The Tampa Bay Rowdies made a start to their United Soccer League (USL) season away in Cary, NC at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. Taking on the North Carolina FC on March 17th, 2018, the boys from Tampa Bay walked away with three points. The scoring opened with Leo Fernades scoring a left footed shot from the left side of the box while one on one with the keeper, putting it home to the far post in the 23rd minute. Also scoring for the Rowdies was Georgi Hristov, who is slowly working his way into becoming the leading goal scorer with the Rowdies, as he enters this season with 53 career goals with the club. He returns for his 6th season and is just 3 goals shy of the record after this goal in the 41st minute from the penalty spot. This penalty was conceded by contact with David Najem as he tried to receive a pass outside of the box, during a great run in behind by NC midfielder Austin da Luz. Of course, the North Carolina fans and players appealed, but to no avail. The USL does not use Video Assisted Referee (VAR) currently, as this gave them get the go-ahead goal, and the ability in the late stages of the game to comfortably control the ball. At the 90th minute, Jack Blake received the ball near mid-pitch with plenty of time and space, tapped the ball out in front where he wanted it, and struck it with his right foot after a fake shot from the start of the attacking third, about 7 yards out from the 18-yard box. The ball sailed into the far post to earn the Week 1 USL Goal of the Week, adding to the accolades he has already received including 2017 NASL Young Player of the Year for his time with Jacksonville Armada, during which he scored 9 goals and earned 4 assists.
Prior to their season home-opening second match, the Rowdies enjoyed another victory when they came back to St. Petersburg. The team was welcomed by season ticket holders for their Kick off Party on Monday, March 19th at the adjacent Mahaffey Theatre. Overlooking the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, the theatre and Al Lang Stadium are situated on the edge of the South Yacht Basin which leads out to Tampa Bay. At the party, the team plans to introduce not only the new gear available to purchase; but also to introduce some of the new players on the roster while welcoming back a solid core of previous players, to the fans. The Rowdies have brought back 12 returning players along with 11 fresh starters for the 2018 season. Rowdies manager Stuart Campbell, has organized the team as he puts it, “with the knowledge of the core squad and the speed of the youngsters.” MC for the night Rob Stone of Fox Sports commented, “this is a sold out theatre to talk about jerseys and fire up a season – and this is one of the most beautiful sites and crowds I have ever seen!”
The closeness the players have shared with each other was on display as they were introduced. They bantered about who is the better model Georgi Hristov or Michael Nacnchoff, to Jack Blake being a YouTube star in his series “The Life of a Professional Footballer,” as well as hosting duties for a new USL show called The Blake-Down, and Neill Collins being the mouth of the Rowdies. The chemistry seemed to show off the pitch as well as on it, so far translating into solid game performances during the season. In addition, the players and staff project a sense of community within the club and the fans of the Tampa Bay Area, with Downtown St. Petersburg in particular. Being one of the oldest clubs in the USA, support for the team is visible whether it be the official support group Ralph’s Mob singing in the stands the whole match or the children at play on the grassy knoll in the stadium. In addition to the official supporter’s group, the Skyway Casuals are based south of the Skyway Bridge in Sarasota County. They watch their beloved Green and Gold every week while singing and chanting in the stands with The Mob. On away match days, this group meets at Shamrock’s Pub in Sarasota. Prior to home games, they coordinate travel at the pub for fans to meet prior to heading to Al Lang Stadium. All over Twitter, you can find supporters groups for this club, including of LosRowdies (Hispanic supporters group is outside of the USA), a Brazilian support group, as well as a UK support group.
The international appeal is also evident on the roster. Currently, Marcel Shafer is planning on staying one more season with the Rowdies to bring home silverware before he returns to Germany to begin his career coaching at VfL Wolfsburg. Perhaps there will be a stronger German connection with the club as players may come over on loan next season and may even give some American players a chance to try their hands overseas. The audience at the event was reflective of the diverse support the team has enjoyed.
