Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Tampa Bay Rowdies enter the weekend with a little less space at the top of Group H. After a commanding 3-0 victory on the road against North Carolina FC, the second-place Charleston Battery have closed the gap to 4 points. Both the Rowdies  and Charleston have played half of their schedule and have three head-to-head clashes remaining, starting with next Saturday’s matchup in Charleston.

But the Battery will have to wait until next week. The Rowdies first face Atlanta United 2 this Saturday at Al Lang. Atlanta jumped out to a two-goal lead over Miami FC on the road on Wednesday only to concede twice and end with its third draw of the year.

Unlike the Rowdies and Charelston, Atlanta has already played 10 of its 16 matches and only has 6 points to show for it. A Rowdies win this weekend means Atlanta could only hope to match them in points at the end of the year. The MLS reserves side would then have to win out the rest of the way and hope that the Rowdies don’t register another win. That would even the sides on points and the USL Championship’s first tiebreaker of total league wins. Unfortunately for Atlanta, the league’s second tiebreaker is goal differential, an area where the Rowides (+9) have a decided edge over Atlanta (-8). To put it simply, the door to the postseason is getting ready to slam shut for Atlanta if it can’t go on a miraculous run in its final 6 matches.

Despite the fact that the Rowdies have already dispatched Atlanta twice this year, including a solid 2-0 win on the road just last Wednesday, Neill Collins has maintained that no match is a given in the USL Championship. Last place Miami proved that this past weekend as it came into St. Petersburg and took a point off the Rowdies.

Still Lucky After All These Years

If not for Mustapha Dumbuya being born a month earlier than him, Lucky Mkosana would be the oldest member of this year’s Rowdies squad.

Maybe it’s all the youthful energy around him on Tampa Bay’s relatively young roster, but Mkosana says he’s feeling as spry and as fit as ever in his ninth season as a professional.

“This is gonna sound crazy, but I feel fitter,” the 32-year-old said. “I feel fitter and sharper than last year. Even from two years ago, I feel sharper because of the time we had off with COVID.”

Mkosana credits the Rowdies’ training staff for offering helpful workouts to keep him and the rest of the players in shape during the shutdown. He spent the time in lockdown focusing on strengthening his knee and as a result feels fully charged for the condensed season.

The Rowdies brought Mkosana back to Tampa Bay midway through last year. He had previously played for the Rowdies while on loan in 2013 and then as a full-time player in 2014. Following that, Mkosana went on to be a regular contributor to two New York Cosmos championship teams.

In his time away from the Rowdies, the bigger picture and how he can best fit into that design has become clearer to Mkosona.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the clubs I’ve been with. I’m still learning from the coaches every day in practice,” he said said. “For me it’s mostly mental and understanding it’s not just about one game at a time. It’s about the long term vision that we want to win everything at the end.”

Mkosana was specifically reacquired to give the Rowdies a more potent attacking option off the bench. He’s filled that role well, scoring six times total as a substitue since reojoining, including Sunday’s vital equalizer against Miami.

Neill Collins couldn’t be happier with how the trade has paid off.

“Consistency is something that’s underrated by people. You can see a great goal or a flash of brilliance, but can you sustain that?,” Collins noted. “I think that’s why Lucky’s been so successful for so long. He’s consistent, he’s level headed. That fantastic header, that’s the kind of thing that Lucky’s always been able to produce.”

The only downside with being so great off the bench is that it can convince the coach to keep you in the role. Collins, though, makes the point that a good super sub can be just as valuable as a regular starter. Specifically he pointed to Machester United head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who earned his legendary status with that club as a player by scoring many meorable goals off the bench.

“Whether it’s from halftime, or 20 minutes, or the first 60 minutes, really we’re trying to get the players in the mindset of ‘When I’m asked to contribute, I contribute’… Lucky’s been great in that he’s set the example to the rest of the team, to show the professionalism. It doesn’t matter when you’re called on. You’ve got to be ready.”

