Tampa Bay Rowdies 2017 Season in Review

A prolific season cut short as the Rowdies miss out on the Conference Finals

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

Playoff run ripped away by a youthful New York Red Bulls II

A great match for highlights

The tank finally reached E for the Rowdies in extra time of their conference semi-final match against the Red Bulls second team. The instant classic match went to extra time knotted at 1. A cross in the third minute of went by Pickens and to the feet of the goal scorer Bonomo and just like that the Rowdies were behind.

The Rowdies played with a lot of heart, and put together a number of chances to tie the game, but they couldn’t hit the mark and Red Bulls II keeper Evan Luoro played out of his mind.

The Red Bulls II were as dangerous an adversary as any team in the Eastern Conference for the Rowdies. Red Bulls II aren’t a very good defensive team, but are lethal on the counter attack and have pace the Rowdies couldn’t match.

The Rowdies put together a strong defensive effort despite a lot of turnovers in their own half. Matt Pickens did as well as he could have.

My only concern with the Rowdies disappointing end to the season happened prior to the game when the lineups were announced.

I thought Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell struck gold with the front line of Martin Paterson, Georgi Hristov, and Alex Morrell.

Later in the season, Campbell started new signings Sebastian Guenzatti and Walter Restrepo which I thought was an attempt to keep Morrell and Paterson rested. Campbell ran with Guenzatti and Restrepo in the two playoff matches and I think the results speak for themselves.

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; Marcel Schafer, who scored 2 goals against FC Cincinatti

The dominating win against Cincinatti was a tour de force by Marcel Schafer. Guenzatti and Restrepo were quiet all night.

Against NYRB II, Restrepo damn near earned a red card, and Guenzatti despite putting some good efforts toward goal, never hit the mark.

The Rowdies need to use their 2017 playoff run as a learning experience, but the 2018 season will depend on roster turnover, and if coach Campbell can figure out how to earn points on the road.

The Highlights: Attacking play, Marcel Schafer, Home Dominance

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; “The Fortress” Al Lang Stadium

The Tampa Bay Rowdies end 2017 with goals in 17 straight matches, scoring multiple goals in 11 of those games.

The Rowdies had four players with 7+ goals on the year: Hristov (15), Paterson (9), Cole (7), Schafer (7).

Schafer ended the season tied for second in assists in the USL with 11, and was top 10 in chances created and crosses.

So without further ado, I grant my very meaningful season MVP to Wolfsburg product, Marcel Schafer. The USL had Schafer in the shortlist discussion for MVP of the whole league.

photo by Tampa Bay Rowdies; your 2017 Rowdies MVP, Marcel Schafer

Schafer has been known by ESPN for his rocket boot, but his contributions to the Rowdies offensive game this year have been by the way of pinpoint crosses and controlled possession. The confidence of having Schafer in the middle of the park allowed Cole to be freed up and be the best he could be all season.

#2 on SportsCenter’s Top 10

The Rowdies were unbeatable at home over the course of the season with their only loss coming against a very game Charleston Battery. The Rowdies accrued 12 shutouts at home, as they finished 11–1–4 (W-L-D)in Al Lang.

Players and fans began to describe Al Lang as a fortress. Teams coming in would not come out the same. The Rowdies possession and technical skill burned their opponents out.

The Rowdies big three of Schafer, Cole, and Hristov all needed a great season to field a winning club, and they each obliged.

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; Joe Cole’s distribution possibly the most underrated factor in the Rowdies season

The stat sheet backs up how effective Schafer and Cole are on the field. Both Cole and Schafer were above 80% in pass completion percentage, and Cole led the team completing 73% of his long passes.

Schafer led the team, and almost the league, with his 11 assists, but Nanchoff very quietly had 6 assists which puts him at second on the team. Cole and Hristov each had 5.

Key pass numbers mostly came from Schafer, Nanchoff, Cole, and Hristov, but Morrell in 23 appearances accrued 22 key passes showing his playmaking ability from the wing position.

Schafer had nearly double the crosses with 122 over Darnell King who had 63. Boden had 51 crosses in only 12 matches which is insane (or a misprint?).

Of Hristov’s 15 goals, 14 came from inside the box. Of Schafer’s 7 goals, 5 came from outside.

On the defensive end, Collins was old reliable. King had a sneaky good season after seeming to fall out of favor with Campbell for a few games for a bad penalty he gave up.

Goalkeeper Matt Pickens had a good season. With Pickens you know what you’re going to get. Pickens provided a solid presence in the back and had his share of highlight saves. That being said, he’s still a level or two below the class of a Diego Restrepo, the San Antonio star keeper. Which is absolute lunacy because Restrepo was on the Rowdies in 2016 behind Pickens. Who knew?

The Lowlights: Road Woes, Defensive Depth, Father Time

I’ve already went into heavy detail into the Rowdies history of road struggles that’s plagued Campbell’s tenure. If you want a piece to really sink your teeth into, that article is below.

But ICYDWTR (in case you don’t want to read): to give you a general idea, the Rowdies finished the season with a 3–6–7 record on the road. The Rowdies let a number of wins and draws slip away that easily would’ve put them in 2nd place and have a whiff of 1st place in the Eastern Conference.

To the casual observer, watching a home game followed by a road game, you would be led to believe you were watching a completely different team. The struggle to hold possession and not give up critical turnovers were the hallmarks of the Rowdies road struggles. For me, the Rowdies effort on the road will be my #1 signal as to whether the Rowdies will be a true contender in 2018.

