Ironically, by defeating the Minnesota Stars in a penalty shootout Saturday for the NASL Soccer Bowl championship, the Tampa Bay Rowdies earned a star. Specifically, one to add to the team logo, matching the star won during the original franchise's title run in its inaugural season in 1975.
But Saturday's final was anything but smooth. Here's how the resilient Rowdies persevered to claim a second NASL title just three seasons following the reintroduction of the team in 2010.
Saturday night's unsung hero
M Raphael Cox: A late-season addition, Cox proved his versatility by entering at left back after defender J.P. Rodrigues was forced to the bench in the 36th minute with a strained calf. The Rowdies were already short-handed on the back line because Takuya Yamada, who strained an MCL in Game 2 of the semifinal round, missed both legs of the final. When Rodrigues went down, the Rowdies were out of defenders so Cox, a midfielder by trade, slid back and was surprisingly effective. "Since Day 1, what (Rowdies technical director) Perry (Van Der Beck) and I have looked at is finding smart, experienced players who can fill multiple roles," Rowdies owner and president Andrew Nestor said. "…We don't have huge budgets. We don't have huge rosters so you need these players that can fill in wherever you need it and still have that quality."
Unsung hero, Part 2
D Andres Arango: Arango was in and out of the starting lineup earlier this season, but regained his form by the playoffs and was at his best in Saturday's final. While part of a makeshift defense that gave up only one goal in 120-plus minutes, Arango was dangerous on set pieces, nearly scoring on a powerful header from a corner kick in the 30th minute. Later, Arango headed down a corner toward the near post, which M Keith Savage poked into the net for the Rowdies' second goal.
When Saturday's Soccer Bowl went to a penalty kick shootout, the Rowdies had the clear advantage, and not just because goalkeeper Jeff Attinella was voted the NASL's best. Attinella has had plenty of success in high-pressure shootout situations. While starring at Countryside High, Attinella said his biggest game was a shootout victory. Same in college, where Attinella blocked three PKs against UNC Greensboro to lead USF to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
"I guess lady luck's on my side," said Attinella, who credited the Rowdies organization for giving him a detailed breakdown of every penalty kick a Minnesota player had taken in the NASL, a tip sheet that proved invaluable Saturday. Attinella guessed correctly on each of the five penalty shots, saving three.
Rowdies captain Frankie Sanfilippo nearly missed the final after spending the previous night battling the flu. Sanfilippo was unable to keep food down Saturday and was at the hospital seven hours before kickoff getting an IV. Coach Ricky Hill had a contingency plan had the veteran defender not be able to play — which Hill ended up using when Rodrigues went down — but Sanfilippo had no thoughts of skipping the final, saying "it didn't really cross my mind. Either way I was playing."
Backup GK Andrew Fontein didn't see one minute of action this season behind Attinella, but his predictive powers were encouraging. Moments before Saturday's final, Fontein told Attinella the Rowdies would tie the aggregate with a 3-1 win and take the title in a penalty shootout.
- The Rowdies sprayed Gatorade, champagne and, according to Hill, "anything else they could find" during the post-game celebration in the locker room.
- F Carl Cort played much of the postseason with a calf injury but still put in a full 120 minutes on Saturday while scoring the all-important first goal.
By the numbers
9: Goals scored this season by F Daniel Antoniuk, the team lead
12: Current unbeaten streak at Al Lang Field
35: Congratulatory texts from friends and family Attinella had on his phone after the game
"(Saturday) is a great example of how that Yoshi deal benefitted us. …To have Raphael Cox come in and play left back, to have Carl Cort show up, we don't have those players if we don't make the Yoshi deal. This is a really long season, and you need that depth. And I think that's where a lot of teams in our league fall short is they have a great starting 11, and then you get into that bench and that bench is pretty short." Andrew Nestor on how the transfer of Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, tied for the team lead in goals at the time, to Yokohama FC Hong Kong helped the Rowdies' championship effort in the long run
The Rowdies will hold two events this weekend in St. Petersburg to celebrate their NASL championship. At 8:30 p.m. Friday the team will present the Soccer Bowl trophy during First Friday, on Central Avenue between Second and Third streets. Afterward the team will have a booth where fans can take photos with the trophy. Sunday, the team will have the trophy at Al Lang Stadium from noon to 3 p.m., plus autograph sessions, and fans can select seats for 2013 season tickets.