Here Comes the Money: The State of the Present and Future Tampa Bay Rowdies
A State of the Rowdies address including the MLS bid, recent managerial changes, and player personnel updates
The Next Stage of the Rowdies MLS bid
Does anyone in St. Petersburg, Florida have a spare $230 million dollars lying around? Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards would like to enlist you to join in his ownership group to propel the Rowdies into the forefront of the upcoming MLS expansion.
The MLS plans to expand to 28 teams with Los Angeles FC becoming the 23rd club and Beckham’s upcoming Miami club expected to be the 25th. Recent USL addition, Nashville SC, is the 24th team. The Rowdies will face off against Nashville twice this season with the first bout on June 9th in Al Lang.
The Rowdies are in a race against time and other major US cities in a battle to secure a coveted MLS slot. $150 million dollars gets you in the door as an entrance fee. Topple on the need for a suitable stadium that will cost the Rowdies $80 million to expand seating in the historic Al Lang Stadium. The expansion plan would add an extra 10,000 seats to around 18,000 in total.
So there are a lot of moving parts in place and a race against time. FC Cincinnati appears to be in prime position to take an MLS slot as long as they have the money in place. The team has been successful, and they have an approved plan to build a 21,000 seat stadium while they already attract a crowd of over 20,000 per game. Detroit and Sacramento are other names that have garnered a lot of national attention ahead of Tampa Bay’s bid.
The race is to build up stadiums and ownership groups with deep pockets that will invest in a growing soccer fandom sweeping across America. The emergence of clubs like Atlanta United and Orlando City have proven that America wants more professional soccer, but there is a danger forthcoming.
If you’re new here, I will occasionally go on prolonged tangents and rants. And the MLS and American soccer fans need to hear this rant. If you want more Rowdies talk, skip to the end of the rant.
This MLS expansion is not good for the health of the league’s competitive value. I’m sure the brass in the MLS offices are rolling around in the many millions coming in from investors who want a pet MLS franchise to play with, but that’s not the point. Soccer is still a foreign import in America. Not that I have an issue with foreign soccer players, but American soccer players don’t take the MLS seriously.
The US Men’s National team will have you know that because they can’t beat Trinidad and Tobago. I’m not sure they’d beat Trinidad OR Tobago. The best American soccer players go to the big leagues for their paychecks and worthwhile experience. Clint Dempsey did. Tim Howard did. Christian Pulisic is. Brooks. Yedlin. Landon Donovan is an outlier. For God’s sake, Bobby Wood is playing for a team called Hamburger.
The MLS expansion is going to spread its already underwhelming player base thin. It’s not that MLS players aren’t good, but they’re not in the same class or breath as Premier, Bundesliga, or La Liga. Consider those leagues where there’s only 18 to 20 teams and a promotion and relegation system in place. Those leagues are certainly far from perfect because they’re top heavy, but they aren’t stretching their league further by adding lower division teams to be fed to the lions at the top.
The truth is, parity in sports is rare and isn’t a formula for attracting fans. Superstar names, winning franchises, rivalries, and must-see competition is what drives leagues popularity. The big names in MLS are either non-US (Dos Santos, Giovinco), or retirement tour players (Villa, Ibrahimovic).
My point is, it’s going to be increasingly more difficult for MLS bred players to have mass appeal, especially the American stars. The rosters are being spread thin and teams will have to search out mercenary talent. Look at the Rowdies, the top players are from Germany, England, Bulgaria, and Brazil, and this is a second league team.
As far as the MLS coming to St. Petersburg is concerned, there hasn’t been any relevant news in several months. The big news to look for on the Rowdies end is if Bill Edwards is able to find some investors to create an ownership group. A couple outlying factors still remain:
- Bill Edwards health post a double bypass heart surgery
- Investors who have eyes on the long-term and will accept the risk of building up a club not guaranteed an MLS slot that’s Edwards’ passion project
- How quickly is the privately funded Al Lang stadium expansion built?
- Could the Tampa Bay Rays leaving town positively or negatively affect the Rowdies’ future?
Trying to project what happens would be futile. This has been a domino story from the outset since the Rowdies joined the USL and announced an MLS bid. The dominoes will fall as they may and Rowdies fans can only hope they fall favorably and timely.
The Shocking Managerial Announcement
As the fire under former coach Stuart Campbell’s seat got hotter and hotter, I considered how difficult the decision would be to move on from Campbell in the early stages of a new season and search for a competent replacement.
After an embarrassing 2nd round Open Cup loss to the woeful Jacksonville Armada, Campbell was swiftly removed from his coaching duties. It was like putting down your Doberman you brought in from a dog shelter that bit you one too many times over the course of three years. You hate to put the loyal family dog down, but he was erratic enough to be too dangerous to your friends and family.
