With due apologies to all my Rowdies faithful following, I’ve been quite the slacker this past week in terms of coverage. That being said, here is an action-packed compilation of the Rowdies’ happenings since their 1-1 tie with Atlanta last Saturday.
With the result against Atlanta, the Rowdies maintained a three-point advantage over Puerto Rico for second place in the NASL standings, five points up on Carolina and Ft. Lauderdale, and six points ahead of Minnesota. With three games left on the slate, the Rowdies still hold an outside chance to catch San Antonio, which is in first with a six point lead.
The Rowdies control their own destiny in terms of clinching one of the byes and a home-field advantage for one of the playoff matchups. Against FC Edmonton, they will be facing a team recently eliminated from postseason contention, but the Rowdies should be able to handle “the Eddies” considering the three victories over the Canadian crew this season.
The final two matches of the season — a home-and-home series against Carolina — could end up deciding second place.
The good news for the Rowdies heading into these final three contests is they will have a relatively full lineup back in place. J.P. Rodrigues and Carl Cort, who were competing with the Guyana national team in World Cup qualifying play, will be back in uniform for the Rowdies.
Rodrigues’ return will do wonders for the back line defense, which was also missing team captain Frankie Sanfilippo in the match against Atlanta. The absence of Rodrigues and Sanfilippo proved how critical it is to have symmetry in the defense if the Rowdies are to be successful in the playoffs.
While Daniel Scott, who started in place of Rodrigues, exhibited play worthy of a quality replacement, Eddie Ababio looked rusty at best. Ababio was instrumental in Atlanta registering its goal when his back pass to Rowdies goalkeeper Jeff Attinella came up way too short, allowing Atlanta forward Matt Horth to easily slip a shot past Attinella for the score.
Ababio was shaky the rest of the game and put the Rowdies in a deeper predicament in the 67th minute when he received his second yellow of the game and was ejected. Fortunately, the Rowdies, who had tied the match on defender Takuya Yamada’s third goal of the season on a tally in the 42nd minute, were able to withstand any more damage the rest of the contest.
“It’s difficult because the synergy with the back line is obviously going to be different,” Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said when asked about the defense. “With respect to Eddie and D-Scott, they’ve never played together with that back four even in a scrimmage. The timing, expect them to know their roles, but there has to be that synergy, when one player is attacking, one player stays here.”
It’s safe to say that Ababio, who was making his first start for the Rowdies since being acquired a couple of weeks ago, will most likely not see significant time for Tampa Bay moving forward this season.
“He made a rash decision,” Hill said. “We can’t legislate that, mental errors, critical errors. We managed to (avoid) that for most of the season. He played it back instead of forward. (Horth) was anticipating the mistake and got his prize for it. Sometimes, you hope other colleagues will bail him out.”
The Rowdies looked like a completely different team without its regular back line intact and if they want any chance to beat the top-caliber teams in the playoffs, they will need the type of chemistry they had earlier this season when they won seven of eight games.
“I want more consistency,” Hill said. “There are times we play some good football but there are times we have a lack of concentration. It sets us back. We have to clean it up to compete with the better teams. In order for them to push up, we need to sharpen up, the mid-third, final third, be a little more polished.”
On the other side of the ball, the offense finally seems to be clicking like it had back in the middle of the season before Tsuyoshi Yoshitake was sent to Yokohama in Japan. It has been musical chairs up front for the Rowdies as Hill has tried to find quality offensive players.
It appears he’s found a star in the making with Evans Frimpong, who started his third consecutive match against Atlanta. While Frimpong failed to score or tally an assist, he created several opportunities for himself and others with his nifty footwork and precision passing.
“It’s his moment in time to shine,” Hill said. “His workmanlike performance has been impressive. He’s effervescent. He’s a spark. In training, he’s the same way. I’m just hoping someone will be on the finishing end of one of his crosses. He puts great trajectory on his passes, great pacing. Overall, he’s equipped himself quite well. He’s smooth with the ball, very creative, an instinctive footballer, but he’s a clever footballer. He understands the game. He’s very smart with the ball, smooth with the ball. He’s technically sound. I’m hoping we can capitalize on his creativity. He gives us food for thought for the rest of the season and for next year.”
Frimpong is more comfortable on the pitch now that he has gained the confidence of his coach.
“I am getting more rhythm and I can play the way I know I can now,” Frimpong said. “Coach kept encouraging me and he likes what I’ve done and said I will stay in there. I’ve been working a lot after practice on extra stuff. Coach told me to work on my crosses, keep working hard on my passes, and if I lose the ball, recover quickly and gain it back to make something happen.”