Even though he has the competitive drive of every player to start and play as many minutes as possible, Mkosana concurs with his coach that it’s about seizing your chances as a player.

“The relationship I have with the staff and the coaches, the vision is longterm and I trust in what they try to do each weekend,” he said. “Everyone is going to get their chance to play. For me it’s a matter of being ready. You have to control what you can control and help your teammates and just wait for your chance.”

Seeing Red, Getting a Yellow

You may have missed it during the deluge of rain at Al Lang on Sunday, but Collins actually recieved a yellow card. It came following the sequence in the 10th minute, when Miami’s Brenton Griffiths stuck his studs into the side of Juan Tejada on the follow through of a clearance. You could still hear referee Tori Penso’s whistle blowing as Collins immediately sprinted out of his technical area and up to the fourth official demanding Griffiths receive a red card. Ultimately Griffifth did receive a booking with a yellow card, but right after that Penso had a chat with one of her assistants and the fourth official and decided to book Collins as well for his reaction.

With a few days to reflect, Collins wasn’t happy with how he handled the situation.

“I felt personally that the tackle was a red card. I think the player took advantage of clearing the ball and then taking a cheap shot. I thought it was a really cheap shot. But that doesn’t make it right,” Collins said. “I was actually disappointed with my reaction in hindsight. Again, that’s going back to just learning. Poor on my part. That’s something I’m slowly trying to improve. I’ll hopefully try to get another yellow card this season.”

Patience is Key, As is Variety

Mkosana’s finish on Sunday was stellar, as was the build up that led to the chance. It all started after an unsuccessful cross into the box from Malik Johnson. The Rowdies quickly regained possession after Miami’s clearance from the box and went on to produce a 23-pass sequence that covered most areas of the field and culminated with Johnson feeding Mkosana for the header. The sequence was very similiar to the goal scored by Guenzatti in Birmingham a few weeks ago and serves as a good example of what the Rowdies are capable of when in their groove. They demonstrated patience in stretching Miami’s defense until utlimately they found the right ball in to Mkosana.

“That was us as a team, that was us implementing our style. It was good to see,” Collins said. “That’s where, when we talk about those four strikers and the rest of the team, I feel that we’ll start finding our feet a bit more hopefully and causing problems not just wide but central and getting all those different options. Variety is so important. You don’t want to be easy to stop. You want to be able to cross it, you want to be able to play through balls, you want to be able to counter attack. It was a great goal from a team perspective.”

Back to Shool

Because he isn’t busy enough, Collins is adding a UEFA Pro License course to his work load.

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I am honoured to be part of the 2020 UEFA Pro License and to continue my coach education with the @ScottishFA.

The Scottish FA announced this week that the Rowides coach and technical director is among the 20 candidates chosen from a list 80 applicants to participate in a two-year course to receive a UEFA Pro License. With a UEFA Pro License, a coach is elgible to coach in any European country’s top division, as well as the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League. Online coursework for the program will begin at the end of August.

It’s a valuable opportunity for Collins, who earned his UEFA A License years ago before assuming coaching duties in Tampa Bay.

“I should thank the club for supporting me. It’s huge,” Collins said. “I’m a young coach coaching at a very high level. I know I’ve got a lot to learn, and part of that is going on these courses. I’ve been very fortunate in that the Scottish FA have been fantastic with me. They were actually over at Al Lang last January. The director of football and a couple other guys were here and they were impressed with the place. They were here to offer support. To get in that course is a great feather in my cap and it’s gonna be a great experience.

“One of the things I find in these courses is you’re alongside your peers, but you can ask questions and you’re talking and you’re discussing things. That’s so valuable. Lucky and me, we’ll talk and I’ll ask him about working with Giovanni Savarese in New York because you want to learn. You want to know what did he do, how did he do it, why did you like that, why did you not like that. That’s how you inform and learn  and I’m just so excited about it. I think it’ll help the club as well because you never know the relationships you make. You never know, the coaches on there might be sending me a loan player or two in the future.”

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