Volume 4, Issue 4
In This Issue: • Morad’s Journey • Making Sense of the Rays’ Moves • Embedded in the Doubleheader • Catching up with Neill Collins
THE BENCH is an independent publication by
THE UNUSED SUBSTITUTES Editing and Design: Matthew Cox Words: Jake Nutting Guest Words: Matthew Parke Pictures: Patrick Patterson Unsub At Large: Daniel Endonino
TABLE OF CONTENTS: Page 2 Eastern Conference Update Page 3 Tarek Morad’s Pathway to Tampa Bay Page 5 Making Sense of the Rays’ Proposal Page 7 Rays/Rowdies Doubleheader Review Page 11 Catching up with Coach Collins
by matthew cox
EASTERN CONFERENCE UPDATE Games
Indy Tampa Bay
3 4 5 6
NYRB2 Nashville North Carolina Ottawa
15 16 15 15
9 8 7 7
4 3 2 2
2 5 6 6
13 14 13 9
29 29 27 27
LWWWL WDWWD WDWWD WDDDW
16 13 13
7 5 7
22 20 19
11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
Bethlehem ATL2 Birmingham Charlotte Loudoun Memphis Hartford Swope Park
16 15 16 16 12 14 16 15
4 3 3 2 3 2 2 1
8 8 9 7 6 7 10 8
4 4 4 7 3 5 4 6
-10 -14 -19 -9 -3 -8 -18 -14
16 13 13 13 12 11 10 9
DLLWL DDLLL LLLDL DLDWD WLWLL DWDLD DDWLD LLDLD
9 St Louis 10 Pittsburgh
Tonight finds the Rowdies, on cruise control at the top of the table for most of the season, technically sitting in second based on the overall wins tiebreaker, after Indy drew level on points Wednesday night. Tonight also marks the midpoint of the season, and a glance at the table shows some pretty significant trends - 5 losses or less? You’re a playoff team. Carrying a negative goal difference? Enjoy the early end to the season. It honestly wouldn’t be a shock if today’s top ten are the final top ten at the end of the season, with just some jockeying for position to take place. Even though 6 of the current top ten have 2-3 games in hand on the Rowdies, the biggest threat is our old friends from the NASL, Indy Eleven, who have won their last 5, are unbeaten in 9, and look to be the biggest threat to the Rowdies hopes of taking the top spot in the conference into the playoffs. Don’t count out Red Bull 2 either...
TAREK TAKES THE ROADS LESS TRAVELED Now in his first full season with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Tarek Morad has established himselfas a regular in Neill Collins' squad week in and week out, missing just one of the club's 16 games so far this year. Morad, 26, joined the Rowdies late into last season, as they were desperately trying to fight their way into a postseason spot in spite of underwhelming performances, a handful of injuries and a couple retirements. Morad's signing was announced on August 8 and he made his first start that night and went on to start in every match after that as well. His presence in the back helped stabilize Tampa Bay's defense and was a large reason the club had any shot at the playoffs in the final weeks of the regular season. Prior to landing in Tampa Bay, though, Morad had gone off the radar a bit. His 2017 season ended by raising the USL Cup with Louisville City FC, but after three enjoyable seasons in Louisville he went looking to fulfill a lifelong dream in the country both his parents were born in. "Even though I grew up and spent most of my life in the U.S., I've been to Egypt a few times and I was living there a little over four months before I signed for the Rowdies last year," Morad said. "I was out there training with clubs and just trying something new before I signed with the Rowdies last August. I definitely have a great connection with the country and the culture." Morad's parents both moved from Egypt to America in their youth and eventually met in Cali-
fornia, where they raised Morad and his two older brothers. Soccer became a natural part of Morad's life at an early age as both his brothers played and he followed in their footsteps. After impressing at Chino Hills High School, Morad played one season at Mt. San Antonio College before transferring to UC Irivine for the rest of his college career. "I would say I had a different path than most in that I've never been a player to garner accolades or any individual awards," he said. "You always hope professional soccer is what's next for you, but at the end of the day you're really not sure unless you're someone that gets a lot of attention and individual achievements. Even though I've been successful throughout my youth career, growing up, and even in college, I didn't really know if I was gonna be able to make it or not. I was always gonna try to take advantage of whatever opportunities were set out in front of me. I've always sort of had a chip on my shoulder just to prove people that doubted me even before college. I think I'll always have that chip on my shoulder going forward." In his senior year at UC Irvine in 2013, Morad helped the school win the Big West Conferencetitle and also stood out as a member of Chivas USA's U23 team. Those accomplishments were enough to get Morad an invitation to the Seattle Sounders preseason camp. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to parlay that invitation into a contract with the Major League Soccer club and he ultimately wound up signing with Oklahoma City Energy FC in the USL.
