TAMPA — FC Tampa Bay owner Andrew Nestor expected to be preparing for a playoff game this past weekend in Puerto Rico, but instead he was in the club's downtown Tampa office beginning realignment of next year's roster.
The team's season ended Oct. 1 with a 1-0 playoff loss to Minnesota at Al Lang Field, but Tampa Bay made significant strides in its second season.
Tampa Bay made the playoffs for the first time, finished third in the regular season and hosted a first-round playoff game. The club has established a core group of players — nine from this year's team are signed for 2012.
Despite an 18 percent decline in tickets distributed from its first season at Steinbrenner Field — Tampa Bay's average attendance was 3,159 this season, but the club said the actual gate numbers were an average of only 100 fewer fans from last year — the front office saw its first year at Al Lang Field as a success.
"Going out in the first round was unfortunate," Nestor said. "In the front office, we really thought we could go a lot further, but that's what happens in an American-style playoff format, and we can't let one game ruin a positive season. We have a lot to build on as we move forward.
"We have a good core of veteran players who know how to win and who like being here. Now we're trying to make moves to refine the roster and get us over the hump."
The roster priorities, Nestor said, are signing a left back to shore up a veteran back row, a big target forward who can complement leading scorer Mike Ambersley and one or two consistent attacking midfielders.
Coach Ricky Hill said his team allowed too many cheap goals, so emphasis will be on defense.
"I was pleased with how they tried to play the game," Hill said. "We conceded a number of goals, and I believe if we're going to do better as a team, we are going to have to eliminate those cheap goals.
"The burden on us is to score at least twice in every home game. That's one thing I'd like to concentrate on (is) producing attractive football but at the same time making sure we have that solidity in the back that will allow us to win games. I'm not a defensive coach, but I will be paying attention to the personnel we have on defense."
Tampa Bay was winless against the league's top two teams, Carolina and Puerto Rico, going a combined 0-7-1.
"What we don't have that they do perhaps is a collective resilience that only comes with being together for a certain period of time and adding one or two pieces to that picture," Hill said. "They definitely have that edge over us, when games are tight, they have things to draw upon to get you over that hurdle collectively."
Nestor said having a soccer specific stadium in a downtown location remains a top priority. The team will play at Al Lang Field for another season.
"It's essential to have that stadium," Nestor said. "From a location standpoint, I think our view is a little different than what it was a year ago, definitely different than two or three years ago because we have had an experience in St. Pete. At the end of the day, what's important to us is to be in a central location near a downtown where you have the amenities around the stadium, not just at the stadium."
Asked if that situation exists in St. Petersburg, Nestor pointed to Al Lang Field and how Portland renovated its minor-league baseball stadium to a soccer-only facility for MLS.
"There are definitely ways to get creative," Nestor said.
As for the Rowdies name, owned by a Texas apparel company, Nestor said the team still is working toward likely buying the right to use the name or the name outright.
"It's something that takes a while," Nestor said. "We're still working toward a resolution, and it's not completely up to us. Those things aren't completely 100 percent in our control, so you do what you can over time."