Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Tampa Bay Rowdies are sitting in a much different position today in comparison to the break between the 2018 and 2019 USL Championship seasons, when head coach Neill Collins was going through his first offseason in charge.

Back then the Rowdies had just missed the postseason after a deflating season. Now the club is fresh off a Eastern Conference title, its first trophy since 2012.

“I think the real top caliber players that you may have wanted to attract were probably a little unsure, probably a little unsure of me in terms of what was my track record gonna be like and where was the club going,” Collins said of that first offseason. “But I think we’ve managed to turn that corner and I think we’ve got a great club to offer to them along with a great place to live and lifestyle. We’ve also shown we’ve got a group of players that have shown what it takes to win and now it’s about continuing that. The phone’s never quiet for long with people wanting to come here. The difficult bit is finding the right ones. Not just the good players, but the ones with the right character and the right mentality.”

A stark difference between Collins’ first offseason and today is the amount of carryover on the roster. In 2019 the Rowdies held on to just 8 players from the previous season. For the 2021 season, they’ve managed to retain 15 players, the highest number the’ve ever had. That list includes starting keeper Evan Louro and defenders Jordan Scarlett, Aaron Guillen and Forrest Lasso — a unit that helped the Rowdies become a defensive force in 2020. Fan-favorite forwards Juan Tejada and Lucky Mkosana are also among those returning.

Additionally, longtime Rowdies Leo Fernandes and captain Sebastian Guenzatti are also back, meaning they’ll have a shot at reaching 100 appearances for the club after several seasons of valuable service.

This is the kind of continuity Collins has been striving for since he took over. It’s not something clubs can achieve overnight night, so to be sitting in this position after just two and a half seasons in charge is mighty impressive.

“People like Seba and Leo have been here the longest, those are really the guys that have led from the front on and off the field in terms of the standards that we have and how we want to play and the effort and the attitude,” Collins said. “Slowly, over time, we’ve managed to bring in other players that bring those same characteristics. Credit to Louisville, the one thing they’ve done well is they’ve kept continuity. We feel that’s how we can go from strength to strength, with the continuity. Across the league you see a lot of good signings from a lot of good teams, but I think some of our best signings are the ones that are coming back to play again.”

Under Collins the Rowdies have looked overseas, bringing on younger players from English sides on season-long loans. It paid off very well with Jordan Doherty and Caleb Richards. Doherty has even become a full-time Rowdie and is one of the more promising midfielders in the league. Last year’s loanee Louis Lomas never made the field as he returned home due to the global pandemic. With the pandemic still an issue, those tye of loans may be harder to pull together in 2021.

To add to the roster, Collins and his staff has so far looked domestically with players who have various levels of experience within the USL. Guys like defender Conner Antley, midfielder Luiz Fernando, and winger Dayonn Harris all fit a mold which Collins value highly. At only 25, Antley is the oldest of the trio, though he’s only recently broken into the professional ranks as the 2019 USL League One Defender of the Year at South Georgia Tormenta FC and earned a dozen appearances after moving up to Indy Eleven last year. Fernando and Harris both come from MLS affiliate clubs (Atlanta United 2 and Real Monarchs) but were rated high enough to sign with the MLS senior sides.

“I do like young players that have played in the league,” the Rowdies coach said. “…I think that’s a really good target market for us. We’ve had that in the past, with  Malik Johnson being a good example of that and Jordan Scarlett being a good example of that. Because I believe they bring an experience but also a youthfulness that we can improve.”

The fourth newcomer to the Rowdies doesn’t quite fit in the same category as the other three. Steevan Dos Santos, 31, is one of the older players on the 2021 roster. What Dos Santos does offer as a striker, though, is a great level of consistency. In six seasons in the USL, he’s tallied 51 goals and has scored 10 or more goals in a season four times.

Collins noted Dos Santos’ skill with his feet, his cleverness, and his ability to link the play as reasons why the Rowdies swooped in to sign the former Pittsburgh Riverhound. At 6’4″ Dos Santos also offers a bit more height than the shorter attacking options the Rowdies have. A number of tall strikers have come to Tampa Bay over the years and none of them have yet to make a major impact.

“I think if you look at the last two years there’s aspects of the team I’ve had a vision for that we’ve been able to put in place. There’s other aspects of the vision where the selection or the recruitment hasn’t then materialized with how I wanted it to play out,” Collins admitted. “So over a process, with refining, I think we felt with the three strikers we’ve got returning, they will all benefit from having this player. I think when you like to play with two strikers or three strikers you need one that can help the guys around them. I feel we’ve asked a lot of Seba particularly. He scores goals, he holds the ball up, he works hard in pressing. Steevan will really help share the load. It’s just another part of the system that will help us get stronger and I’m really excited to see him playing for us.”

Most of the 19 players the Rowdies have under contract are already back in the Tampa Bay Area and the rest will certainly be in town in time for the official start of the preseason on March 8. Collins said the club has dates in mind for potential preseason matches but he knows those can’t be guaranteed in the current environment. Right now the focus is remaining open and prepared for a number of scenarios when it comes to prepping for the season.

WIth the USL Championship setting a flexible start date of May 1 for the season, the Rowdies are in no rush to fill out the few remaining roster spots. The Rowdies also plan on hosting another open tryout and inviting some local talent as they have in recent offseasons.

“We need another two maybe three spots if we’re gonna get our all-around squad finished,” Collins said. “This is the hardest part because we’re looking for really specific types of players to fill these roles. We’re just spending day after day looking at video, looking to find players that meet all the requirements… We’re willing to be patient, but yeah we are in a great position already with 19 guys. It’s great to have the numbers back but we also need these last players. Every player’s important. You saw that last year. You never know when they might be needed. You don’t want to get to this stage and just sign someone to get it done. If we need to wait until preseason and have guys in during preseason then that’s what we’ll do.”

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