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2017 USL Preview: Tampa Bay Rowdies

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/16/17, 1:51PM EDT


Historic club arrives with star-powered squad for first USL season

Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Tampa Bay Rowdies join the USL for the new season and bring with them both one of the most historic names in American soccer history. They also bring a strong squad that on paper should be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Led by former England international Joe Cole, a contingent of players with MLS experience, and former Bundesliga champion Marcel Schäfer, the expectations for the Rowdies going into the new season are to be in contention for a championship at the end of the year. 

Head Coach: Stuart Campbell
Stadium: Al Lang Stadium
2016 results: N/A
2016 postseason: N/A

Goalkeeper: Matt Pickens enters his fourth season with the Rowdies after being named the club’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, and the veteran brings more than 200 professional games of experience, including more than 150 for the Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids in MLS. The Rowdies added experience with the signing of Akira Fitzgerald, formerly of North Carolina FC, while Nico Campbell was one of the top goalkeepers in the Premier Development League last season for the Des Moines Menace and enters his first professional season with major potential.

Defense: The experienced duo of Neill Collins and Tam Mkandawire return to the squad, and are joined in the center back ranks by Jamaican international Damion Lowe, who arrives from Seattle Sounders FC. Another big addition is Luke Boden, who makes the move down I-4 from Orlando City SC after winning two USL championships with the Lions and making more than 100 appearances across the club’s USL and MLS history. Boden and former D.C. United player Kyle Porter join returnees Darnell King and Zac Portillos in the fullback options for Head Coach Stuart Campbell.

Midfield: The signing of Joe Cole last May put the Rowdies in the international spotlight, and the former Premier League and England international didn’t disappoint as he recorded nine goals and seven assists in 24 appearances for the club. Cole was joined this offseason by another big European name in Marcel Schäfer, VfL Wolfsburg’s all-time appearance leader and a former Bundesliga champion. The club has also made some other solid additions such as as Leo Fernandes from the Philadelphia Union and Darwin Jones from Seattle Sounders FC to join returning veteran Keith Savage and Michael Nanchoff.

Forward: Georgi Hristov has been a talisman for Tampa Bay since joining the club before the 2013 season, and last year recorded his 100th appearance for the side. His 34 goals are a modern-era record for the Rowdies, and he is looking to record another season with double-digit goals after scoring 11 goals and adding four assists a season ago. He is joined by Deshorn Brown, who had 20 goals in two seasons for the Colorado Rapids before overseas stints in Scandinavia and most recently in the Chinese Super League, and former Northern Ireland international Martin Paterson, who scored 29 goals in 130 games for Burnley in addition to English Championship experience with Stoke City and Huddersfield Town.

Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

Strengths: The Rowdies had some standout performers in the 2016 season, led by Joe Cole and Georgi Hristov, and have added some notable names that should provide the chance for greater consistency throughout this season. The addition of Deshorn Brown, in particular, should provide greater attacking punch, while Marcel Schäfer’s experience should be a big plus for younger signings like former Chicago Fire Homegrown Player Alex Morrell, another new addition to the midfield.

Weaknesses: The Rowdies were consistently competitive a year ago, but too often were forced to settle for draws instead of taking victories as they won only six games and drew seven out of 16 regular-season home games at Al Lang Stadium. The additions to the attack should help this. Cole and Hristov accounted for half the team’s goals a season ago (20 of 40 in 32 regular-season games), so boosting the side’s secondary scoring was a focus this offseason.

Key number: 112 – The Rowdies’ squad has combined for 112 full international appearances, giving the side a depth of experience that should provide the leadership the team will need to find success in the upcoming season.

Noteworthy matchups: The Rowdies will get an early test of their aspirations when they face two of last season’s top three in the Eastern Conference in April. Tampa Bay visits Louisville City FC on April 15, and follows that with a visit to FC Cincinnati on April 19 in a fascinating early-season road trip. A late-season New York Red Bulls II matchup at Al Lang Stadium on October 4 could also be big for both teams, while the Rowdies end the season with a visit to I-4 Derby rivals Orlando City B on October 12.

Coach’s view: “I’ve been really happy with how things have gone so far. … We’ve got some real speed and real quality outside and when you pair that with Joe Cole as your playmaker, it’s going to be really exciting to watch.” – Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell

Current roster (updated: March 15, 2017):
Goalkeepers: Matt Pickens, Nico Campbell, Akira Fitzgerald
Defenders: Neill Collins, Luke Boden, Darnell King, Damion Lowe, Tam Mkandawire, Zac Portillos, Kyle Porter
Midfielders: Justin Chavez, Joe Cole, Leo Fernandes, Darwin Jones, Alex Morrell, Michael Nanchoff, Keith Savage, Marcel Schäfer, Martin Vingaard
Forwards: Deshorn Brown, Georgi Hristov, Martin Paterson

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