Tampa Bay Rowdies 2020 USL Championship Season Preview
Welcome to stage two of the Neill Collins coaching era in Tampa Bay. Stage one included a blazing start where the Rowdies didn’t lose a game until June. After such a promising start, the wheels came off the spokes in September and October, as the Rowdies only won 2 games and got bounced from the USL playoffs in the first round by Louisville.
Despite ending the season on a less than inspiring note, there was a lot to enjoy and appreciate about the Rowdies under the stewardship of Collins. His work alongside Rowdies President Lee Cohen, built a formidable squad after the veterans of the Campbell era moved on.
The most significant difference in Collins tactics was his emphasis on the high press and wing playmakers. 2020 should see no shortage of either as much has been made about Collins’ locker room leadership creating a buy-in system. The players that buy into the fitness regiment and show effort on the field succeed in Collins’ system. No greater case could be made for the emergence of the two centre-forwards scoring double-digit goals for the Rowdies last season.
Sebastian Guenzatti emerged as not only a prolific goalscorer but a reliable option in the middle of the opponent's half. Guenzatti isn’t the fastest nor is the most imposing athletically, but his technical skill on the ball whether it be his passing IQ or high-quality touches put him in prime position to see a lot of minutes again this season. Guenzatti had a tick above 3,000 minutes last season, 19 goals (modern-era Rowdies record), and 6 assists. While Guenzatti was mostly used in the centre-forward role, his passing and hold up play talent allows him to be used in a centre-attacking midfield role as well.
Tryout phenom and fan-favorite Juan Tejada was also a beneficiary of scrappy play sporting a high motor on both sides of the ball. Tejada’s rookie season ended with 10 goals in which he only needed 33 shots to do it. His conversion rate of 30.3% led the Rowdies. Tejada played one minute short of 2,000 as he was often relied on as a super-sub when not starting. With the addition of Kyle Murphy and resigning of Lucky Mkosana though, Tejada will have to earn his minutes once again.
Mkosana joined the Rowdies in a player for player trade with Louisville in which one could argue both teams were the victor. Louisville received Hoppenot and put him to work after the Rowdies couldn’t get him going efficiently in the rotation. Mkosana slotted himself into the rotation splitting starts and minutes with Tejada. Mkosana’s 2019 was highlighted by his last-minute equalizing goal against Louisville as the Rowdies were down to 10-men.
Murphy is the X-factor. In the preseason he already did this against in-state rival Orlando City:
Murphy had 13 goals and 4 assists for Loudoun United last season in a little over 2,000 minutes so he’s not going to be looking to stop his momentum for the youngster Tejada or the veteran Mkosana.
There are only two centre-forward slots and four talented players who’ll be looking for time. Guenzatti is a likely lock to be captain and starter, but Collins rarely sticks to conventional thinking.
Projected Starters: Guenzatti, Tejada
While the CF’s get the glory for the goals, the Rowdies live and die by the quality of their midfield and their ability to get defenses into dangerous positions. At the top, I mentioned wing playmaking was featured prominently last season, and the two most dangerous wingers are returning in 2020.
Leo Fernandes was my early MVP for the Rowdies in 2019, and a case could be made following a 4 goal and team-leading 10 assist season (I’d pen in Guenzatti as 2019 Rowdies MVP). Fernandes had a lot of two-man game between him and Guenzatti and Rowdies fans can look forward to more of that in 2020.
Malik Johnson is my favorite returning player as he plays what I assumed Junior Flemmings was supposed to play like in 2018. Where Fernandes may run by a defender, Johnson most definitely will leave at least one defender back on the Skyway and a second dazed in the Trop with reckless abandon. Johnson is a nightmare to defend so long as his ball control is clean. Because so much is asked of Johnson and Fernandes to create from the wings, their turnovers became costly and counter-attack bait for opposing sides. Nonetheless, I expect an even better season from Johnson so long as he’s healthy.
The Rowdies are returning four centre-mids. Dominic Oduro, Yann Ekra, Zach Steinberger, and Jordan Doherty are a great stable of central park players. Oduro will likely be the starting centre-defensive mid with Doherty as his backup. Ekra was hampered by injury last season and Poku emerged like a phoenix to become the Rowdies primary centre-mid. With Poku out of the picture, Ekra would assumably be next in line, but one of the Rowdies splash signings was former St Louis FC midfielder, Lewis Hilton. Steinberger looks free and clear to start as the centre-attacking midfielder so long as he’s in proper form and fitness.
Other names that could play a factor are former Rowdies U23 player Kevin Mendoza. There’s not a lot of scouting info on him. Sebastian Dalgaard is listed as a left mid so I’d safely assume he’s a wing backup.
Projected Starters: Steinberger, Hilton, Oduro, Fernandes, Johnson
The Rowdies defense has been completely retooled after seeing early success but fading late in 2019. For a while, it seemed like the trio of Diakite, Morad, and Richards were never going to allow a shot on goal. When they did make a mistake, McCarthy was saving anything and everything under a blazing St. Petersburg sun. Diakite is now in Vietnam. Richards is on a second loan spell. Morad is unsigned.
Replacing Diakite was going to be the most significant challenge and the Rowdies stepped up to the plate and delivered Forrest Lasso. Lasso is 3-time All-USL first team and his work at FC Cincinnati speaks for itself. The question will be who flanks Lasso?
I would project Jordan Scarlett will be one of the starters. He got busy on Rowdies' arch-nemesis and not so secret affiliate club New York Red Bulls II. I still have nightmares from the 2017 playoff run where the trio of Scarlett, Flemmings, and Bonomo ended the Rowdies run. Scarlett will likely play similarly to how Richards played last season.
The other defensive starter is harder to predict. Louis Lomas or Aaron Guillen is a coin toss for me having not seen either play. Lomas is this year’s Norwich loanee which I’d expect Collins to reward the Norwich partnership with minutes for Lomas. Mustapha Dumbuya is also in the mix as he saw 2,000+ minutes for Phoenix Rising. Because it’s such a new squad, preseason and training will be the greatest factor over experience. Last year Tejada was an opening game starter with a team that had Brandon Allen and Hoppenot on it so I’m always open to surprises.
Projected Starters: Lasso, Scarlett, Lomas
This one’s easy. From an MLS shot quality stopper last year in McCarthy to how is he not in the MLS already, Baby Bulls legend, Evan Louro. Louro makes last-second leg saves look like an average night between the posts. Louro has the look of the team dad despite being the same age as me (24), but I fully expect him to pick up where McCarthy left off.
Louro doesn’t have an impressive number of clean sheets in his time with the Baby Bulls but that isn’t a surprise due to their tactical style of playing 90% offensive assault. So long as Lasso and Louro are on the same page, there’s a ton of potential for the Rowdies to be a defensive stalwart in 2020.
Macklin Robinson was a capable backup last season and will likely be in the same role this season.
I haven’t seen any word yet if the Rowdies will be retaining their commentary team from last year. The work of Ryan Davis has been nothing but class and I can only hope he’ll be back on the broadcasts this season. My one request for Ralph’s Mob if Ryan is back is that gets his own chant. He deserves it.