"I was in Seattle's camp for about a month.
page 4 It was almost like a surreal experience for me where I wasn't able to fully grasp the opportunity that was in front of me. I don't think I did as well as I could've done and Oklahoma City was one of my only options at the time. Unfortunately it wasn't a great experience on the field. I didn't really make any strides in my growth as a player." Morad failed to get regular minutes in his debut season in Oklahoma City as the club missed out on the postseason. However, the offseason provided an opportunity when James O'Connor brought Morad in for Louisville City's launch in 2015. Everything seemed to go right in Louisville. Morad became a mainstay as the club finished second in the Eastern Conference two straight years before finally claiming both the conference and league titles in 2017. "Under James I think I grew a lot as an individual, even off the field as well. I think I started to develop a better understanding of the game, develop a higher speed of thought and a higher speed of play. Louisville was probably my biggest step in growth as a player," he said. "The chemistry was excellent from the first player to the last player on the team. Everyone was genuinely hoping that the guy next to them succeeds on the field. Everyone put in the work every single week to earn their spot on the team and there was just a general great camaraderie between every single person on that team. I think that really put us over the top. I took a little bit of that experience with me and I'm trying to bring to the locker room here in Tampa Bay now." As a main contributor to a USL championship Morad likely had a few offers within the league. His contract in Louisville was up but O'Connor wanted to bring him back. Morad, though, was ready to push himself and get out of his comfort zone. "I wanted to take a chance and fulfill a dream of mine for as long as I can remember, which is playing overseas and challenging myself, looking for a new experience that helps me get better as a player. For me that was anywhere overseas, but the first opportunity that opened up for me was
by jake nutting in Egypt," he said. "It was a bit of waiting period between the end of the season in 2017 until I got an opportunity to play for a few clubs overseas but it was a risk I was willing to take." A contract offer did not materialize in Egypt after months of hard work. At a certain point Morad decided it was more important to start getting regular minutes again. That is when the Rowdies entered the picture. His contract in Tampa Bay was only through the 2018 season, but the club was eventually able to lure him back for this season. Morad has picked up where he left off as the Rowdies sit at the top of the standings in the east and are widely considered the best defensive team in the league. "It was a really good and difficult experience in Egypt," Morad said. "It just didn't work out the way I had hoped, but I was really close to accomplishing what I set out to accomplish before I went. I look back at it and it was a great experience for me personally and I learned a lot. But for me I needed to play games and Neill had expressed interest in me before. It was one of those things where it worked out as far as timing. It's been really great so far. I've been trying to learn a lot from Neill. He's been great so far even though he's still young into his coaching career. Our record this year just goes to show how much overall growth the club has made under Neill so far." Morad hasn't given up on his desire to play overseas yet, though."I'm still focused on accomplishing some great things with the club this year. After this year I'm not really sure. I'm not focusing on that yet. That's still something that I have my eyes set on and hopefully I'll get that opportunity in the near future. But right now I'm just focused on doing what I can to make this team successful."
