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Currently sitting in 8th place, ahead of NYRB II on the total wins tiebreaker, the Rowdies can still quickly make up some ground if they can translate their stretch of home games into wins, starting tonight vs. Nashville. With Indy and Ottawa nipping at their heels, Tampa Bay needs to get back on the winning track to not only remain in the playoff positions, but to also try and secure that all important home playoff game both the club and the fans want. Looking ahead, the Rowdies will get a much-needed week off to train and recuperate and will next take the pitch looking to avenge one of their early road losses when Penn FC comes to town on Friday the 22nd, before going on the road to face the current form team of the conference, Charlotte.
There’s been a ton going on in the world of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Enough to keep us all preoccupied and sorta let the news that Major League Soccer has selected FC Cincinnati as its next expansion franchise to slip under the radar. This after earlier news that Nashville FC will join MLS in 2020 and David Beckham’s Miami team has finally (maybe) materialized. Not many Rowdies supporters can say they’re shocked by these expansion developments. Tampa Bay’s bid to win a spot in MLS came out of the gate strong with a convincing public referendum to negotiate a long-term use agreement for Al Lang Stadium last year, paving the way for owner Bill Edwards’ proposal to expand the venue with private money. However, that momentum quickly stalled over the summer as Edwards dealt with a health crisis and the additional investors that were teased never came. If there’s one certainty I’ve taken away from the MLS expansion race, it’s that every other factor is secondary to the ownership. They want billionaires (plural) coming in with this new phase of expansion. It didn’t help that the man spearheading Tampa Bay’s MLS bid, Rick Baker, resigned from his position as president of Edwards’ company without much attention being paid at the end of last year.
Earlier this year, the Sports Business Journal reported -- in a story with quotes from Edwards -- that the Rowdies owner was readying to sell the team and relinquish control as primary owner. Edwards came out later that day with an odd contradictory statement that he’s only seeking investors for MLS and doesn’t plan on stepping away from the Rowdies anytime soon. Rather than assuage Rowdies supporters, Edwards’ comments and the report only caused consternation when they were looking for clarity. So what’s next? It sounds like we may finally find out soon, as Edwards gave his first in-depth interview on the Rowdies in months to the Business Observer. The article claims Edwards is still holding fast to his claim that he’s searching for investors to finalize a bid that will win MLS over. That’s the same line Edwards has been selling for a year and a half, so I’ll believe that one when I see some actual names attached. What catches my eye is that the article indicates Edwards is considering moving ahead with his plan to increase the capacity at Al Lang even if the Rowdies stay in the United Soccer League. Edwards is not directly quoted on this, but it would be a huge development, if true. From the article:
Edwards’ plan to upgrade Al Lang Stadium, via $80 million in private financing, already won the approval of St.
Petersburg voters in a 2016 referendum. Now he says he might go ahead with improvements regardless of whether the Rowdies join MLS or stay put in the second-tier but rapidly growing United Soccer League. “I have two different business plans,” he says. “As a businessman, you have to make a decision: Which one’s better for me? Which one’s better for the fans? Which one’s better for ... whatever? You make those decisions and then you move on. This is our second year in the USL and we’re very satisfied with the competition." I had to read that section twice before it sunk in. Sure, MLS might be nice. It certainly would be the easiest path to unlocking the potential of Tampa Bay as a market for soccer. However, that shiny, new addition to Al Lang has always been the most appealing part of the expansion bid to me. Say what you want about Bill Edwards (and you could say a lot), but he’s given the club and its supporters a true home at Al Lang. But I’m greedy. I want that outfield wall to come down and to see Al Lang fully transition into a soccer stadium. There weren’t many folks knocking on city hall’s door looking to not only use Al Lang, but invest in it. With the private money Edwards has pumped into the city-owned venue and the steady growth in attendance the team have seen since he took over, the Rowdies have more than proven their worth to downtown St. Petersburg. Why not keep building on that? Many were concerned Edwards would lose interest and sell off the Rowdies when MLS passed (He still may sell the team
to a group that plans on operating the team in the USL. There’s too much smoke that particular rumor for it not to be a possibility at all. We’ll tackle that if/when we must.). Losing out on MLS is no reason to throw in the towel. Look at Louisville City, as I’m sure Edwards has. That club has achieved a tremendous amount of success, including public funding to build its own stadium, without selling any fan or public official on the promise of MLS. Edwards claimed he could get his stadium plan done with $80 million of private capital (Probably a generously low number, but we’ll go with it.) That’s the price tag if he wanted to expand up to MLS’ capacity standards of 18,00020,000. Who says the Rowdies must do that? A more modest proposal to add only 5,000-6,000 seats can be done at a lower cost that would make Edwards or any future investors a little more comfortable if MLS revenue is definitely out of the picture. I don’t make it to many matches at Al Lang, but I was there last week. I was also at one of the first matches they played there. What they’ve accomplished since 2012 is remarkable and should not be dismissed. It’s hard to go St Petersburg on a Rowdies gameday now and not feel as if this team matters to the community and those businesses downtown. The Rowdies didn’t build all that goodwill based on the notion that they would be in MLS someday. Edwards only made that ambition public at the end of 2016. It’s been the investment in Al Lang and in the community, a commitment on the local level to embrace St. Petersburg, and Edwards
putting his money where his mouth is year after year that has this club poised for further growth. The Rowdies don’t need MLS. They need a plan for the future and someone willing to act on it.
