After many months of anticipation, Rowdies fans finally got their first up close look of the retooled roster and completely overhauled Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night. The match – against last year’s best NASL team Minnesota United – ended with a somewhat deflating 0-0 result after several near misses from the Rowdies in the final minutes, but the overall gameday experience at the now soccer-friendly venue likely left many fans either encouraged or converted depending on their perspective.
Fans who have been following the modern era Rowdies for years now must feel major relief seeing all the promises the new ownership has made good on, both on and off the field. Also, a sold out crowd of 7,010 obviously means a ton of first time patrons getting their first experience with the organization. Fortunately with all the renovations and impressive effort from everyone in the organization they can showcase a level of professionalism that can rival any other professional sports experience in Tampa Bay.
Despite the packed stands the match didn’t start out all that well for the home team. In the opening minutes Minnesota’s Christian Ramirez got behind right back Darnell King on the counter attack and found his teammate Johnny Steele streaking down the middle of the field. Steele fired a shot on his first touch just inside the box, but Kamil Contofalsky deflected the attempt away and got a fortunate bounce off the post.
After that initial scare the Loons never managed to create anything meaningful in the Rowdies box again. Possession was decidedly in Minnesota’s favor in the first half. When the Rowdies did manage to win the ball the passing wasn’t quite as crisp as it was last week. Center backs Tamika Mkandawire and Stefan Antonijevic struggled with their distribution out of the back, putting their teammates in too many unnecessary fifty-fifty challenges.
The problems maintaining possession early on could just be a result of playing a superior opponent compared to the last match or , according to Rowdies captain Marcelo Saragosa they might have stemmed from home debut jitters.
“I think in the first half, because it was the first game at home, I think everybody was a little nervous to give their best. I think we struggled a little bit to pass the ball. In the second half we were more relaxed. I think we created more opportunities to score,” said Saragosa.
The Rowdies defensive intensity also seemed to take a dip in the first half compare to last week. The organization was still tremendous across the board, with players supporting each other and closing down Minnesota’s passing lanes in the final third throughout the match. However, the team seemed content to sit back and allow the opposition ample space in the midfield as long as they maintained their defensive shape.
Head Coach Thomas Rongen spoke very highly of Minnesota after the match, but also indicated that he may have paid them too much respect to start out. In place of the injured Keith Savage (ACL) Rongen started Justin Chavez, a fine defensive midfielder, but not a player with the same vision or technical ability as Savage. Chavez had a terrific opportunity when Georgi Hristov laid the ball off to him inside the box but he couldn’t put his effort on frame.
“Maybe I gotta look in the mirror and say I was a little bit conservative tonight. And that means maybe being a little bit more adventurous, putting maybe a more technical player somewhere on the field. When we inserted Martin Nunez all of a sudden there was a little bit more flow to the game,” said Rongen.
The tide did certainly shift in Tampa Bay’s favor immediately once the second half kicked off. Two minutes into the half forward Corey Hertzog forced an acrobatic one-handed save from Minnesota keeper Sammy Ndjock when he fired a shot on frame from the top of the box. Rongen took the shackles off some the players and gave the go ahead to move forward and challenge Minnesota in their own end.
“We didn’t play particularly well in the first half. Kamil keeps us in the game with a great save. We felt that tactically we needed to change a few things. We played our fullbacks a little bit higher,” said Rongen. “We emphasized possession, which we did better, and all of a sudden we’re getting some opportunities, some good opportunities. You look at Robert’s chance early on in the second half. You look at Shriver’s header obviously, you look at Shriver’s shot. There’s five other occasions on corners where balls are bobbling around, they’re half chances that we can’t just get to.”
Tampa Bay was by far the more threatening team in the second half. They left the Loons back line scrambling to cover on multiple occasions but could never put the final shot in the exact right spot. Second half substitutes Martin Nunez and Brian Shriver connected on what was the closest chance on goal. Nunez drove to the left endline and delivered a perfect ball to a wide open Shriver on the near side of the post. Shriver got terrific pace on his header and caught Ndjock totally flat-footed, but the ball went just inches left of the post. Thinking the header had gone in the entire stadium erupted. That was the moment when Corey Hertzog says he and some of the other players realized how invested the whole crowd was in the match and desperately wanted a goal.
“That actually made us push harder and harder for the last four or five minutes, so that’s good … I love the city. I love playing here. I love the crowd. I love the guys in the locker room, so I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else,” said Hertzog.
The fans, Rongen, and all the players may have wanted a goal but with perspective all should be satisfied with the performance. In the Fall season this may be the match the whole league looks back on as the moment the Rowdies made the statement that they are one of the stoutest defenses in the NASL. Making Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra irrelevant for a full 90 minutes is not a task that many defenses in the league can manage. As the club looks to find that consistent finishing touch in the attack this defense will give them a shot against any team they face.