Photo via Tampa Bay Rowdies

A day removed from the one year anniversary of his appointment as head coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Neill Collins gave the 7,210 at Al Lang and everyone watching at home the gift of a convincing 2-0 victory over New York Red Bulls II to take hold of the top spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.

“It was a long year in some respects, and a really quick year on other terms. People want instant change and instant success and everyone knows it was far from that,” Collins said of his first year in charge.

The importance of the result — which keeps the Rowdies unbeaten through their first 11 league matches — was obvious to everyone who saw Collins after the final whistle. On his way to the locker room, Collins let his enthusiasm show with some fist pumps and a few celebratory expletives in front of the supporters in the stands.

“I just think it’s respect to the team that we were playing,” Colins said of his reaction after the match. “It’s two top teams going at it. We were against a team that has scored a barrel of goals, a team that have been dominant in this division for three or four seasons. It was a big test for us and I’m just proud of the way the players performed. I think that’s what sport is all about, that passion. It was enjoyable. I hope the boys enjoy it. You need to enjoy good performances.”

Juan Tejada notched both goals for the Rowdies, bringing his total to four so far. The Panamanian striker has quickly established himself as an important piece for the Rowdies just a few months into his first professional season. Apart from the goals, Tejada’s work rate has constantly put opposing defenses under pressure, which benefits his Rowdies teammates and plays into how Collins wants his team to play.

Not many people were expecting to already be seeing this much productivity out of the young attacker, who signed near the end of the preseason after impressing as a trialist. For Collins, Tejada is an example of the blank slate mentality they took into the season. Anyone on the roster can and will get their opportunity if they earn it.

“I think that we said (Juan) could become a top USL striker. He can become more than that, but equally we don’t want to put too much pressure on the boy’s shoulders. He’s done exceptionally well. He shows all the hard work, grit and determination and he’s getting his reward right now. Other players will get their reward in the future. If he doesn’t score, it doesn’t take away from his other performances.

“Some people might think he’s overachieving. Did we expect him to be playing such a pivotal role? No, but we didn’t know anyone who was gonna play a pivotal role. We put these pieces together because of the technical skills that they have, the characteristics they’ve got. We got pieces that we thought could work and then it was about finding what pieces went well together, and Juan’s forced himself in there.”

While Tejada has gotten more minutes than anticipated, midfielder Kwadwo Poku has been left out of the action until recently. After making his first appearance as a late substitute in the 1-0 win at Nashville last week, Poku earned his first two starts of the year this week. He was solid in the team’s win against The Villages SC in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, but he was even better against New York.

When Tampa Bay’s high pressure forced the visitors into a turnover in the 58th minute, Poku made the most of the with a burst of speed into the box before perfectly slotting a pass to Tejada on the back post for his second of the night. Poku living up to his potential as the Rowdies are already in full stride could scare many teams across the league.

“I thought (Poku) was excellent,” Collins said. “I thought he did everything he could do. People often ask about Poku because he’s such a good player, but I say this about a lot of players that are out of the team, it’s not necessarily what they’re doing wrong, it’s what the players in the team are doing well. Poku has worked quietly and worked really hard. He deserved his chance in Nashville off the bench and played well the other night. I felt the game suited him well tonight and I thought he showed great attitude. We’ve got 24 guys, not all fit but all vying to get back into this team and we’re gonna need every single one of them if we’re gonna keep up the form that we’ve shown.”

Saturday’s result was also Tampa Bay’s league-leading seventh clean sheet of the season. New York ended the night ahead in many statistical categories, but that was nullified by the Rowdies’ stifling pressure that kept New York out of any dangerous areas for most of the night. Even after Dominic Oduro’s ejection in the 79th minute for a tackle that took New York’s Sean McSherry out of the match, Red Bulls II’s attack still struggled to create meaningful chances.

“I think tonight we played some fantastic football,” Colins noted. “The pressure from everyone on the team, the organization, the communication. Then ultimately, people might say it’s old school but it’ll never go out of fashion, people that are willing to tackle, run and fight for every ball and challenge for every header. The boys did that.”

It’s easy to say things are going in the right direction when you start the season unbeaten in your first 11. Outside of the results, though, the way this Rowdies squad is carrying itself both at home and on the road is just as important and encouraging for their prospects for the end of the year. They may not put in their top quality performance every night, but they definitely look ready to compete for every inch every time they take the field.

“The big thing that everyone wanted at this club and what we needed was long-term stability, the long-term processes of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Regardless of a few results here and there, we’re doing that the most,” Collins said. “We’re opening up different avenues, you’re seeing that with the young players that played the other night. You’ve seen the different recruitment in terms of where we’ve taken players from. Results obviously make that look better or worse. I think everyone knows we’ve got lots and lots of areas to improve. For a year down the line I’m happy with where we’re going, but far from content. This job’s never-ending because we’re never gonna be happy, because there’s always something more to achieve. You see that when you watch the great teams like, I hate to say it but, Manchester City. They won the treble today and they’ll always come back looking to get better and better. We’re nowhere near that level, but we’re going to try to make the Rowdies as dominant as we possibly can.”

Photo via Tampa Bay Rowides

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