“It’s definitely something we wanted so we could kind of set a tone for the rest of the season,” Rowdies goalie Jeff Attinella said.
The Rowdies, though, came away stronger because of it thanks to a motto coach Ricky Hill gave to the team during the post-game speech following the loss to Minnesota, the team that eliminated Tampa Bay from the playoffs last season..
“He just told us if we’re not going to win, we’re definitely not going to lose,” Attinella said.
It may not have the same panache as a Blutarsky-esque “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” but it stuck. Since the loss to Minnesota, the Rowdies have lost just once — a 4-0 shellacking by San Antonio — while winning five games and coming up with draws in six of them to finish the regular season.
With a 2-1 win and a 3-3 tie against Carolina in the semifinals, the Rowdies (12W-9T-7L regular season record) have continued the bend but don’t break stance.
“To play against Minnesota is pretty fitting because our season kind of turned around up there,” Attinella said. “It’s all come full circle and it’s exciting to be starting the finals there facing the team that started our good run.”
The Stars barely made it into this year’s postseason after finishing in sixth place with 35 points (8-11-9 record), but the defending NASL champions proved how capable they are of repeating after knocking off No. 3 seed Puerto Rico and then the regular season leaders San Antonio. With just one loss in their last 10 matches and none in their last five home matches, Minnesota presents a formidable challenge for No. 2 seed Tampa Bay when the Rowdies face the Stars tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET in the first leg of the NASL Championship Series (the second leg will be played next Saturday at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg).
“They play an attractive type of soccer and you never know what you’re going to get from them,” Attinella said. “They’ve obviously changed things up a bit in the playoffs and they’re going to come in with something to prove because of the way the regular season went for them.”
The Rowdies have had to endure multiple lineup changes after the departure of Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, who was transferred to Yokohama FC in Japan at the beginning of August. This sudden news clearly affected the Rowdies, who lost the NASL Player of the Month for August and seemed to be on the type of roll destined for greatness.
They had won seven of eight games, but then proceeded to go winless throughout August despite managing the “don’t lose” draws in three of the four contests. Up until the two playoff matches against Carolina, the Rowdies used a different lineup in nine straight contests.
Now with Carl Cort firmly supplanted at forward, the Rowdies suddenly have a similar cohesion to their formation that they had when Yoshitake was playing alongside Mike Ambersley up top.
“Carl complements Ambersley well,” Rowdies midfielder Luke Mulholland said. “He’s able to hold the ball longer, allows everyone else to get into position make a run. He has a veteran presence and poise about him that makes everyone else on the pitch feel calm.”
Hill foresaw Cort’s presence back in August soon after the departure of Yoshitake.
“You can tell he’s played on the premier level of the game,” Hill said. “He understands the game and knows what to do with the ball before he gets it and how to distribute it when he has it. He makes everyone around him better.”
Home Sweet Home. For Attinella, playing in the NASL Soccer Bowl has special meaning considering the last game of the season will occur in the same area where he grew up playing in youth leagues, high school and college.
“Personally for me, it will be special to end the season in front of our home fans, many of whom watched me growing up,” said Attinella, who garnered three all-county selections and an all-state honor while helping Countryside High School to a state title in 2006. “There were a lot of questions about if I was going to be able to handle the pressure last year when I kind of got thrown into the position and I wasn’t even expecting to play.”
Attinella followed up his stellar career at the University of South Florida by being drafted by Real Salt Lake in the 2011 Major League Soccer Supplemental Draft on Jan. 18, 2011, but he was soon released. He signed with the Rowdies soon thereafter and he made his professional debut on April 30 against Atlanta when he entered as a substitute to fill in for an injured Daryl Sattler.
Attinella finished the season as the starter allowing 31 goals in 23 games and 22 starts for a 1.35 goals against average. He led the NASL in saves with 128.
This year, he started all 28 regular season matches and finished second in the NASL with a 1.07 GAA while compiling 11 shutouts. After earning NASL Defensive Player of the Week five times this season, Attinella was named to the NASL Best XI Team for 2012.
“There was a lot of uncertainty coming in last year,” said Attinella, who was named as the Big East Conference Goalkeeper of the Year and a First Team National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-America during his junior season with the Bulls. “I was all over the place before I ended up in Tampa last year and this season, I had a full off-season to prepare instead of travelling to different teams right after finishing college. I had a full off season to prepare to get the right mentality and, to be honest, I was pretty worn out by August because I had been going through the college season non-stop for the four years. So, to get a full off season and get ready for the season was definitely better than last year.”