Terrible metaphor aside, Campbell was coming off five straight road losses. Campbell had made it a staple of his tenure for the team to perform great at home, but terribly on the road. The Rowdies marched into a new stadium each week, played the same sloppy uninspired version of football they had been for last three years and went home tail between their legs in defeat. The coaching change was warranted, despite Campbell’s amiability.
There was a brief moment I remember after the announcement of Campbell’s sacking, that I thought about Joe Cole on Soccer AM talk about the idea of managing. It was a longshot in my head, but apparently not in real life.
Instead of Cole taking the helm though, the Rowdies number one center back Neill Collins was named manager. Collins would immediately retire upon receiving the call from Edwards, and take over as manager and lead the Rowdies into a home game against a superb Pittsburgh Riverhounds team. Collins was thrown into the deep end without a life preserver in Jaws infested waters.
Players were quoted as saying they were buying into Collins’ plans and tactical ideas. My takeaway was that morale was much improved after the managerial change, and Collins was bringing out more passion from a previously defeated squad.
Collins debut led to a 2–2 draw where the Rowdies scored first, gave up 2, and then scored the equalizer to finish off the game for a draw. The story of the game was the Rowdies fighting back to even to salvage a point. The Rowdies capitalized on Pittsburgh’s mistakes and shoddy goalkeeping despite the Hounds’ fearsome attack and ability to take advantage of the Rowdies turnovers.
Where Collins scored highly with me was managing the substitutions, one of the games within the game. Collins started Alex Morrell who rewarded the Rowdies with a wonderful assist three minutes into the game. Collins subbed Morrell out for Flemmings at minute 61. Brilliant use of his pacey wingers. Collins brought Cole out in minute 72, which is when Cole gasses out, and brought on Nanchoff who plays a similar style as Cole. Collins finished off the subs with Graf coming on for Hristov at minute 75 as a final offensive assault weapon.
We’ll need to see more games for more on how Collins wants to implement his style of play into future games, but so far so good. The inclination to tell Collins was the right move would be that he’s using the talent at his disposal correctly. Campbell was fitting players into roles in a system that didn’t work as a cohesive unit. Possessing the ball is troublesome when you don’t have an array of great technical dribblers who can pass and create opportunities on the attack. Not only that, a one-dimensional offense when the Rowdies have players with different talents has hurt whoever plays the striker position because the striker barely ever gets the ball at his feet.
Before I go too far into tactics, one more broad remark on the Collins move. THIS IS CRAZY. The Rowdies took their best defender and made him the coach while the defensive unit that has been crippled by injury and is suspect already. This would be like the 2011 Chicago Bears firing Lovie Smith after week 5 and replacing him with veteran All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher as coach.
Marcel Schafer and Joe Cole
The overseas veteran duo of Cole and Schafer make up the Rowdies two attacking midfield positions and are the heartbeat of the Rowdies offense. If Cole and Schafer are struggling to distribute, then the Rowdies offense is in a world of trouble. The numbers and the eye test have pointed to Cole and Schafer not being able to complete crosses. Schafer has been the catalyst for the Rowdies attack this season. Schafer’s chalked up 33 key passes but only 1 assist for his efforts. Schafer can make the key pass, but he hasn’t had the final pass or the key touch or finish from the rest of his attackers he’s distributing to. His crossing percentage sits at a solid 28%. Schafer’s tallied 60 crosses, far more than anyone on the roster. The finishing needs to be there to not let Schafer’s efforts go to waste.
Both Cole and Schafer’s passing accuracy numbers have slipped. Both were over 70% passing in the attacking half and are both in the 60’s this season. Even more important than the percentages are good passing numbers translating to chances and shots on net.
In the Open Cup loss to Jacksonville, the Rowdies had 15 shots but only 3 on target.
Against Richmond: 3 shots on target.
Penn FC: 16 shots. 0 on target.
Charleston Battery: 2 shots on target.
The 5–0 loss to Red Bulls 2: 11 shots. 2 shots on target.
Louisville: 2 shots on target. You get the point…
In all of the Rowdies losses this season, there were 3 shots on target or below. The heaviest weight of the burden falls on Schafer and Cole to execute whatever Collins plan is to fix this. A likely measure is to create more counter-attacking opportunities and get more side to side action to stretch the defense. Getting the ball to the feet of the striker has to be another priority high on Collins’ list.
Schafer and Cole are great soccer players, but they’ll need help to get back into their groove. The question mark for Schafer and Cole is can their forwards make the right plays after they get the ball from the midfielder?
What the Pittsburgh game proved is that as long as you create chances in or around the box, lady luck is only a skip between the goalkeeper’s legs away from bringing you a goal.
