by JAKE NUTTING
Expect to see quite a bit of new, younger faces on the field when the Tampa Bay Rowdies kick off in the USL in March.
While the NASL generally skewed toward veterans from MLS or abroad, the USL is made up more of players just starting out in their professional career. It didn’t take head coach Stuart Campbell long to recognize the difference and decide to adjust his roster for the new season accordingly.
“We scouted it a fair bit because we’ve come up against USL teams in the Open Cup,” said Campbell. “So we knew a bit, but now obviously we’re pretty much up to speed and the big thing that stuck out for me as a coach is the age of the players. The average age is a lot, lot younger than the NASL. It’s something that I’ve looked to adjust. I was fortunate enough to bring back quite a few of the guys I wanted to from last year. A lot of them are experienced players. Now I’m going to compliment them with some younger guys, which I definitely think we’ll need in the USL.”
The team has finalized and announced deals for 11 of last year’s players to return for the new year, but the re-signings are expected to stop there. The bulk of the returnees are seasoned players with years of experience. At 24, defender Zac Portillos is the only returning player under the age 26.
Tampa Bay’s next round of signings is expected to be more in line with last week’s addition Alex Morrell. A first-round draft pick in MLS last year, Morell fits closer to the mold of what Campbell is hoping to build the rest of his roster with after solidifying a core group from last year.
“You can’t have all older, experienced guys and you can’t have a team full of younger players,” he said. “It doesn’t happen. You have to have a mix. I’m happy with the experienced guys I’ve got and unless something unbelievable comes up all my signings from here on in are gonna be younger guys.”
The number of trialists outnumbered the signed players at training last week as a few players had yet to return from their holiday break. Campbell anticipates many of the trialists will get a shot at minutes in the team’s upcoming Florida Cup games.
Building a roster this offseason has been an interesting process for Campbell, who is entering his second full year in charge of the team. The uncertainty of whether the NASL would cease operations left him keeping track of all the conditional and hypothetical offers from agents should the league collapse with several different lists.
Still, Campbell admits he’d rather be in his position as opposed to those at an NASL team that did not make the jump to the USL.
“It was fortunate we all still had jobs,” he acknowledged. “I would not have liked to have been in the position of the players, the coaches, or the technical staff and the people who get forgotten, the people behind the scenes. Nobody realizes how much hard work they put in. It must’ve been incredibly tough for them and I hope it gets resolved pretty quickly so they know what the future holds for them.”
Competing in a league with MLS reserve teams doesn’t seem to bother Campbell, who has only played or coached in the NASL since joining the Rowdies in 2012. The unique partnership between the USL and MLS has drawn criticism from some for the suggested lack of independence and competitiveness the affiliation brings to the lower league.
From Campbell’s perspective, though, he’s only been impressed by the fast growth of the USL over the past few years.
“I don’t feel that [reserve stigma]. Obviously because you’ve been involved with U.S. Soccer longer than I have you might. Whereas for me, I look at it think it’s fine. I look at the teams in it. I look at the players, the coaches, the attendances at certain teams and, for me, I think it’s a great league. So there may that stigma out there, but I don’t look at it that way at all. It’s going to be a really good league. We’ve joined with Ottawa and we’re going to make it stronger.”
One aspect of the NASL Campbell is sure not to miss is the split Spring and Fall Seasons. He’s looking forward to the more traditional format offered by the USL after four years of the NASL’s split seasons.
“The whole structure of [the USL] is great. I think it’s a normal structure,” he joked. “And I mean that in the politest way. You play home and away and then you have your playoffs.”