I have two major concerns for the Rowdies organization going forward. As I said, if the Rowdies improve their road record while maintaining dominance at home, they’ll be a top team in the USL and possible compete in the MLS. In order to improve results, the Rowdies still have a couple deficiencies to fix in their thin roster.

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; Damion Lowe, likely freezing somewhere in the Norwegian tundra

The Rowdies lost two impact players over the course of the season. DeShorn Brown early on was a player slated to leave regardless, but Damion Lowe was bought away by a team in Norway. Lowe certainly wasn’t flawless, but he was a very nice young player aside the venerable Collins. Losing Lowe put the Rowdies back line into flux.

Losing Lowe also lost the Rowdies their only young defenseman they could try to build around.

A key stat on the defensive struggle for the Rowdies were the numbers on passes completed in their own half by Gorskie, Portillos, and Porter. Their completion percentage was in the low 80’s. The turnovers in your own half are unforgivable because they often lead to a good chance at net.

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; this does not look like it ended well. Meet Kyle Porter’s cleat Mr. Washington.

With Gorskie and Portillos, there appears to room for improvement, but I don’t see anything in Kyle Porter. Porter is a guy who’s played MLS minutes, so maybe he was going to be good at a point in time?

The one thing I thought Porter had potential to do was put in crosses from the wing. Of Porter’s 26 crosses, he completed 2 of them. I remember one match where the crowd groaned every time Porter attempted a cross because it would go sailing out of bounds. Darnell King proved to be much more efficient than Porter in that role.

Portillos and Gorskie will politely ask opposing teams if they’d like a shot on goal, Porter just flat out tries to give up a goal in every start.

As for the Rowdies defense as a whole, they are most susceptible to counter attacks, pace, and getting beat in 1-on-1’s.

My only conceivable solution is throwing two to four new players at the problem and seeing who sticks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rowdies roster make a lot of changes in the offseason as is customary with second division teams.

Joe Cole said the words “next season”, in his post game press conference, so is he planning to run it back? I thought if anyone would be hanging up the cleats in 2017, it would be Cole. Cole will be 36 in November.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Cole in 2017 playing 25 matches for 70 minutes because he’s still the second best player at the club. But father time is not kind in a league of 20-something prospects vying to earn MLS contracts. Schafer is 33, and Hristov is 32. Those are your three best players, all in their 30’s. While all remain technically sound, you can’t rely on them to win in 1-on-1’s which really pigeon holes the Rowdies into a possession style offense.

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; Neill Collins, who I’ve determined needs his own podcast

Neill Collins and Tam Mkanadwire, the veteran two center backs are 34. The defensive mids, Savage and Vingaard are both 32.

The average age of the Rowdies squad is 29. For New York Red Bulls II, it’s 20. Louisville’s average age is 25 with their oldest player being 30. In layman’s terms, the Rowdies are the elder statesmen of the USL. It worked to their benefit for most of this season, but the team couldn’t travel and couldn’t stay alive in the playoffs.

Nobody gets younger, which means the Rowdies scouting department is going to be very busy in the offseason. Depth will be essential if the Rowdies are sure to contend in 2018. The Rowdies survived 2017 with very few major injuries, so wood must be knocked on all over St. Petersburg that the team will remain healthy.

What will we take away from the 2017 season?

Marcel Schafer is absolutely incredible at soccer and he’s a New York Giants fan so how much better can it get?

Georgi Hristov will always score goals. The Bulgarian is a goal magnet.

Martin Paterson has the best goal celebrations.

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies; Iconic Pato

We NEED more Alex Morrell in 2018.

DeShorn Brown had arguably the goal of the season with his scissor kick, but obviously Schafer’s 35 yard rocket-man shot is neck and neck in that conversation. I give the edge to Brown because of the precision and timing it takes to nail such an acrobatic kick and slot it in the corner to beat the keeper.

Coming in at #1 on SportsCenter Top 10, cue DeShorn Brown please

Joe Cole will go down for 3 minutes in the 82nd minute when the Rowdies have the lead (much to the chagrin of opposing fans). It so actually happens one of my favorite subplots in Rowdies games.

Luke Boden hating Harry Potter is my second favorite Rowdies subplot.

Georgi Hristov will not allow the bagels.

Georgi wasn’t having any of it

I succinctly remember one Rowdies home game where a teenager ran out onto the field during the game and got tripped by a member of the Rowdies staff. The trip was so well executed that the kids shoe went flying away from him as he tumbled to the grass. Joe Cole walked up to the shoe, and just launched the shoe off the field like he was making a throw from the outfield to home plate. Joe Cole is a super nice guy by the way.

What to expect or hope for in 2018?

photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

The expectations are now set after the Rowdies inaugural USL campaign. The Rowdies MUST be a playoff caliber club in 2018.

As far as predictions go, it won’t be clear until the 2018 roster has become more solidified.

The Rowdies must shore up their back line and get some marginal improvements from young guys like Darwin Jones, Leo Fernandes, and Zac Portillos. If the Rowdies are going to have more regular season success, it’ll be because new stars emerge to alleviate the pressure on Schafer and Cole.

Time will tell if the Rowdies can figure out how to improve results on the road. Can the Rowdies repeat their home success? I can’t fathom they only take just one home loss next year, but I wouldn’t expect many.

The Rowdies have another level to reach before they can truly be an elite club in the Eastern Conference. The offseason is where management earns its money.

Ultimately, the city of St. Petersburg wants to see an MLS team in their backyard. I think there’s no better way to stake a claim then a second straight playoff run capped off by a championship win.

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