TAMPA — Tampa Bay Rowdies coach Ricky Hill can still recall his most disappointing on-the-field soccer moment with uncanny accuracy.
The year was 1985. Hill was midway through a brilliant playing career as an attacking midfielder for Luton Town, a team that had been promoted to England's First Division with Hill's help a few years prior.
Luton Town was playing Everton — that year's league title holder and European Cup Winners' Cup champion — in the semifinals of the FA Cup and clinging to a 1-0 lead with three minutes remaining. Hill scored the only goal in the first half, a right-footed shot from the edge of the 18-yard box that smacked off the post and into goal.
"We totally dominated though we missed a bagful of chances in the first half, and (Everton) just ran out of ideas," Hill said. "… The referee gifted them a free kick outside the box … fellow mis-hits it, goes under the keeper's arm. The whole place erupts in blue and white. We're just devastated. (Everton) beat us with another free kick in extra time."
In 1988, Luton Town made it back to the FA Cup semifinals before losing to eventual champion Wimbledon with Hill on the bench, injured.
"That was the most disappointing thing of my career that I've experienced because it's everyone's ambition to play in the Cup final, particularly the FA Cup final," Hill said. "… FA Cup has been close to me. I've had great memories of it and good times. But it's always eluded me ultimately."
Tonight, Tampa Bay will play its third-round match of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, American soccer's version of the FA Cup. The Rowdies will host Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids.
For Hill, the chance to coax the Rowdies to a deep Cup run might help ease the sting of the near misses from his playing days.
"I know," Hill said, "that the group of players that we have are fairly capable any given day of playing against anyone in the United States."
Rowdies president and general manager/owner Andrew Nestor had the opportunity to sell the game and let Colorado host tonight's third-round match. Fellow NASL sides Minnesota and Atlanta took the deal, but Nestor declined.
"I think it's great not just for the players to test themselves against (Colorado), but obviously for the fans, for the Rowdie fans (to) get a chance to watch a MLS team in their own stadium," said Rowdies midfielder Stuart Campbell, who reached the FA Cup quarterfinals with Bristol Rovers during the 2007-08 season and defeated a Fulham squad featuring Americans Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride along the way.
"I'm sure (the fans) will come out in numbers and have a great night, and they'll get behind the team as they have been all season and make it a really good atmosphere."
Tampa Bay last participated in the U.S. Open Cup in 2010, bowing out in the second round to Miami FC after a 2-1 overtime loss.
"This team is capable of going a lot further than the 2010 team did," Rowdies defender Andres Arango said. "I'm hoping to get past these rounds, keep playing MLS teams and, hopefully, make it to the final."