Part I is here.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies collapse that culminated in missing the postseason for the third successive year was down to on-field performances. As much as the eccentric behavior of owner Bill Edwards contributed to the feeling of helplessness and despair around the club’s fans, the Rowdies won just four of their last nineteen league games and crashed out of the US Open Cup to lower division opposition. The owner Bill Edwards lack of patience and understanding of the building process around this sport led directly to the Rowdies 2015 failure. But other factors played a part.
The reasons for the Rowdies failure this season were multi-pronged. The club for the first time put players on full-time, year-round professional contracts which is a rarity in NASL, where many teams cut costs by furloughing the majority of players and even some backroom staff during offseason. The Rowdies by contrast in 2015 had players report back to camp shortly after New Year’s Day and had an extended preseason which allowed the club to make determinations about players. Having spent generously over the summer, the team was able to raid other sides including signing a total of seven players who had featured the previous season for in-state rivals Orlando City (before they jumped to MLS) and Fort Lauderdale. The Rowdies signing of five former Strikers players was significant as Fort Lauderdale had reached the NASL Final the previous year while Tampa Bay languished near the bottom of the table. All five players signed from the Strikers were major contributors to Fort Lauderdale’s 2014 success.
The injuries to steady veteran Keith Savage and left back Zac Portillos before the season started things off on the wrong foot, yet the Rowdies under Coach Thomas Rongen still stormed out of the gates and were unfortunate to not claim a title in the NASL’s Spring Season, a ten game mini tournament that the league awards a trophy for. The ultimate culprits for the Rowdies not claiming the Spring title were the schedule makers that had Tampa Bay play at New York (who won the title) and some odd officiating in a May match in Indianapolis where the Rowdies were reduced to eight men and conceded an extremely late equalizer. Still Tampa Bay had finished just one point out of winning the title, and things looked up heading into the the long and hot Florida summer.
Part of the difficulty with assembling a strong squad at the NASL level is that the league does not honor international breaks. In fact, this season’s title game on November 14 will be played less than 24 hours after many CONCACAF region World Cup Qualifiers conclude . The combination of injuries to the likes of Savage and Portillos, combined with the oft-injured team captain Marcelo Saragosa was compounded in July as Richard Menjivar and Darwin Espinal, the former Broward County player of the year that Rongen had brought to Tampa Bay were routinely called into their national teams. The once impressive looking depth Tampa Bay boasted was now being chipped away. The summer signings of former top MLS draft picks Omar Salgado and Freddy Adu did not reap dividends in July and August and Salgado was eventually released, while Adu’s excellent late-season performances may have been the only reason the Rowdies almost made the postseason.
Still the Rowdies remained in a postseason spot when Rongen was sacked along with Team President Farrukh Quraishi on August 21. Stuart Campbell, the former Rowdies player who was named interim coach following Rongen’s sacking was successful in changing the team’s playing style from a 4-3-3 which did not utilize the talents of some players to a more conventional 4-4-2, though players being shuttled in and out of the side based on the formation changes continued to be a major issue. Campbell did his best, but the eccentric behavior of the owner, the shuttling of players in and out of the squad and the general malaise in attitude that set in around the club doomed postseason chances. Failure was confirmed with Fort Lauderdale’s 1-0 victory in Jacksonville on Sunday, but even before the Strikers win, the Rowdies felt nothing like the team that given fans so much hope earlier in the year.
Ultimately the Rowdies failed in 2015 on the field because they overpaid for Division 2 level players who did not consistently perform. It’s no small irony that after raiding the Strikers in the offseason, Fort Lauderdale under GM Amaury Nunes built a better team than the Rowdies on a smaller budget. Part of this was the Strikers deft exploitation of the player loan system, which allowed the club to secure three star attacking players from top Brazilian sides (one of these players, PC has since been transferred permanently to Fort Lauderdale) and the acquisition of a starting goalkeeper on loan from Orlando City in MLS (This player, Josh Ford was eventually recalled by Orlando and finished the season as the club’s starter in MLS, but he did start the vast majority of games for the Strikers during the season prior to his recall). The Rowdies on the other hand spent lots of money signing players to year-round, multi-year contracts and many simply did not perform to a high enough level.
The owner Bill Edwards did not trust soccer people like Rongen and Quraishi to do the jobs they were appointed to do. The sacking of Quraishi is a particularly bad move in the local area, where the former Rowdies players and Tampa Bay Mutiny (MLS) General Manager is extremely popular and his close ties to everyone in the soccer community. Edwards has to pick up the pieces of burning some of those relationships while trying to remain relevant locally.
The Rowdies remain a star attraction in Edwards’ St Petersburg, but across the bay in Tampa, a simple drive through town will already indicate the defection of many fans to MLS’ Orlando City just 70 miles down I-4. Lions car magnets have been more prevalent on cars in my travels through Hillsborough County in the last few months than Rowdies magnets. While this is in no way a scientific study, it does indicate some leakage in the Rowdies potential fan base across the bay in Tampa. Sacking Quraishi will not help in trying to turn around that situation.
The volatile nature of D2 soccer means the Rowdies can turn things around next season. However that will take the willingness of the owner to allow soccer people to do the jobs they were hired to do and see through a long-term vision. Let us hope for the sake of the club Bill Edwards has learned that one year plans do not work in this sport.