Last week, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were able to end a long period of misery by defeating the New York Cosmos 2-0 at Al Lang Stadium in St Petersburg. The match which I called for Rabble.TV was the tonic needed after weeks of controversy. The Cosmos who have been the Rowdies biggest rival since 1975 are the first place team in the NASL table.
The Rowdies had sacked popular coach Thomas Rongen and President Farrukh Quraishi on August 21. Quraishi was was a playing star for the Rowdies in the 1970’s is one of the best respected minds in Florida soccer. Rongen, a former Fort Lauderdale Strikers player and coach who had also managed multiple MLS teams is well-respected particularly for his ability to identify the strengths of young players and develop budding superstars.
These changes were not well-received by the majority of fans in the club prompting shows of protest including several minutes of silence in the subsequent home game by Ralph’s Mob, the club’s independent supporters group. However, some active fans which include members of Ralph’s Mob felt the group didn’t send enough of a signal of disapproval to the club’s leadership.
Around the same time, the Rowdies owner, Bill Edwards faced some not so flattering off-the-field issues. This came just a few weeks after Edwards controversially sold a sponsorship to the Coastal Cup a competition between the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies, which was long seen as supporter-driven trophy. In 2015, the Jacksonville Armada FC joined NASL and were added to the Coastal Cup.
Despite this rocky period, the Rowdies whose legacy is one of the strongest in American soccer appear to be coming out the other side nicely. Stuart Campbell who was an excellent player in own right recently for the Rowdies has taken over as the Head Coach. Campbell managed English Football League side Bristol Rovers as a caretaker while he was playing for the team in 2011 just before he joined the Rowdies to finish out his career as a player.
The team has responded well to Campbell’s hiring by rallying from a two-goal deficit against in-form Ottawa in Ontario and then crushing to league-leading Cosmos. Sunday, the Rowdies will face-off with FC Edmonton in Alberta looking to continue climbing up the table. The match could feature Freddy Adu, who has been injured for all but one match since he joined the Rowdies in mid-July. Adu, who has been capped by the United States National Team 17 times and started the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final against Mexico was the youngest professional player in US pro team sports history when he signed with DC United at age 14 in 2004.
Since Campbell’s elevation, Georgi Hristov the 2013 NASL Golden Ball Winner (MVP) had enjoyed more freedom to move around the pitch in a 4-2-3-1 formation as opposed to the structured role he was placed into during Rongen’s tenure when a 4-3-3 was played. Clearwater native Brian Shriver whose exploits led the rival Strikers to the NASL Championship Series in 2011 has been worked back into the team under Campbell and Darwin Espinal who graduated from JP Taravella High School in Coral Springs but was recruited by Rongen away from the Strikers looked lively last week for the first time in months.
The Rowdies currently sit in the final postseason spot in NASL (4 of the league’s 11 teams make the postseason) two points clear of the Strikers. However, the Strikers enter a stretch of three successive home games this Wednesday versus Jacksonville. The final postseason berth could come down to two in-state rivals, and that would cap what has been one of the most exciting years in Florida pro soccer history.