If you are somehow blissfully unaware of the major Tampa Bay Rays news that dropped in the last week and may or may not impact the Rowdies down the line, I envy you. At a press conference on Tuesday, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg outlined the Major League Baseball’s club bold proposal to keep the team in Tampa Bay. Their proposal is to split the MLB season between Tampa Bay and Montreal, with the club playing the first half of its home schedule at a new 2530,000 stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay and the other half at a new stadium in Montreal. Where the Rowdies come into this discussion is Sternberg’s suggestion that the Rowdies might play at the potential new stadium in Tampa Bay and that the Al Lang site is under consideration for the new venue. So rather than losing our minds in the abyss of speculation we grabbed a few minutes with Rays President and Rowdies Vice Chairman Brian Auld to find out how the Rowdies factor into the situation andhow serious the organization is about the two teams sharing a venue. Here are some relevant highlights. Unused Substitutes: Did the reaction from Rowdies fans about the Rays news catch you off guard at all? Brian Auld: It seemed to me like some concerned fans who want to make sure the future of their
team is under consideration and it certainly is. It certainly took us off guard. We were talking about the Major League Baseball team and a new and innovative and a new idea that's never been tried before in professional sports, and so our focus was very much on the baseball side of things yesterday. But I think I shared with you the last time we talked, in the event that the combination of the Rays and Rowdies can lead to a better outcome for both organizations, that's something we'll always take into consideration. If I recall correctly, any time any questions aboutthe Rowdies came up that was the message that was conveyed. US: How serious is ownership taking the idea of a shared venue for the Rays and Rowdies? Is this something you’re actively working toward, or is just something you see as a possibility? Auld: We are working towards playing outdoor baseball in Tampa Bay and Montreal. In both cases you're talking about reducing the number of Major League Baseball games that get played in either place and we thought it was really important that the community hear that we are very, very open to considering other uses to the ballparks as well. Whether that be USF football games, the Rowdies games that we control, spring training games for the Rays, Florida State League Baseball or literally anything else you can think of we're gonna explore, assuming the city of St. Petersburg permits us to explore the idea at all. One of the lines Stu used yesterday was when you cut yourself off from discussion you cut yourself off from opportunity, and we don't ever cut ourselves off from discussion. US: Say the Rays do build their new stadium and it’s not at Al Lang, is it possible the Rowdies stay at Al Lang and the Rays do their own thing at the new stadium? Auld: That is certainly on the table and well within the realm of possibility. US: What is your pitch to Rowdies on why sharing a stadium with the Rays would be a positive for the Rowdies? Auld: I am a Rowdies fans and I can tell you the pie in the sky, best case scenario is the Rays are
by jake nutting
able to execute on this plan, baseball is humming north of the border and down here, and we've got a brand new world-class ballpark for the Rays that's capable of serving as a MLS home for the Rowdies. The odds of that happening right now feel pretty low, but as a Rowdies fan and a Rays fan I'd be really, really excited if we were able to make that happen. That isn't the goal right now for me in my capacity as a professional involved with both organizations. I'm focused on winning a USL championship with the Rowdies and growing that fanbase and doing so at an organic and appropriate pace. With the Rays it's about convincing the community this idea is one worth consideration and convincing city officials that control part of our fate here that we want to go about it and go about it in earnest on the baseball side of things. US: You’re obviously still early in this process, but have you started to do any research into how to make baseball and soccer coexist in a feasible way? We’ve seen a lot of examples of it not working Auld: I think for it to work you've gotta plan for it on the way in. I think if you do that it's real easy. You're talking about making sure the infield's not gonna interfere with anything because the seasons are gonna overlap a little bit. The fact that we wouldn't be there the entire summerbecause we'd be up in Montreal with the baseball makes it a little more feasible. Again, we are at the very beginning of the idea phase, but we have pretty fantastic architects who have worked with us over the years. It's always been something that's kinda been in the back of our minds, not just for soccer but also for football because we believe to get the most out of (your investment) you want to be able to host a lot of events. A lot of those events exist on rectangles. They can't have dirt interfering with the game. We think those things are very possible and that if you design for them from the outset that you can do something that allows for shared facilities that doesn't detract in any way from the enjoyment of the sport. Now, look, is it possible to maybe build the absolute perfect baseball and soccer venue in the same place without making a couple sacrifices here and there? Maybe not. But is it worth considering that if it's going to save the public potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium construction costs? I think it's worth exploring.
