Rowdies prepared to press on without defender David Najem

Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell is counting on his team to rebound from the loss of defender David Najem Saturday against Real Monarchs SRC at Al Lang Stadium, [Times files (2016)]
Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell is counting on his team to rebound from the loss of defender David Najem Saturday against Real Monarchs SRC at Al Lang Stadium, [Times files (2016)]
Published April 20
Updated April 20

SAINT PETERSBURG — When describing the loss of defender David Najem, Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell and the player who will replace Najem chose the same word.

Gutted.

That settled over the Rowdies last weekend, one that was bad enough based on the score alone. But Tampa Bay didn't just drop a 5-0 contest at New York Red Bulls II —Najem went out early. On Friday it was announced he has a torn ACL.

Najem, 25, had been the right back every minute of his first season with the Rowdies. He will be replaced, starting with Saturday night's home contest against Real Monarchs SLC, by Clearwater native Kyle Curinga.

Kickoff is 7:30 at Al Lang Stadium.

"We're all devastated for young David," Campbell said. "He's not only an excellent player but he's an excellent human being. Very popular in the locker room and the guys, you could see it, they were all devastated for him. You could visually see it in all their faces. Once he went down like that I think we all knew it was something pretty serious."

Najem was injured after the first goal, and the score stayed 1-0 until halftime. New York scored a world-class goal for 2-0, then the game shifted as Tampa Bay's Junior Flemmings was denied on a point-blank shot right before the Red Bulls II made it 3-0 on a similar circumstance.

A week after they won 5-0, the Rowdies arrived on the complete opposite end as New York added a late pair.

"(Last) Saturday night it feels like the end of the world but then when you process it… we created a number of chances that we just couldn't convert," Campbell said. "(But) the way the players have gone about the work this week, has been excellent. Ultimately, it's one loss, it's three points, that's it."

Both Tampa Bay's defeats have come to the top teams in the USL's Eastern Conference, with the Rowdies (3-2) sitting right behind them, tied for third with Indy Eleven.

Saturday's opponent, one of the few Western Conference sides on the schedule, is third in its conference but has played two fewer games than leaders Sacramento and Orange County. Real Monarchs are 4-0.
There will be a lot going on for Curinga, as Monarchs are his last team.

"Yeah, it's interesting," he said. "I knew that we would be playing these guys, and I was really looking forward to it. Grateful to get an opportunity, gutted for 'Naj' but, you know, it happens in sports sometimes."

Curinga, 24, played at Clearwater Central Catholic before heading to Florida Atlantic University. After starting his pro career in Finland, Curinga was a trialist for the Rowdies ahead of last year's Florida Cup but ended up going to Utah. The Monarchs won the West regular season title with Curinga playing in 26 matches.

"It's a funny 'ol game. It's pretty ironic that his first start's going to be against his former club," said Campbell. "He's ready for his opportunity, and I'm sure he'll take it. Kyle had a very good preseason. He's been excellent day in, day out, in training."

The Monarchs will supply a stern test for the re-worked Rowdies defense. SLC (11 goals) is led by Chandler Hoffman, who is one away from being the third to score 50 goals while playing in the modern USL.

Georgi Hristov has 56 as a Rowdie, though some of those came when the team performed in the NASL. Hristov again will attempt to tie and/or surpass franchise leader Derek Smethurst's total of 57.

Curinga hopes a return to Al Lang, where the Rowdies are 3-0, will get help push them past what he knows is a strong foe.

"This is our house, we've got a great record here, and we're going to look to continue that," Curinga said. "The fans are gonna be what pushes us. I think we'll have a good Saturday."

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