by JAKE NUTTING
If the kickoff for the 2020 Tampa Bay Rowdies season doesn’t quite feel imminent for you yet, it definitely does for the players and coaches. Rowdies Head Coach and Technical Director Neill Collins has already locked in his starting lineup and informed the players.
“It’s not been easy. There’s some tough choices and I’d have been happy to go either way on a couple of them but I made the final calls and I’m looking forward to (Saturday),” Collins said.
The Rowdies will be away from home for the first two weeks of the season. This weekend they travel to New York Red Bulls II before returning to Florida for a Friday night matchup against Miami FC, a familiar foe from Tampa Bay’s days in the North American Soccer League. Saturday’s match will be the eighth meeting between New York and Tampa Bay. Red Bulls II has won four of those prior encounters, the Rowdies claimed victory twice, and the other finished in a stalemate.
In previous seasons a two-game road swing at the outset may have given Rowdies supporters cause for concern. However, last year’s squad dramatically improved upon the woeful road record of the past by posting 8 wins and 4 draws away from home.
“When the fixtures came out my reaction to this game was ‘Great.’ What a game to start with. What a great challenge for our team,” Collins said. “Equally, when those teams see the Rowdies coming they’ll know we’re a good proposition now and we’ve proven that we can win on the road, which has not always been the case. Two two tough away games. It’s a great challenge. Ask me after we’ve played those two, I may be dying to get back to Al Lang and home comforts.”
A new member to the squad this season is someone who has been a key piece for New York over the last three seasons. Keeper Evan Louro, who is largely responsible for ending Tampa Bay’s 2017 postseason run with an outstanding performance in net, signed with the Rowdies in January. The New Jersey native is the likely starter over Macklin Robinson and Ian McGrane based on the amount of minutes he’s received in preseason.
Collins is hopeful that the addition of Louro, 24, will give the Rowdies the edge required to earn their first win at New York.
“We’re even happier with Evan than we thought we could be because of his personality and his character. We knew we were getting a guy with the will to win, but he’s been great for the locker room. He’s a really good guy. And then on top of that he’s the goalkeeper that we thought he was. Of course we’re happier to have him on our team than to be facing him. I’m sure Rowdies fans are gonna love him. He’s everything we look for in a player.”
Providing cover for Louro this season is an entirely new-look defense, as none of the defenders from last year were retained. Forrest Lasso, Jordan Scarlett, Louis Lomas, Aaron Guillen and Max Lachowecki are all among the defensive additions this offseason. Lachowecki played for the Rowdies in 2018 and is back after not playing anywhere last year.
Scarlett and Louro have chemistry since they were teammates in New York, but the rest of the unit have all been learning how to play together. While they’ve had some encouraging stretches of play against MLS competition in preseason matches, that chemistry building remains a work in progress.
“I think the partnerships will really only start developing once we get into the league games. Once we start playing at the USL level,” Collins said. “My hopes are high for this squad but I’m also realistic and I don’t expect the men to be playing like Barcelona in the first game of the season. We know that it’s going to take time in certain aspects but they’re more than good enough and more than ready enough to go and still put on a good performance.”
Most of the defenders already have significant playing experience. Lomas, though, is the youngest of the bunch and will be making his professional debut whenever he does step on the field for the Rowdies. Lomas, 19, is another loanee from Norwich City, following in the footsteps of Caleb Richards. Midfielder Jordan Doherty also made his professional debut last season while on loan from Sheffield United. Doherty has since signed a permanent contract with Tampa Bay.
Lomas earned substantial playing time in the Rowdies’ preseason while Scarlett recovered from an injury. Back in England he impressed with Norwich City’s U18s and U23s and signed an extension with the Premier League side before being loaned to the Rowdies.
Collins stressed the importance of remaining patient with young players like Lomas.
“Louis has really impressed us with his athleticism. He’s good on the ball. But again, it’s his first loan. He’s not made his real professional debut yet. That’ll come with us. I think Caleb and Jordan set the bar really high last year. We’re not putting any added pressure on Louis. We know that he’s got all the attributes to be good for our system and we just need to nurture that and help him. He’s joined the group and gelled well with the group. Another good piece to have and it’s great to continue that relationship with Norwich.”
Mustapha Dumbuya is also technically among the team’s defenders. He was the primary starting right back for Phoenix Rising FC’s record-setting team last year, but he’ll likely be competing for minutes as a wing back as Collins sticks to his preferred three-man defensive setup in the back.
Dumbuya is a good example of something the Rowdies tried to keep in mind when building the roster — versatility. Lomas is capable of playing anywhere on the back line. Same for Jordan Doherty, who is likely to remain a midfielder first and foremost. Newcomer Sebastian Dalgaard can play on either the left or right wing and is an option at the No. 10 spot if required. Johnson is also interchangeable on the wings, and can also go up top as a forward in a pinch if needed.
“It’s a long season and there’s going to be days where we have to get by with what we’ve got because we don’t have an academy system, we don’t have a reserve team to pull from,” Collins admitted. “So we’ve got to think how can we get the best out of our 22, 23, 24 men… We’ve tried to make sure we’ve got guys that aren’t just pigeonholed in one position. I think that’s one thing some of the other teams in the league have done quite well. They’ve had lads fill in and do a good job as short term solutions for injury problems. That’s what we’ve tried to do, but equally we’ve brought them in for specific reasons, for specific positions. It’s just an added bonus that they can be adaptable.”
Much of the burden for offensive output last year fell on the backs of forward Sebastian Guenzatti and Juan Tejada. When those two were on their game, the Rowdies typically fared well. When they had an off night, the Rowdies struggled to find consistent production from others. Lucky Mkosana did well as a midseason trade acquisition, but the Rowdies lacked a potency off the bench too often throughout the back half of the year.
Guenzatti, Tejada and Mkosana are all back. With the addition of Kyle Murphy, who bagged 13 goals for Loudoun United, the Rowdies are hopeful this small group of forwards can carry the attack consistently throughout the season. Combined they tallied 52 goals last year. If they come close to that this year, and assuming the midfield chips in to the attack as well, the Rowdies will be formidable.
“I don’t mind telling you that’s been the hardest position for me,” Collins said of the task of picking two starting forwards. “All four of those guys have shown up really well in preseason. If you’d have told last season that I’d have all four of these guys, when you look at their output last year, I’d be absolutely delighted. We’re in a position now that we didn’t have last year, where we’ve got two guys who are gonna be able to come off the bench and impact the game. That’s the plan.
“The good thing about them all is they’re very, very hard working and they all help us against the ball as well. So we’re not losing anything when we put one of them on the field. That’s been a real tough call. And I’ve spoken to those guys as a group to say that they’re gonna need each other and we’re gonna need all four of them. They’re not always gonna be able to start. Two of them are gonna have to sit at time. But sometimes that guy that comes off the bench and gets the glory with the goals from the hard work that the other guys have done.”
Last year’s Rowdies got off to an incredible start. With their first defeat not coming until June 8, they quickly earned recognition across the league as a top contender for the USL. That promptly faded as the team lagged in the back of the year and backed into postseason outside of the top four in the Eastern Conference.
After that experience, Collins is clear-eyed in knowing it’s not about how you start but how you close that matters most.
“I do believe with the squad we’ve got, with the mentality we’ve got we should be able to go to these places and perform. I’m really excited to see this team progress. After the first ten games we’ll really start learning about them and working on things that need improving. But also learning some our strengths that we didn’t expect.
Photo via Tampa Bay Rowdies