Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sports

New arrival Needham solidifies Rowdies defense

ST. PETERSBURG — For three months, Jay Needham was in soccer limbo.

The central defender had just completed his second season with Puerto Rico, where he was a mainstay on the back line, logging a team-high 2,236 minutes during the regular season.

But there were signs that all might not be well on the "Island of Enchantment."

Attendance in 2012 suffered while the Islanders played a majority of their games at the Bayamon Soccer Complex — their auxiliary practice stadium — while Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel was converted from a baseball stadium to a soccer-specific facility.

Needham could become a free agent after 2012, though the club held an option for 2013. After the season, the club announced it was declining the options on all players while working out budget concerns.

With his Islanders' future in doubt, Needham and his agent started looking for other teams. On Jan. 7, he signed a three-year deal with the Rowdies.

"It was a difficult decision what to do at first because my wife had all her work stuff set up down there. I had a very comfortable situation there. I was, literally, two blocks from the beach," Needham, 28, said. "We had great friends there, so I really loved it. At the same time, you could just see something wasn't right.

"As soon as I knew a deal wasn't going to happen with Puerto Rico, it was an easy decision to come to the Rowdies; a no-brainer. When the champions want you, you come to the champions."

In late December, the NASL said Puerto Rico would not play the 2013 spring season while the team reorganized operations. In February, the team canceled the fall portion as well while planning for a return in 2014.

Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said Needham was the team's No. 1 offseason target at center back.

"I had always seen Jay as someone who was an old-fashioned center half … in respect of understanding that he's our last line of the defense. And he competes very well in the air and on the ground," Hill said.

"He's a great character, great personality and fits in perfectly to our scheme."

Despite a rocky preseason, the addition of Needham has been a major boost to a back line that returns nearly intact from last season's championship run. (Among the regulars, only Land O'Lakes native J.P. Rodrigues wasn't brought back, a difficult decision Hill said was brought about by economics.)

The Rowdies have not allowed a goal through two games. In the opener, a scoreless tie, Carolina was completely shut down. In a 2-0 victory, San Antonio, which scored 10 goals in four games against Tampa Bay last season, managed only a few threats.

"The defense is a really tight-knit group that understands the way we want to play, the way we want to condense the field, the way we want to … put pressure on (the opponent)," Needham said. "It's guys that understand their roles. You could see it building and building and building in the preseason. And then we finally got to put it into practice in the first game of the season, and it looked wonderful.

"The good thing is we've set ourselves a high standard that we can keep building on. We do that, and we'll be celebrating another championship at the end of the season."

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Published: 02/17/18