Friday, November 2, 2012

Rowdies celebrate and then celebrate some more

Posted By on Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 12:33 PM

Last Saturday, a majority of the sold-out crowd was sitting in Al Lang Stadium watching the Rowdies compete for the NASL Soccer Bowl championship when a chant began from the Ralph's Mob fan group.

The Rowdies fan group, Ralphs Mob, is a constant at the games held at Al Lang Stadium.
  • The Rowdies fan group, Ralph's Mob, is a constant at the games held at Al Lang Stadium.

"If you love the Rowdies, stand up."

This orchestrated cheer was nothing different than what had been shouted throughout the previous 16 home contests of the 2012 campaign, but suddenly futbol had arrived in St. Petersburg with the full flair it deserved.

One by one, spectators rose in accordance with the cheer until the entire stadium — minus the spattering of fans on the lawn supporting the Minnesota Stars — had a rhythmic reverberation similar to what the arenas in Major League Soccer or throughout international soccer have.

Legends were indeed made when the Rowdies captured their first title since 1975 when the organization claimed one in its inaugural season. It was also the first championship won by a professional franchise in the Tampa Bay region since the Lightning took the Stanley Cup in 2004.

During the epic performance by the Rowdies in which they recovered from a two-goal deficit and eventually won the whole thing thanks to the performance by goalkeeper Jeff Attinella in the penalty kick shootout, I kept thinking of how this new sporting "nation" emerged for one magical day and if it would continue next season.

Would the mass media of Tampa Bay come back for each game instead of just one contest?

Would all the kids with the soccer jerseys from the plethora of leagues around Tampa Bay that showed up on Saturday night come back in force in 2013?

Would the stadium be filled again and would the fans "stand up" in unison for each game?

For those in the soccer community who wondered — and even mocked — the quality of play in the NASL, hopefully you now understand how talented the Rowdies are.

They had one player — Tsuyoshi Yoshitake — who began the season with the Rowdies and ended up with a premier club in Japan's top division, they picked up one player — Carl Cort — who competed for several seasons in the English Premier League, and they have one player — Jeff Attinella — who is primed to shine and has been rumored to have several European clubs interested in him.

Put together and then re-assembled primarily by team owner and president Andrew Nestor and technical director Perry Van Der Beck, the Rowdies overcame the loss of Yoshitake by adding players vital to the team's postseason success.

Because of Yoshitake's departure, Nestor brought in Cort and Raphael Cox, who played an integral role in Saturday's contest.

Cort, who scored the Rowdies' first goal, demonstrated the type of poise and posture reminiscent of so many other great players. This confident attitude allowed the rest of the team to dictate the pace of the game and stake an early lead.

Cox, who was acquired late in the regular season, entered the game in the 36th minute after defender J.P. Rodrigues went to the bench with a strained calf. Cox, who typically plays midfield, was called upon to take Rodrigues' spot and went on to play admirably.

Because Takuya Yamada was already missing due to a strained MCL and Frankie San Fillippo was playing with the flu, the back line hardly resembled the unit that had produced 13 shutouts in the season. But Cox did his part and then some in helping the Rowdies keep the Stars from scoring more than one goal.

"Tonight's a great example of how that Yoshi deal benefitted us," Nestor said. "You had Yama out; J.P. goes down in the first half; so not only do you lose your second starting center back but you waste a sub in a game you know can probably go 120 minutes. Frankie's in the hospital all day so to have Raphael Cox come in and play left back and to have Carl Cort showing up. We don't have those players if we don't make that Yoshi deal so this is a really long season and you need that depth and I think that's where some of the teams in our league fall short is because yeah, we have a great starting 11 but you get into that bench and the bench is pretty short and here, we're pretty deep and when you get into these games, it comes in handy."

Nestor, who graduated from Boston University's School of Management, created the Rowdies' foundation with a similar mentality associated with the Tampa Bay Rays in terms of finding versatile players.

"Since day one, the way we've looked at it is finding smart, experienced players who can fill multiple roles," Nestor said. "Yamada played holding midfield, right back, left back, center back, Raphael Cox playing left back tonight, Andres Arango has started at left back; he's not a left back. Luke Mulholland can play midfield, forward. It's all about having versatility because you need it. We don't have huge budgets; we don't have huge rosters so you need these players who can fill in wherever."

Nestor took pieces from his hometown favorite, New England Patriots, in creating this year's version of the Rowdies.

"My strategies from day one, bring in smart players who are versatile," Nestor said. "I draw a parallel being from Boston, like the Patriots and what they did in 2000 you might not have a (NASL leading scorer) Pablo Campos like in San Antonio but he can only do one thing, but Mike Ambersley will come back into our 18 and can win the ball back and he can lead the team in assists just getting those type of players that can do whatever job you need them to do."

Nestor will have to figure out how to replace Attinella, who is a free agent and is sure to find himself a place to play in a division higher than the NASL.

But it is clear he has figured out the best way in re-assembling greatness and will do so again for next season.

The Fate of Antoniuk: One player not under contract is Rowdies leading scorer Daniel Antoniuk, who produced the team's third goal in the 3-1 victory last Saturday and the tying goal in the aggregate total.

While Nestor said he will evaluate the situation, Antoniuk has expressed a desire to stay in this location.

"I obviously would love to return to (the Rowdies) because of what we've been able to accomplish," said Antoniuk, who has played for NASL clubs Montreal Impact, Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Charleston Battery and FC Edmonton. "This team has a great group of characters and we have really bonded. It was a great group to play alongside with and it would be great to come back but I know this is a business and (Nestor) has to make a business decision."

Antoniuk, who is one of eight children, began his career in 2005 with the Portand Timbers of the MLS, scoring 13 goals in 24 games.

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Celebration Time, Come On: The Rowdies will put a cherry on top of their epic season when they hold two celebration events in St. Petersburg.

Starting Friday, the Rowdies will showcase the NASL Soccer Bowl trophy during a presentation at 8:30 p.m. as a part of the First Friday event on Central Avenue between Second and Third streets. After the event, players will be available to take photos with them and the trophy.

On Sunday, the team will have a more formal celebration at Al Lang Stadium from noon to 3 p.m., which will include autograph sessions and the selection of seats for the 2013 season.

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