Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Tampa Bay Rowdies are starting the weekend high atop Group H and also slightly ahead in the USL Championship’s overall standings. Even the latest odds from the website FiveThirtyEight gives them a 99 percent chance at securing a postseason spot.

But the Rowdies are far from content, according to head coach Neill Collins.

“I have to be honest and say that if anyone thinks that we’re clicking our heels and coming down the road from Atlanta, we’re just not,” Collins said. “We know that there’s so much more room to improve. We’re glad to get results. There’s good aspects of our performances, but there’s large parts to improve.”

This weekend the Rowdies are in for a rematch against Miami FC, who they just dispatched 3-0 last Friday and sits dead last in Group H after dropping their first three matches. The struggling side has not played since its loss to Tampa Bay, but they’ve made a big change in replacing head coach Nelson Vargas with general manager Paul Dalglish. Miami’s new coach has plenty of experience under his belt. He coached Miami the last two years when it played the NPSL and NISA. Prior to that he led Ottawa Fury FC for two seasons in both the NASL and the USL. Dalglish’s first head coaching job was actually with the Rowdies for their innagural season in 2010, when the club still went by the name FC Tampa Bay.

Collins expects Dalglish to have his players up for the challenge of notching their first win of the year at Al Lang this weekend.

“Forget the table, this is a real one-off,” he said. “These guys have a lot of professional pride. They’ll be playing for positions under the new coach, They’ll want to impress him. The more you’re at the top, the more you win, the harder it gets… Our players are gonna be under no illusions that this is going to be a very, very tough test.”

Miami boasts a number of quality attacking players on its roster. The Rowdies managed to shut them down entirely last week, limiting them to just two shots on target. Defender Jordan Scarlett chalked up that successful shift to good communication between all the defenders and keeper Evan Louro.

“I feel like we were very aggressive with their front four because we know they’re pretty good,” Scarlett said. With less space they have less time to do the creative stuff. If we keep doing that, I think we should be successful on Sunday as well.”

Scarlett Reaching New Level with Rowdies

New York Red Bulls II has been a perennial contender in the USL’s Eastern Conference for years, and that’s largely been attributed to its high-powered attack. But Neill Collins saw two pieces on New York’s defense worth targeting when rebuilding his roster this past season — keeper Evan Louro and center back Jordan Scarlett.

Louro made himself well known to Rowdies fans the last few seasons as the guy who denied the Rowdies with many outstanding stops in crucial moments. Scarlett, though, was a little more under the radar. His first two seasons in New York were solid, but injuries limited him to appearing in around half of the team’s matches. But a fully healthy Scarlett excelled in 2019, leading New York in clearances, blocks, and interceptions.

Scarlett’s contract with New York ended at the close of the season and when the Rowdies came calling, the young player liked their pitch. He was interested in becoming a better all-around center back, so the idea of learning under an experienced former center back like Collins was alluring after being coached by former strikers most of his career.

“When I was leaving Red Bulls, I wanted a coach that could give me a script of how to be a better center back,” he said. “The other system (in New York) was more of like being an athlete and just running. With the Tampa Bay Rowdies, defending is called more into play, rather than just being a superhero. Coach Neill has brought my career to a different level to help me achieve the goals I have in mind and with the team goals in terms of going as far as we can.”

Collins has certainly given Scarlett, 25, his chance to develop now that the season has resumed. The Rowdies defensive unit has been the most conistent thing on the field this year. Scarlett, Louro, and defender Aaron Guillen are the only players to have played all 630 minutes. Center back Forrest Lasso very likely would have played every minute as well if not for the fact that he was taken off at halftime in Birmingham to avoid picking up a second yellow card.

“The thing when you’ve got all these guys wanting to aspire to higher levels, they push each other on,” Collins said. “Jordan’s a great example. He always wants to do more. We have to pull him off the training field at times because of the Florida heat and also just keeping him fresh for games. But I’d much rather be pulling guys off the training field rather than pushing them on there. All the other players feed off that.”

Scarlett has looked comfortable adjusting to Tampa Bay’s three-man back line alongside Lasso and Guillen. According to Scarlett, the chemistry between them was pretty instant and the bond throughout the squad stayed strong even through the shutdown.

“Even though we couldn’t be close to each other, we would still message a lot in the group or play games online,” he said. “So we were still talking to each other and keeping the connection. When we were up out of (lockdown) you could see the joy and the love in the team when we were able to start passing the ball again. I think that’s what made the transition on the field so easy for us.”

Tidying Up at Home

Starting Sunday, the Rowdies will play four of their next five at home. With 6 points earned from their recent road trip, they’re aiming to carry that momentum into Al Lang. The results from their first three at Al Lang in July were mostly positive (2 wins, 1 draw), but Collins was not overly satisfied with the performances in those matches. It’s understandable in a sense given those three matches were when the team was just coming back. However, these next few weeks is when the Rowdies need to show they were just shaking off the rust in July.

“It’s great to be at home,” Collins said. “We’re looking to step up our performances at home. Our form on the road has been excellent and now we’re just looking to match that at home and I think over the next four weeks at home we’ll do that. It’s always nice to play in front of our home fans. Having fans in the stadium, however few that might be, is still excellent.”

2019 vs. 2020

As unpredictable and crazy as 2020 has been, the Rowdies’ numbers through these first seven matches is shockingly similar to what they did through seven last year. In both 2019 and 2020, the Rowdies scored 13 goals, allowed 4 goals and recorded 4 clean sheets. The only main difference is that this year the Rowdies have 5 wins and 2 draws, as opposed to the 4 wins and 3 draws of last year’s team.

Of course, as we all learned last year, how you finish the season is all that matters. And with the end of the season coming up sooner than you expect thanks to the reduced schedule, the onus is on the Rowdies to maintain and build upon their positive results.

“With this team I’m super excited about the potential to grow. I think we’re winning games and I still don’t think we’re anywhere near our full potential, which I think it’s a great, great thing. It’s hard to draw parallels but again I just feel with this group we’re winning games, we’re looking solid, we’re getting clean sheets. I believe that we’ve got real room to grow. And that’s not to say that the team last year didn’t. I just feel that the team’s building nicely with the chemistry.”


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