ST. PETERSBURG — Marcel Schafer's departure from the Rowdies was predetermined, with a major post awaiting back home in Germany. But the process sped up recently.
As in, this is it. Rowdies fans who enjoy watching the midfielder had better get to Al Lang on Friday. Schafer will play his final match for Tampa Bay with a 7:30 p.m. scheduled kick against Penn FC.
Rowdies owner Bill Edwards last week granted Schafer an early release from his contract so that he may immediately take over as sporting director for VfL Wolfsburg.
"It's like a bittersweet feeling," he said Thursday, after wrapping his final training session as a player. "I'm very excited (for) the great opportunity waiting for me in Wolfsburg. But on the other hand, everybody who knows me, who saw me on the soccer field knows about my passion, about my love for that game."
Of Schafer's 16 years as a pro, 10 were in Wolfsburg, where he holds the mark for most Bundesliga appearances. In the two years since he left, Wolfsburg narrowly held on to its spot in the top German division, winning a relegation playoff — as the last side eligible to do so, 16th place out of 18.
Signed to a two-year contract with the Rowdies prior to last season, Schafer had a massive impact. He was a driving force in Tampa Bay's ascension near the top of the USL's Eastern Conference standings last season and has scored seven goals while adding 14 assists
All the while, Schafer was getting a behind-the-scenes feel for how things work in the front office.
"It was a great time. I enjoyed every day with a fantastic franchise. I was really proud to be a part of the Rowdies family," the 34-year-old said. "The relationship between me and (Wolfsburg) is really strong. We already signed a contract before I came to the U.S., so it was almost clear that I would go back after my time here. So I can't wait for it, but now it's time to enjoy my last game here in Al Lang Stadium."
The Tampa Bay midfield soon will have a different look. The club has loaned Jack Blake to Real Monarchs SLC for the rest of the season, and on Wednesday added Afrim Taku and Dominic Oduro. Taku, 28, has played most of his career in native Albania while Oduro, a 23-year-old born in Ghana, lands from the USL Premier Development's FC Golden State Force.
If giving Schafer a proper sendoff isn't enough reason to perform well, Tampa Bay has the added incentive of trying to correct its previous result with Penn FC, a lackluster 3-0 defeat May 4 in Harrisburg. The teams are tied for 10th in the East, three points from the playoff cutline but just six points behind second-place Louisville City.
"The boys will have that extra motivation. (Schafer's) so well liked in the dressing room. Professional athletes want to win. When you add the fact that they want to win to send Marcel home happy, it's definitely an added thing," said coach Neill Collins.
Penn FC managed an enormous result in Louisville last Saturday, overcoming a 3-1 halftime margin to draw 3-3, and has scored eight goals in its last three matches. Former Rowdie Tommy Heinemann, who scored two of his season's three goals in the first meeting, is not on the travel roster. Two other ex-Tampa Bay players, Richard Menjivar and Lucky Mkosana, will likely start Friday.
Tampa Bay (5-5-3) has had a near two-week layoff, having won just once in its last seven.
"Obviously there's tactical things we've been working on. It's not something I really like to discuss. One, because you don't want to give anything away but mainly because, talk is cheap. What you work on's fine but, can you implement it at Al Lang? That's where we'll get judged," Collins said.
If the Rowdies get those things right, and do their part in giving Schafer a proper farewell, all he'd need for a perfect sendoff is for Germany to score a World Cup win over Sweden on Saturday afternoon — a match he will still be in town to watch.
"Yeah. That was part of the deal," Schafer said. "After the Sweden game, we will leave Saturday night. Because I have to start work on Monday."