TAMPA — When first-year FC Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill sat down to examine his new team in film sessions during the offseason, the England native noticed a glaring weakness in its defensive philosophy.
Much like it has this season, Tampa Bay played with four defenders on its back line. Often, though, Hill noticed the two fullbacks would move up into the attack, forcing the two central defenders to cover the entire width of the field at times.
The result led to plenty of breakaways and one-on-one opportunities against goalkeeper Daryl Sattler. Tampa Bay surrendered 46 goals during its inaugural season, fourth most in USSF Division 2, and that was one of the major reasons the team was one of four to miss the playoffs.
"It was very novel and also very brave of the side of how they played," Hill said. " … In a romantic type of way, that's (a lovely style to play). Barcelona play it, and some of the best teams in the world play that style. Unfortunately, my take or stance on it is the fact that they are defenders. Their first job is to defend."
One of Hill's first on-the-job adjustments was to revamp the way the team held its position along the back line. When one wing back advances upfield to create another attacking option, the opposite wing back locks in with the central defenders to keep three players in front of Sattler at all times.
"Your net is basically like your banking account. You don't want people going in and stealing your money, scoring goals," said Sattler, who has recorded two clean sheets in three games this season and on Monday was named NASL defender of the week. " … We're allowing the outside backs to go forward, but, first and foremost, do your role. If it's on, go for it, and the other three will shift over and defend the goal. Right now, I mean, it's delightful."
During the offseason, Tampa Bay did almost a complete overhaul of its back line. Of the four defenders with the most game appearances from 2010 — Yendry Diaz, Graham Tatters, Julian Valentin and Rob Valentino — only Diaz is still with the team, though unavailable after a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee.
Tampa Bay brought in Andres Arango from Minnesota and Tampa native J.P. Rodrigues from Miami FC. Frankie Sanfilippo played in 30 games for USL Conference champion Rochester in 2010 and took over as Tampa Bay captain from Valentin. Omar Jarun, who played the past two seasons in the Polish First League, was signed after Diaz went down.
The roster changes appear to be working, at least through the team's first three games. Tampa Bay is tied with Puerto Rico for fewest goals allowed (two) in the NASL.
How, then, are the new players able to mesh so cohesively in such a short amount of time together?
"It can be a long process that could take half a season or it could happen like we're doing it where it comes together pretty fast. I think it depends on the personalities of the players that you acquire," Jarun said. " … Last year with my team in Poland, when I was transferred in January to my new club, it was difficult to mesh with a lot of the guys. Guys had different ideas about how they wanted to play and the coach had a different philosophy, and it became a disaster."
The key, Hill said, is having experienced players.
"Football is such a universal game," he said. "We have players who speak different languages, but the principles of the game never really change. So if you have good players, they can play with other good players. And good players know positions and tactically where to take up positions irrespective of who the personnel are alongside them."