While the Rowdies are piling up injuries, a former Rowdies great has found a new landing spot close to home. Pensacola FC announced the signing of Keith Savage on Thursday, only a few hours before the veteran midfielder made his debut as a substitute in a 1-1 draw with Gulf Coast Rangers. Savage, a native of the Pensacola suburb of Gulf Breeze, appeared in 134 matches in a seven-year stint with the Rowdies. Pensacola FC is an amateur outfit in the Gulf Coast Premier League and currently sits first in the league’s eastern conference. Savage, 32, has been off the radar since the Rowdies did not bring him back in the offseason. The club didn’t make much noise about moving on from the longtime midfielder and our attempts to reach Savage for comment went unanswered.
Former Rowdies captain and defender Frankie Sanfilippo followed a similar path as Savage. Sanfilippo, 36, joined his hometown ASC San Diego as a player last year and now serves as an assistant coach on the NPSL side’s coaching staff.
• Nashville FC is experiencing a nice little surge as it heads to Al Lang this weekend. The first-year club sits sixth in the USL’s Eastern Conference standings, two points ahead of the Rowdies having played one fewer match. Head Coach Gary Smith’s squad is also coming off an impressive 2-0 win at home over MLS’ Colorado Rapids on Wednesday night. Nashville owes much of its early success to former Rowdies keeper Matt Pickens, who hasn’t dropped off one bit. Pickens is tied for first in the league with six clean sheets and has stopped 80 percent of the shots that have come his way. • Georgi Hristov’s hunt for his 58th career goal for the Rowdies and the club’s scoring record continues this weekend. Eight matches after matching Derek Smethurst’s record, Hristov is still angling his next tally. It may seem like a long scoreless drought for the Bulgarian, but he’s hit rougher patches in the past. The longest the Rowdies have gone without seeing a goal
from Hristov was a forgettable 16-match stretch in 2015. He netted just two goals that year. • In the category of news that shouldn’t really surprise anyone midfielder Joe Cole has been named as an assistant coach on Neill Collins’ staff. Don’t worry, though, Cole won’t be hanging up his boots like Collins. He’ll miss Saturday’s match against Nashville due to suspension but will be back after that. This appointment is just another part of Cole tipping his toe farther into the coaching world as prepares for retirement at the end of the season. Collins has already been leaning on Cole’s experience to help during the recent coaching transition, and the Englishman was already a vocal member of the Rowdies on and off the field. It was telling that Cole came out with Collins prior to last week’s match to meet and chat with Atlanta’s coaching staff. • Marcel Schafer’s one-match suspension this weekend should give pause to Rowdies supporters. Someone on the roster will need to step up in a big way to fill the German’s shoes as a facilitator for the attack. Schafer leads the team with 34 scoring chances created, while Georgi Hristov is second with just 11 chances created. That large gap between the two is a troubling sign for the Rowdies, who have become too reliant on Schafer’s service on the left wing. This weekend offers the chance for a new face to emerge and spark the attack. • Despite entering the year not expecting to see much playing time, Tamika Mkandawire is moving closer and closer to Rowdies history. Last week’s start against
Atlanta was his 90th official appearance for the Rowdies, putting him in shouting distance of the illustrious 100 appearances club occupied by Georgi Hristov, Keith Savage, Frankie • Sanfilippo and Takuya Yamada. Before his stateside move to join the Rowdies in 2014, Tam had already surpassed 100 appearances for Hereford United and Leyton Orient FC in England. Several injuries on Tampa Bay’s back line and the sudden coaching shakeup has thrust Tam back into the spotlight, but it remains to be seen if he’ll keep getting minutes. With 22 matches remaining, he’s got ample opportunity to reach the milestone. • To say the Rowdies’ roster will be stretched thin this weekend would be a gross understatement. Couple the suspensions of Marcel Schafer and Joe Cole with the rash of recent injuries and it’s possible the Rowdies won’t have enough to field a full gameday roster of 18 players. Even if right back Kyle Curinga is ready to return from his ankle sprain after resuming training last week, the roster will be depleted as Zac Portillos and Lance Rozeboom are not expected to play. This situation is a good reason why the Rowdies noted head coach Neill Collins would be remaining on the active roster in case of emergency. If you include all three keepers, Collins, and Curinga, the Rowdies will only have 19 players available for selection. Time for some midseason signings? • Last week’s scoreless draw with Atlanta was frustrating on many levels, but the fact that it was the first time the
Rowdies have failed to score at Al Lang since August of 2016 was the most vexing. If we’re being honest, though, the Rowdies’ impressive home record over the last few years is a tad misleading. Good results are what matter most, but it’s not as if the Rowdies have been blowing teams away in that stretch. Credit to Collins for not making excuses and repeatedly acknowledging that the team has a lot of room for improvement at home.
