The Tampa Bay Rowdies were not on the field for Sunday’s NASL championship final. They missed the postseason entirely despite owner Bill Edwards’ consistently bold proclamations that the team would and should finish the year as one of the league’s final four teams. However, in the face of such a massive letdown, Edwards was far from doom and gloom when assessing the club’s season.
“I think we were just a day late and a dollar short this year,” Edwards said at last week’s press conference to promote the NASL final. “We missed the spring by one point and then we missed the fall by one game. We had a lot of changes on the team this year, coaching and so forth. I finally think I settled down into where I want to be with coaching at this moment.”
Settling down on a coach for an extended period of time is likely comforting news for Rowdies supporters who have seen three people hold the title since Edwards took over in late 2013. Edwards was effusive when he spoke about settling on Stuart Campbell for the position going forward.
“I’ve had this team for two years and I’ve gone through, well this is my third coach unfortunately,” he said. “First I inherited people, and then I go out and make some silly mistakes. I guess you do that sometimes in sports. But I’m very, very proud of the fact that our coach has been with the team, first of all as a player on the team that won the 2012 championship. He’s been a player-coach, and I’ve known him since I came on with the team. I’ve watched him and he’s the best coach in the league right now, as far as I’m concerned. I’m gonna ride that horse and we’re going that way next year. I think you’re going to see great things come from the Rowdies.”
Edwards was quick to point out how proud he was of the way the team fought and remained competitive until the very end after popular Head Coach Thomas Rongen and President and General Manager Farrukh Quraishi were let go in the middle of August. The firings caused concern throughout much of the fanbase, as the surface image of the club up until that point was that it was on track for long term success.
At the time the surprising move was presented as purely motivated by the abysmal start to the Fall Season when the team lost five of eight to allow the rest of the league to catch up in the postseason race. A few months removed, though, Edwards indicated that a toxic relationship between he and Rongen, as well as what he considered an unhappy and unmotivated locker room also contributed to the decision.
“I understand the game of soccer. I think I have the basics of it. As far as management, I have a style that’s made me very successful in life and I don’t always agree with other management styles. When I disagree with them, I win. I own the place, so I get to do what I want. I was unhappy, they were unhappy, and it was the right thing to do. I’ve turned the page and we’re moving on.
When pressed on the blowback from supporters, Edwards said that in his estimation the response “wasn’t that bad,” and ultimately the fans understood it was his responsibility to turn things around.
“… We weren’t winning, we were losing,” he elaborated. “It wasn’t a happy situation where I wanted it to be, which is in the locker room. So we made a change and now we have a happy locker room and the guys will do great next year. That’s what is important.”
Next year is certainly shaping up to be an interesting one for Edwards and the Rowdies. After being shut out of the postseason in two straight seasons under Edwards, pressure is undoubtedly rising for the club to perform on the field.
Reacquiring attacking midfielder and publicity lightning rod Freddy Adu for next year is seen by many supporters as a high priority for the offseason. A report from SBI Soccer during the season stated that the Rowdies have an option to pick up Adu for a full season.
Edwards didn’t say much on Adu’s status, but he did have a fairly large smile on his face when he revealed that he recently had lunch with both Adu and Campbell, and that fans can expect to “hear something about that very, very soon.”
With the grief caused by the turbulent year on the field, it can be easy to forget that the Rowdies had a banner year in the stands. The club averaged a modern era record of 5,649 through 15 home games, a 24 percent increase from the previous year.
“With that many people in the area, the financial impact for the city has been enormous,” boasted Edwards. “In return, the people who run the businesses downtown, and everyone around town, have really embraced the Rowdies and the fact that we’re playing professional ball. They’ve embraced that we’ve worked on our stadium, worked on our pitch, our on-field game. We’re thankful to have the fans and sponsors around us, and I think they’re thankful to have us.”
It was the first year that Edwards and his company Big 3 Entertainment managed Al Lang Stadium after wrestling away control from the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission at the end of last season. An injection of a few million dollars from Edwards into the venue for exhaustive renovations to the structure and pitch turned what had become an eyesore back into a vital piece of the city’s downtown waterfront.
If the Rowdies can sustain their impressive rise in attendance, Edwards’ hopes of further expanding Al Lang even more could come to fruition. With new Pinellas County projects constantly popping up, competition for public money will likely be tough over the next few years. However, unlike most of the other hopeful projects the Rowdies are already up and running, have invested into the community, and can demonstrate their steady growth after five years at Al Lang.