As the microphone went over to owner Bill Edwards, he stated “The USL is the largest league in the world, I don’t know if you know that. The USL is the largest league on the planet, without a doubt. We are in it, we are at the top of the league, and this year guys, I’ll tell you what. Here’s what I did, I brought you all a surprise, ok? I went out this weekend to North Carolina and I brought you back-well, we did something in one day that took us two months to do last year and that was a win on the road!” The whole theatre erupted with clapping and cheers. He continued to state, “North Carolina is good, but we are better!” This is in part not only to the strong attacking seen on the road but to the familiar young goalkeeper, named Cody Mizell who tallied 7 saves. After a short stint with the Rowdies in 2014 as the third keeper behind Matt Pickens and fan favorite Diego Restrepo, he spent 2 seasons with Charlotte Independence. Mizell appears to be the more confident all-around soccer player or sweeper/keeper, that the Rowdies prefer – he pushes out far while his team is in possession. This allows the center backs to move forward and join the attack, yet keeping him back just enough to cover the goal if needed or to run out and clear or distribute a ball. In addition, Cody is a vocal coordinator of the defense, often talking to his back line during the match, and communicating in the attack.
The night ended with food and drinks provided by the Rowdies for the season ticket holders as the players mingled with the fans, signing autographs when asked and connecting with who they would call the 12th man, their fans. High hopes and the promise by Mr. Edwards of winning the USL Cup appeared to have given confidence to both the players and the crowd in attendance.
Prior to the home match, coach Stuart Campbell stated at a team practice open to the press, “The sky is the limit. How hungry are we? I know that every single player in there is very hungry to have a successful season.” When asked how he expected the atmosphere to be for the home opener, Campbell offered, “I think it will be electric. I’ve said year after year that the atmosphere in the stadium gets better and better, more fans come and I sort of expect more of the same this year. As I have said this is a great venue to play in front of and the Rowdies fans are a knowledgeable set of supporters and they help us out tremendously, I don’t think there was a coincidence we had such a good home record last year. I think the fans have got credit for that and I’m sure it will continue this year. We want to turn Al Lang into a fortress, it’s going to be a tough game for them.” He went on to state, “The Philadelphia Union don’t have a match so we are anticipating they are going to send down a number of MLS players so it will be a really big game with a really big test where both sides may be on the attack.”
Come Saturday, March 17th Mr. Campbell was completely right on all facets of his quote. Ralph’s Mob traditionally stands with their backs to the field as the opposing club comes out and their roster’s names are announced, shouting at the top of their lungs, “Who are ya!?” The pregame walkout included the Rowdies new official national anthem singer for all home matches this year, Marissa Peddie, who is a cancer survivor and is graced with a beautiful voice. The whole crowd stood silently as she sang, save for the resonating “Oh!” (as in “Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner”) to come along, giving the home crowd their first shouts of the season – a tradition that dates back to when the team played at Legends Field in Tampa as FC Tampa Bay. As soon as the national anthem ended there was not another moment of silence. With smoke bombs going off in green and gold, Ralph’s Mob launched their home opening tifo tradition of throwing long run confetti into the stands. The 7,368 fans in attendance joined in the cheering, as the drum from Ralph’s Mob banged away, marking chants and ballads, including “If you love the Rowdies stand up!” to make sure the club knew their fans was behind them. During the game, the Rowdies and the opposition played a lot of box-to-box play while both keepers made some great saves. Cody Mizell was nominated for the USL Save of the Week fan vote for week 2 as a result. As it proved increasingly hard to break down the Bethlehem Steel FC keeper, Tomas Romero, there were plenty of great attempts from the Rowdies, one including an shot/cross in from Jack Blake that was beautifully curved but could not be redirected properly on target by Joe Cole. Blake’s next opportunity nearly netted a goal from a straight-on corner kick in the 30th minute. However, the only near-scoring opportunity came in the first minute of first-half stoppage time when Leo Fernandes made an interception (thanks to a slide tackle from Georgi Hristov that forced the play) and ran on goal with the ball. Fernandes took a left footed shot, which Romero saved but the ball fell kindly to Fernandes’ head, yet Romero was able to get to it for a second spectacular save. This unfortunately put Romero out of position with a failed swipe at the ball, where it lands at Fernades’s foot. As the ball is about 2 feet past the line, a defender with his back to the netting pushed his foot out to the ball where it then crossed the line again, but into play. As Leo and others on the right side run off to celebrate, they noticed the linesman waived it off. As they all stood in disbelief, Shafer grabbed possession of the ball and ran down the bye-line and sent in a low cross which forced a corner. Leo and the other Rowdies players, along with all in attendance, plead their case with the referee. The jumbo screen just above the goalpost showed the replay. Unfortunately for the home team, despite the referee looking up at the board, the whole crowds began booing in disbelief as the referee turned away and pointed to the corner to resume play. PRO and USSF rules state that the use of replay at the stadium cannot influence the decision of the referee, and without Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) used in MLS, the call cannot be overturned.