Attinella said he has leaned on USF Assistant Coach Bryheem Hancock, who works primarily with the goalkeepers and was a huge help to Attinella’s development. Hancock, who played at the University of Connecticut, had a few stints in the MLS with the L.A. Galaxy, Atlanta Silverbacks and Toronto Lynx from 2001 to 2004.
“Coach Hancock has been a huge mentor to me and still is and even when I want to get some extra training I know I can head up to him and call him for advice because he kind of went through the same things I’ve been going through,” said Attinella, who finished second in voting for the NASL’s Golden Ball award as the league’s MVP.
Attinella has also gotten plenty of advice from Kevin Clinton, who played keeper for the Rowdies from 1979-81 and has served as a trainer in the Tampa Bay area since retiring from professional soccer following a short return in 1988.
“Kevin Clinton has been a huge help as well and both he and (Hancock) have helped me deal with the transition this year,” Attinella said.
I'm coming home. Luke Mulholland returns to face a team he joined late last season that ended up beating the Rowdies in the NASL quarterfinals. The Preston, England native made his debut in a 2-1 loss to the Rowdies on Sept. 6 and then scored the game-winner as the Stars knocked the Rowdies out of the postseason with a 1-0 win on Oct. 1 at Al Lang Stadium.
“It will be great to get back up there to a place that was a great start for me in my professional career,” said Mulholland, who scored the game-winner in a 3-1 Stars’ victory over Ft. Lauderdale in the first leg of the NASL Championship Series. “Of course, I’ll be looking to do the same for my new team and reverse the favor.”
Back to the Future. The last time the Rowdies brought a professional soccer title to the Tampa Bay region was 1975 when the original franchise did it in the organization’s first season.
Sure, much has changed, including a stadium (they used to play in the Tampa Stadium, aka The Big Sombrero, now they’re in a converted baseball field), the fans (the “Fannies” have been replaced by a more ominous sounding group known as Ralph’s Mob — which also garnered Best Fan Group in CL’s Best of the Bay Awards), and the league (it used to be the NASL, the top premier league in North America and now it’s the NASL, the second division league behind the MLS). But the Rowdies could bring Tampa Bay its second professional soccer title and its first championship since the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
“It means a great deal to the organization,” Rowdies forward Mike Ambersley said. “They’ve put a great group of players around me and it’s our job to get it done. I’m looking forward to playing in the finals. It will be the first for me since 2006. It shows all the hard work we’ve put in. I’m really happy for the organization, the fans, the city of Tampa and St. Pete. They’ve stuck by us the whole time. I just want to thank the owners, the fans, the city and the organization for all the support we’ve gotten.”
The semifinal match against Carolina at Al Lang Stadium last Saturday was an indication of how much more exciting the home venue along the water can be when — and if — filled. When Mulholland scored the clinching goal against the RailHawks, the crowd of 4,132 erupted in jubilation, led by the Ralph’s Mob.
“That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard this place,” Ambersley said. “It was pretty electric. They gave us a huge boost. They kept chanting, singing, kept fighting with us. It kind of shows what kind of crowd we have in Tampa, St. Pete. It’s a joy to play in front of them.”
Injury Update. Rowdies defender Takuya Yamada is a game-time decision, according to coach Ricky Hill. Yamada suffered a MCL strain early in the match last Saturday and was replaced by Daniel Scott in the 40th minute after trying to play through it. Yamada, who was named to the NASL Best XI, has played in 83 of 88 contests over three seasons in the NASL. Only once has he missed a contest due to an injury — an abductor issue midway through the season last year. The other games missed came as a result of a yellow-card infraction and some due to visa issues. Hill said last week after Saturday’s game that Yamada could “either miss one week or four weeks. It’s hard to tell.”
GAME NOTES: The NASL Soccer Bowl is decided over two games with each team playing at home once and the team with the greater number of aggregate goals in both games winning the series. The first leg will be held tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET. The second leg will be played next Saturday at Al Lang Stadium with a 7:30 p.m. ET. Please refer to www.nasl.com for tie-breaking rules after two games are played…Yamada received a first-place vote for the NASL’s Golden Ball award, which was won by San Antonio forward Pablo Campos after scoring a league-high 20 goals…The Rowdies will have to deal with some pretty cold weather during their match against Minnesota. According to weather.com, the high in Blaine for Saturday is supposed to be 59 degrees with a low of 45 degrees overnight. To get the team ready, Hill had the team practice on ice in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, considering it appears the NHL won’t be having any games this season. Okay, that last one was a joke, just to see if you were still with me Rowdies’ fans. Put it in, put it in, put it in, ladeedaladeedaladeedahhhhh.
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