Ralph’s Mob and the Skyway Casuals released a joint statement about the possibility of a shared stadium following Stu Sternberg’s press conference.
page 7 The Tampa Bay Rays and Rowdies doubleheader is a test of stamina but not the wallet. For $30, I was treated to dynamic experiences that will stay with me as a fan of both teams for the rest of my life. From meeting Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow to seeing a father and son bond during their first Rowdiesgame together, I made it home feeling satisfied that I maxed out those 11 hours on June 15. The Rays organization stepped up and provided a first-class experience that was not diminished by the day’s results. Despite the Rays losing their game to the Los Angeles Angels 5-3 and the Rowdies giving up a late goal to draw with the Charleston Battery, the atmosphere of the first Rays-Rowdies doubleheader was electric. For the hundreds who bought the doubleheader ticket, it was impossible to walk away not feeling that you got something that should have cost a lot more. For the cost of admission, the Rays and Rowdies offered free transportation to and from Al LangStadium, great seats at both Tropicana Field and Al Lang and a complimentary beverage and food item served up at a special reserved section mere feet from corner kicks. This event was a prime entry point for anyone looking to check out both franchises for the first time. They can count on me for my support, but I was curious if they could convert Rays fans to adopt the Rowdies and vice versa. Judging by the people I met, that curiosity was shared. I got a few interesting looks wearing the clashing Rowdies’ green and gold with the Rays’ blue and yellow at the Trop. Casual Rays fans looked at me like something was up, but the hardcore Rowdies fans who also donned both teams’ colors exchanged knowing nods. Those glances suggested we were taking part in something unique and cool. Even before Jake asked me to write this article, I decided that I was going to throw myself into the day and see if anything could point toward more doubleheaders. A great day could mean that the Rays-Rowdies marriage had staying power. I had
doing the doubleheader a great day and the people I chatted with also did too. As of publication, the success of the first doubleheader led to today’s doubleheader event. But, the bombshell news of a potential Rays timeshare with Montreal has introduced a little bit of chaos into reading the tea leaves for both franchises. Back on the first doubleheader, the effortless deployment ofresources and fan service indicated that if anything, Stu Sternberg and his team are committed to exploring new ideas to make it all work seamlessly. And it did that day. My day began when I rode my bike to Al Lang and walked a block to catch the Rays’ Trolley to the Trop. That service is provided for all fans free of charge and I’m always pleased to see the trolley filled with fans. I live within biking distance of both stadiums, but I was appreciative that the Rays filled in the transportation gaps for fans traveling to the Trop with special coach service to the Rowdies game. I knew exactly what to do when I got to the Trop because the Rays sent an email explaining where to pick up my doubleheader package. If I didn’t get the email, the same information was printed on paper when I got my envelope containing the game tickets, vouchers and wristband. It was a marvel of logistics that they had it ready to go after announcing the doubleheader just two weeks prior. I could imagine that if one of those elements failed, a bunch of fans would have been turned off to coming to another doubleheader. I settled into my seat in the 200 level (normally a ticket that would have cost $55) among a few others who also bought the doubleheader package. I could tell them apart because they had something Rowdies related on their person. My immediate seat neighbors were lovely Rays season ticket holders named Tim and Jennifer. They were aware of the Rowdies doubleheader and were soccer fans but had never attended a Rowdies game. The doubleheader piqued their curiosity and they told me that they were more likely to attend one because of the promotion.
by matthew parke
A few rows ahead of me, a Rowdies fan named Sue said she doesn’t go to Rays games. The doubleheader got her and her friends out to the Trop that day. Another Rowdies and Rays fan, Chris,said that the doubleheader was a “dream come true” to see both teams play in one day.
the Rowdies game in the special corner section. His son stood as close as you could get to the field, watching the Rowdies play with rapt attention. I noticed that Brad didn’t hesitate to get a photo of his son getting the same experience he had watching the Rowdies.