The Rowdies have never had the best of luck when it comes to forwards. Georgi Hristov has, unquestionably, been an addition that has paid tremendous dividends, but just about every other forward signed by the club from 2013 on has struggled to find the same level of productivity. For whatever reason, many have joined the Rowdies hot off a career year only to falter. Some have gone on to regain their form at their next club, while others simply fade into obscurity and never recover from their time in Tampa Bay. It’s a mystery how or why the Rowdies have been so snakebit about bringing in attackers, specifically true forwards, but the numbers don’t lie, and they certainly make you more appreciative of what Hristov has done in his five and a half seasons with the Rowdies.
Hristov is just one goal away from making Rowdies history by surpassing Derek Smethurstâ€™s 57-goal scoring record set in the original NASL. Not including Hristov, the Rowdies have signed 20 forwards between 2013 and now. Combined, those 20 strikers have tallied 56 goals, one fewer than Hristov has bagged individually. Not every forward has been a bust for the Rowdies. Martin Paterson was a terrific surprise last year with 10 goals, though his scoring came in a sustained burst before he faded toward the end of the year. Maicon Santos is the only player not named Georgi Hristov to lead the Rowdies in scoring over the last five years, though his seven-goal tally isnâ€™t exactly spectacular. For every Paterson or Santos, though, there are half a dozen failed signings. Remember Omar Salgado or Danny Mwanga? How about Luciano Olguin? Zak Boggs? The list goes on and on. Brian Shriver (2 seasons) and Tommy Heinemann (1 season) were both heralded as huge signings, yet the pair notched only nine goals between them. Hristov has scored at least 9 goals in all but one year in Tampa Bay. Perhaps the lack of complimentary scoring threat to go along with Hristov has been one of the main factors holding the Rowdies back for the last five years. This year, the only forwards the Rowdies have added are Leon Taylor and Jochen Graf. Taylor is a youngster that has yet to see the field, but Graf is unfortunately falling into the rut past
Rowdies forwards have. Graf entered the season following a breakout season in Rochester with 11 goals but has yet to find the back of the net for the Rowdies. We at the Unused Substitutes are on the record as boosters for Graf. In no way we do we want Graf to join the litany of others who couldn’t find their finishing touch for the Green and Gold. His work rate is unmatched and he’s constantly putting himself in dangerous positions. Plus, he’s just a genuinely nice guy. When he does get his goal, it could be the first of many.
1. Referee, Daniel Gutierrez: Officiated Tampa Bay’s 2-0 win over the Real Monarchs at Al Lang back in April, handing out four yellow cards in that match. Gutierrez is well-acquainted with the Rowdies, having served on the officiating crew in 21 of their matches. The first six matches ofhis refereeing career all involved the Rowdies. 2. Assistant Referee, Trent Vanhaitsma: Served as Gutierrez’s assistant in the Monarchs match in April. Has never acted as the center referee in a match. Saturday will be his seventh Rowdies match. 3. Assistant Referee, Ryan Birdsall: Could not find any evidence online that this person exists. Obviously a plant by PRO Referees to sabotage the Rowdies (Kidding. Maybe.) 4. Fourth Official, Madzid Coric: Also served as fourth official on Gutierrez’s crew in the April win over the Monarchs. Has only been a referee since May of last year. Saturday will be his fourth Rowdies match.