The perception that Rowdies must not have given the call much thought was evident in the locker room because the team came back out on the field after the half on fire and dominated the game. In the 62nd minute, Jack Blake took an indirect freekick which found the head of Georgi Hristov to bring the Rowdies up 1-0 and Georgi 2 more goals away from a club record. Another 6 minutes elapsed and Leo Fernandes made a dashing run on the left side, where he has proven to be dangerous, executed a stepover and shot an almost identical goal in relation to placement as he did against NCFC the week prior, earning him a spot in the USL’s Team of the Week Top 11. Although only 2 of 3 goals counted for Leo, the 3 points for his team and the celebration with his family that made him happiest of all. When speaking to him after the game he stated he thought the first shot he had was a “clear goal,” but “the team responded well.” When asked if when he struck the ball if it was going into the back of the net his response was, “yeah, I was pretty confident, I hit it pretty hard into the far post so I was pretty confident.” Curious if his confidence was because he played and trained with the keeper before at Philadelphia Union in the MLS or just from the shot alone his response was “oh no, the shot alone. You know, when it is one v one that is my favorite situation to go at defenders and get the shot off.” He also went on to state that after the goal he ran over to the sideline to celebrate with his parents and his newborn son, stating “it was nice, it was very emotional. My parents don’t come to every game, so for them to be there, on that side, it was pretty cool.”
After the match, Georgi Hristov expressed his frustration with the referee stating “when we come out here we come to play for our family and to win, the referees should do better.” When asked if he preferred the run-of-play goal he scored in this match compared to the penalty he scored in the last match he said, “I think all goals feel the same, to be honest. I don’t think this one felt better than the other one but it was a good goal and I knew it was going to be a good ball from Jack and you know, when you are in the box you just try to be in the right place at the right time, so it is something you don’t really think about. You have it or you don’t, I was just smarter than the defender I guess.” When asked to clarify if every goal will feel the same after 2 more goals and he has the record he responded, “Are you counting?” Producing some laughs, however, he went on to state, “I don’t know, it depends. You know I have been playing in different positions, different jobs sometimes, right now they are playing me forward and I got to score goals and create chances for my teammates. I have always said that the most important thing is to win games.” When it was pointed out to him that he could technically score his club record-breaking goal at home on April 7th and was asked if it would mean more to him to do it home than away, he replied with, “I don’t really think of it that way because it creates high pressure for myself, and that is not the way I will move forward. For me right now I am very much thinking of just doing my best and hoping it happens, if you think about it then it just creates more pressure for yourself. Things just happen, and yes it would be better if earlier.” When asked if the fans keep showing high expectations about having the goal happen at home does that create pressure, his response was again cool and collected with, “I think the most pressure someone can create for themselves is themselves, I know people have expectations but no one has higher expectations than myself. As I said, I’ve been through that part of my career where I focus on the other people and now I am just focused on doing my best for not just me but the team.”
The Tampa Bay Rowdies play their next match away this Saturday, the 31st, taking on the defending USL East and Cup Champions from last season, Louisville FC at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Both teams have something to prove because last season they each won 1 of the 2 matches they played against each other, however, on aggregate the Rowdies are leading 3-2 on goals on the 2 matches.
If you are local in the St. Petersburg/Tampa Area then you can come watch the Rowdies attempt to bring home 3 points, the Away Watch Party is at the Big Storm Brewing Company; the official beer sponsor of the Rowdies and partner in the “Kick in the Grass” Beer. Every goal the Rowdies score the house gets a free pint, and if you show up with Rowdies gear on you will receive a discount of $1 off all pints. The following week the Green and Gold will be taking on Ottawa Fury at home and kick off is at 7:30p.m. If you do not have tickets you can always call your local Rowdies box office at 727-200-2222. All matches are also streamed on the USL YouTube Channel as well as USLsoccer.com via their Match Center.