Across the board, I got the vibe that whomever bought the ticket was having a blast. I even snuck into the special Ralph’s Mob party held at the RumFish Grill section. The Rays set the Mobup with their own deal including free food and their own personal bar service. I did not partake in their feast because I didn’t buy their ticket (and I’m not in the Mob), but I wanted to see how well the organization treated our most hardcore fans. I was happy to see the Mob chanting, waving their banners and having a good time just like they would at Al Lang. They had a beautiful viewing section of the outfield and were visible all the way from where I was sitting.
It was by dumb luck that I chanced into meeting Rays’ pitcher Glasnow. He delivered the coin toss and was walking from the midfield section when I saw his towering frame wearing a Rowdies jersey. He was gracious and got a quick handshake and photo with me. I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d be like playing for the Rowdies, reminding me of Tommy Heinemann and Stefan Antonijevic and their potentialfor headers off corner kicks.
The Rays went a long way to making the Rowdies incorporated into the day’s festivities. Coach Neill Collins delivered an opening kick that went just a little outside of the plate. The Mob got on the big screen and the doubleheader was mentioned during the between-inning entertainment. We weren’t just another group event; we Rowdies’ fans were seen (and heard). After the baseball game, I made it to the waiting area for the shuttle service to Al Lang. I took it as a good sign that I missed the first trip because that told me that fans bought the package. In fact, I have it on good authority that the demand exceeded expectations and hundreds of people took part. Sure, it was muggy and a little bit rainy while waiting for the buses to come back. But in that time, I mingled with the fans and met some great people, including the father and son from Wesley Chapel who were going to their first Rowdies game together. The dad, Brad, told me that he used to go to 1970’s and 80’s-era Rowdies games but never in their modern incarnation. The doubleheader was his way to get his soccer-playing son to see the Rowdies play up close. I would run into them later during
The combination of scene and the setting sun over Al Lang had to impress even the most skeptical of Rays fans who were curious about the doubleheader experience. I know it did for me and I’ve experienced many Rays and Rowdies games over the years. The emotion and passion of both fan bases translated better than I expected, and it told me that what transpired this day could work again. Regardless of the uncertain future Rays organization has with long-term stadium plans for both teams, I am optimistic that the doubleheader pointed to a future where their corporate synergy works in the fans’ favor. At the end of the day, the doubleheader left me exhausted but hopeful that we fans can get more than we expect out of our favorite teams at a reasonable price. You can follow Matthew Parke on Twitter @parkelife
photos by matthew parke
catching up with collins US: Now that we’re approaching the halfway point of the season, are we getting to point where you’re looking at possible roster additions? NC: Everyday we look at the players we've got, the squad we've got, the players available, and people are always contacting us, so that's an ongoing fluid process. We think we've got a really great squad, a lot of great competition, and a lot of people coming back from injury. I'm gonna have to give you the pat answer here and say were always assessing our squad and trying to make it better, but I believe with the players we've got we have a lot of great options. If something comes up that we think can make us better than we'll do it. If not we'll just be happy to try and keep all these guys fit and continue their good form. (Update: Since this interview the Rowdies have traded forward Antoine Hoppenot to Louisville City for former Rowdies forward Lucky Mkosana.)
Unused Substitutes: How did Brandon Allen’s departure from the club and signing with Memphis come about? Neill Collins: It's always disappointing when you sign a player and it doesn't quite work out. I would say it says more about the players that have been in the first team more regularly like Seba and Juan. They've made it really difficult for others to get as many opportunities as they'd like cause they've done so well together. When you're a player like Brandon, who probably needs to be playing week in and week out to reach his full potential and we can't give him that opportunity right now it’s tough. I think his talents suit Memphis and obviously we wish him all the best. When you sign 18 or 19 players in the offseason not every one of them is gonna be a major success because you can only pick 11 each week and if you're doing things right generally you don't need to make lots of changes. I think that's the biggest thing. We've been having relatively consistent lineups, although we've had to deal with two or three different injuries. It's just part and parcel to football. Brandon's a great lad and really I wish him all the best.
