. Guillen had been quietly building a reputation as one of more impressive left-sided defenders in the USL Championship at North Carolina FC.
“Quite early on we started looking to see who could fill that void,” Collins said. “Aarón was someone that I’ve played against and coached against and I thought last year was having an excellent season. We highlighted Aarón and spoke to his agent pretty early on because I knew that he would be well sought after.”
Guillén, 27, was excited by the Rowdies’ interest. After playing four years of soccer at Florida Gulf Coast University, Guillen welcomed a return to Florida and a shot to play for club he believed in.
“From the moment I knew the Rowdies had my name on their list, it was something that made me very proud because it’s a club that has a lot of history,” he said. “The coaching staff and (Rowdies President Lee Cohen) have done great stuff by bringing in new players. I feel we have a really solid team. I feel really confident back there playing with Forrest, with Jordan, with Evan in goal. It’s some great players that they brought in. We’re looking forward to reaching our goal, which is obviously the championship.”
Two matches in and the trio of Guillén, Lasso and Scarlett seems to be meshing well. The Rowdies have given up few scoring opprtunties to the opposition and shut out a traditionally potent New York Red Bulls II attack in March.
“There’s very few defenders at our level that have the left foot, the ability on the ball but also the defensive instincts… Consistency as a defender if the biggest and most important thing. You’ve gotta know what you’re getting from someone. Aarón’s really consistent, which I really like,” Collins said. “I think he’s got a lot of potential to play at a higher level of the game. Like everyone, he’s suffered and not been able to play. But I’m really excited to work with him over the next 18 months and try and help him. He’s going to be a big help to us no doubt.”
This Friday, Guillén has the chance to play against his old club. He came to North Carolina having struggled to break in at FC Dallas in MLS as a homegrown player in previous years. At North Carolina he flourished, leading the team in interceptions last year and playing over 5,000 minutes total as a regular starter.
“(North Carolina) is a big part of my career,” he said. “You always want to get minutes. That’s what makes you grow as a player. Having games every week for me, having all those minutes, made me grow as a player and have that experience, and have teams like Tampa Bay bring me in. I’ve been having a great experience here. I’m thankful for the experience North Carolina gave me but now I’m here. It’s a very important week for me. It’s special because I get to play my old teammates and my friends. I have great relationships there, but it’s time to get to work here. We need those three points.”
Black Lives Matter
Like many teams around the league and various other leagues and sports have done, the Rowdies showed solidarity with Black Lives Matter movement in their return to the field. Prior to the match players knelt on the field during a moment of silence against racism.
Collins, who wore a BLM armband on the sidelines for the match, told the media on Tuesday that showing support for the movement was a player-led initiative that he and the team fully supported.
“Black Lives Matter is a worldwide thing,” Guillén explained. “We have teammates who are suffering with that situation and we just want to let them all know that we are all together in this and there’s nothing different between a white person, a Hispanic person, a black person. We’re all equal and we’re here to support each other. It’s a great movement in the world and it’s (fighting) something that needs to be stopped sooner than later because it’s something that’s been going on for way too long.”
After recovering from an injury that eliminated him the season opener, Yann Ekra was taken off at halftime against Atlanta with another injury. Midfielder Dominic Oduro was also swapped out due to a knock. Collins gave an update on their status.
“Yann suffered a bad tackle. I thought it was a poor tackle on the night. Yann’s not had much luck in his time with us but hopefully it’s not as bad as we first feared. It’s the same with Dom who got a stud on the top of his foot. So we’re hoping they’re both available. And we’re hoping we don’t have anything else. We’ve got a really strong squad but definitely a small squad. So we’re trying to keep as many bodies fit as we can. As long as we don’t get any more we’ll be in a good sport for Friday night.”
Maintaining Commitment to Health and Safety
With a game under the league’s new health and safety protocols under their belts, Collins and Guillén say it hasn’t greatly impacted the way they prepare on gameday.
Guillen said the biggest different was the atmosphere in the locker room. It’s harder to have the usual pre-match conversation when locker spaces are separated by six feet or more and everyone is wearing masks. There’s also less time inside the locker room on gameday as players are only allowed inside 30 minutes prior to the start of warm-ups and entrances and exits are staggered.
“It’s pretty much an everyday discussion,” Guillén said of the players’ vigilance toward safety. “The club is trying to do everything possible for us to be safe out there. The protocols that the league has given us, we’re following them the best way we can. We’re trying to stay home and just do everything we can to stay healthy and work toward our goal of a championship.”
Collins remains impressed by the way the players have carried themselves throughout the pandemic.
“They’re young lads, they’ve got lives outside football, but they’re very committed,” he said. “They’re very understanding of the situation and have made our life as a club a lot easier with the way they’ve handled it. These are the sacrifices, in some respects, that you’ve gotta make if this is what you want to do. They all definitely want to be successful professional soccer players. That’s made our life easier.”
Photo Credit: Nelson Lucindo