I had my concerns that Hristov’s age would eventually catch up to him being a domineering goal scorer, but the scorer’s boot is not going to leave Hristov so easily. Hristov is on the brink of breaking the Rowdies all-time scoring record that was set during the first incarnation of the team in the 70’s.
Hristov has tallied four goals in the young season, but the Bulgarian has not seen the ball nearly enough for how dangerous of a striker he is. Hristov can score in, around, or outside the box, and being the team’s best quality finisher, he needs to get the ball more than he has. The team gameplan has to get Hristov more involved.
One option would be moving Hristov to the left wing and putting the underutilized Jochen Graf at striker with Morrell out wide. This attack would take us back to the dynamic Paterson, Hristov, Morrell lineup of last year and I believe Graf’s ceiling is higher. Adding Graf to the lineup means you have two strikers that are threats to score in the box when Schafer crosses come sailing in.
I had been calling to see Morrell inserted into the lineup all season and it took a former Rowdies player turned manager to make it happen. What Morrell brings to the table is a speedy winger who can create space and attract the defense to allow the rest of his attackers and midfielders space in the attacking third. An improved Morrell on the ball making smart passes would make him the most dangerous offensive player on the squad. I am crossing my fingers to see him in more starting lineups.
I was excited the Rowdies signed the Jamaican Red Bulls 2 winger from last season that scored 10 goals. I thought Flemmings would be used as a complement for Morrell as either a sub or second option during a tough stretch of games. Flemmings has made seven appearances and has been ostensibly awful. Flemmings passing percentage in the attacking half is 52.5%. Only defender Kyle Curinga’s percentage is worse.
Flemmings has made 63 passes in his 296 minutes of play time. Jochen Graf has made 61 passes in 177 minutes and he barely gets to be on the ball. Flemmings has 15 crosses and hasn’t completed one of them. He has one key pass to his stat line.
If Collins is able to revitalize the magic Flemmings had at Red Bulls 2 and use him as a counter-attacking goal scoring threat, then there’s still hope, but so far Flemmings has been an outright disaster.
Portillos is the Rowdies young left back who is the most suspect defender on a back line that has Hunter Gorskie on it. Portillos weaknesses are his size against bigger attackers and he’s a turnover machine on the ball. Portillos is a hard worker with good recovery speed but is always a threat to give up a goal.
The key for Portillos is taking the next step to being able to finish off his runs by making good passes. So long as he doesn’t get lost or bullied on defense, an improvement offensively will put less pressure on him defensively.
Hunter Gorskie and Ivan Magalhaes
Gorskie is okay. He doesn’t have any outstanding qualities but he is now the best the Rowdies have at defender. Magalhaes will need to become a revelation after a bad opening start against Pittsburgh where he made a critical mistake allowing an easy Hounds goal. The communication between Gorskie and Magalhaes will be critical in the upcoming weeks.
Leo Fernandes and Sebastian Guenzatti
After a hot start, the crafty Brazilian Fernandes has been in limbo as Guenzatti has seen increased activity. Fernandes is the sort of winger that is dangerous if he gets the ball with some space in the attacking third and beats his man one on one to the box. He plays it safe anywhere else on the pitch.
Guenzatti is a similar player to Fernandes but isn’t able to create his own shot like Fernandes can. Guenzatti can use his dribble moves to create space but hasn’t shown the vision to create key passes for scoring opportunities. Guenzatti’s role is as a depth sub.
Fernandes’ role is a bit harder to digest because either Fernandes is a depth option or he’s on the wing and that takes Graf off the pitch for Hristov at striker.
Despite Fitzgerald getting the first start for the Collins regime, I would be surprised if Mizell still isn’t the number one option. Mizell is solid coming out for the ball and securing the ball in the air. He has a quick reaction time and is good for a spectacular save or two, but he isn’t world-class and will get beaten if his defense falters.
Other player notes
The defensive mid spot has been held down by Rozeboom. Blake has seen some time there but is not a good enough defender to play the role. Blake is an offensive mid and Schafer and Cole have the midfield on lockdown.
Injuries to Najem and Curinga have brought Lachowecki to the lineup. All three players play similarly but Najem was the most promising of the group so far but is sadly out for the season. Next man up as they say. That being said, the outside back position is very thin. So is the center back position. The Rowdies may have to make some loans or signings to bolster the defense.
The Collins era for the Tampa Bay Rowdies begins at a turbulent time for the organization. This will be Joe Cole’s final season. Hristov and Schafer continue to rise in age. How many of the recent signings will stick around in a constantly shifting league?
Collins has his work cut out for him with the Rowdies at 10 games and 9th in the standings with teams behind only at 8 and 9 games. Can Collins right the ship and deliver the Rowdies a second straight playoff birth? Can the Rowdies break their curse of being terrible on the road?
October will be here before you know it. You can find my game-by-game analysis on the Tampa Bay Rowdies Reddit page.