There were a few times in the game against Atlanta when he and forward Mike Ambersley worked off each other in impressive fashion. It’s a sign of good things to come.
“The game is slowing down now and I’m dealing with the pressure now,” Frimpong said. “I like playing alongside Mike and me and him are starting to understand the way each other play. He always runs off the ball a lot. I know he’s going to make certain runs. I like the way he plays and he likes my style.”
Home Sweet Home: The Rowdies will continue to call Al Lang Stadium home for the next four years starting with the 2013 season. An announcement by the club was made earlier this week on the agreement between the club and the City of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission.
“The Rowdies are an important part of the Tampa Bay community and are proud to be an integral part of St. Pete’s growing downtown landscape,” said Rowdies Owner & President Andrew Nestor. “St. Pete has embraced the club and we will continue to build on the amazing stadium atmosphere at Al Lang.”
With a dedicated fan group called the Ralph’s Mob and attendance figures that consistently are close to 4,000 a game, the Rowdies have created a quality product for the stadium and the downtown area of St. Petersburg. Season ticket sales increased by 65 percent this season over the 2011 campaign and the play on the pitch has improved as well.
This home field advantage has allowed the Rowdies to lose at home just once in league play this season.
Now that the Rowdies have become the main tenant of Al Lang Stadium, significant changes will be implemented to make the stadium soccer friendly, including a new field configuration with the pitch going North to South. The Field Level Club will replace the Beer Garden on the east side to become a new club fan area for all games and seats along the field next to the team’s benches will be created.
“I’m delighted with the news that the Rowdies will be still based at Al Lang,” said Rowdies head coach Ricky Hill. “The atmosphere the fans have generated at Al Lang is unique and there is no other venue in this league that makes more noise than what Al Lang generates when fans get behind the players and I’m sure it gives the players an adrenaline boost that they need during matches. The players and our staff are excited to continue to play at Al Lang Stadium, as they have always been open to helping the Rowdies grow as a club.”
Since 2010, the Rowdies have featured players from over 10 different countries, and hosted a match against an English Premier League club. In addition, players from the Rowdies have gone on to play for Premier Leagues around the world, including Yoshitake to Yokohama this season.
The exciting developments for the Rowdies comes hand-in-hand with the continued growth of the North American Soccer League. In July 2012 the NASL announced that the league will welcome the New York Cosmos back to the NASL in 2013 and NASL will also debut a new competition format featuring two distinct annual tournaments and an annual Soccer Bowl championship game. A new Ottawa franchise will also join the NASL in 2014.
With a win at Fort Lauderdale against the Strikers on September 1, the Rowdies clinched a playoff spot for the second consecutive season, and look forward to welcoming fans to Al Lang Stadium for the club’s postseason run. The Rowdies last regular season home game will be on Wednesday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m., as they face the Carolina RailHawks.
Cup Aspirations: J.P. Rodrigues and Carl Cort started for Guyana on Tuesday in the national team’s 3-2 loss to El Salvador in qualifying play for the 2014 World Cup. Both Rowdies’ players have played significant roles for Guyana, which remains in last place in the CONCACAF Group B after losses to Mexico and Costa Rica and have secured a 2-2 draw with El Salvador.
The Running of the Bull: Red Bull was in full effect at the Rowdies game last week when it partnered up with the Rowdies to hold the Mano A Mano competition to find the best one-on-one soccer player in the Tampa Bay area. Over 24 participants competed before the Rowdies game against Atlanta before Carlos Echeverri defeated his younger brother, Memou, in the finals during halftime of the match.
“We are always looking at different ways the Rowdies can enhance the game day experience for our fans” said Ryan Helfrick, Director of Sales for Tampa Bay Rowdies. “ Partnering with a global brand like Red Bull, and putting on a street soccer tournament at Al Lang Stadium gave fans something new and unique that generated a tremendous amount of excitement.”
The contest, originally created in Portugal, had a total of 60 competitors in two qualifiers, one at Cinco Soccer in Tampa and the other one at the Rowdies game last Saturday. Echevarri won a trip for two to see a New York Red Bulls game in New York City.
“This was a pretty cool thing to do,” said Evhevarri, who is from Colombia and has lived in Tampa most of his life. “I’ve never faced my brother in a soccer match so it was interesting to compete against him in front of so many people. At first, I was nervous but then once we started playing, I was just trying to win.”