US: It must be nice to be operating from a place of confidence this year after last summer when you were desperate for bodies at certain points. NC: When I took the job last year, if you'd told me the turnover that I would have had to make in the following four or five months I'd have been gobsmacked. We had injuries, we had retirements, and then on top of that we just weren't performing. I actually think it's put us in good standing for this year because we found Tarek, we found Dom Oduro, we found Pape, Seba ended up moving up top, so that all helped us for this year. Right now we're in a position where we've got a well balanced squad and players that are a good age. So it is different and it's also being in a different position in the standings definitely helps you attract the type of player that we want. But again you've got to think to add a player at this stage of the season, they've got to make us stronger. That's no easy feat. There's not a huge market out there because all the other clubs in the USL are wanting to keep their best players. It's tough. We're gonna try really hard to keep getting better, but we're not gonna do something just for the sake of it. Because we've got a tight knit, honest group of lads that are working so hard for each other and working so hard in
page 12 training. For someone to come into that they need to be the right fit. US: Where are Leo Fernandes and Andrew Tinari in their recovery from injuries? NC: Leo was on the bench at Bethlehem but we didn't feel he was quite ready to be back involved. He's close. Andrew Tinari is working hard behind the scenes. We hope he's not too far away. They're two of our most creative players, so they've been missed obviously but there have been people who've come in and done a great job. Zach Steinberger had a great game on the weekend. That's another thing about the squad, whoever has been asked to come in has done a real good job. It'll be nice to have these people back, but everyone who is here is playing a part. US: We haven’t seen forward Jaime Siaj in action yet. How close is he to coming in?
by jake nutting vide for younger players? NC: 100%. It's a sign of where we're at as a club. We've had Shawn Barry miss a game earlier inthe season on an international trip. We've had David Najem miss a game because of international duty and now it's Juan's turn. That's just a sign of how well these players are doing individually and how well the team's doing. Long may it continue. Yes, we'll suffer for that weekend losing Juan but I just hope we can get more players that kind of recognition. It means that they're doing well for the Rowdies and ultimately the players can enjoy that success individually as well. US: You’ve had couple games lately where’ve let in some late goals. Is the way the team manages games and closes things out an area that needs to be focused on?
NC: I think we've managed games fantastically well. That's why we've got so many clean sheets. NC: Jaime's probably two or three weeks away. You can point to games like the New York Red You have to remember I think he's only played 45 Bulls, we managed that fantastically well. Nashminutes of preseason football before hurting himville away from home we won 1-0. Memphis away self again, so he's been really, really unlucky. He's from home we won 1-0. The Charleston game we someone I'm excited to get involved because I think should've seen that game out. We should've he'll bring us an extra dimension to the attack. He's scored more goals. Last Saturday it was penalty kinda like Malik Johnson, he'll feel like a new sign- that I don't think should have been given. (Editor’s ing when he appears. It's a process. Hopefully fans Note: Completely Agree!) It was a poor decision get to see Jaime in the Green and Gold in the near and they've got a two-minute flurry. I would've future. We're certainly looking forward to getting been devastated for the players if they hadn't gothim out there. He's not far away now. ten rewarded. Your point's valid that we've given up some late goals, but it's just part and parcel US: We’ve been seeing Malik Johnson more and to football. If you don't get two or three goals up, more. How do you feel his integration has gone? late on teams are always gonna have a gamble. It's something that we're mindful of but I think the NC: Fantastic, both on and off the field. Off the players have shown they're great at closing out field Malik's really liked, he's done really well with games at times. I really rue that Charleston game the boys. He's a real team player. His performance in terms of dropping those points at home. It was a on the field has endeared himself to the players. He learning experience for us, we will learn from that. set up goals in Birmingham, and then Charleston, It was the type of set piece goal you can give up at and this last week he was a real handful. We're real anytime, especially against a team with the size of delighted with Malik. I said at the time that we got players Charleston have got. But I have to credit him that I couldn't believe it and I'm just excited to the defense and John. They have really seen out see if we can get him to his real potential. these games really, really well. US: You’re losing Juan Tejada for a week in July to international duty. Is his emergence a perfect example of the kind of platform you wanted to pro-