ST. PETERSBURG — That the most noteworthy signing in Rowdies history coincided with the team's bye week only allowed more time to build up the hype surrounding Joe Cole.
Now, time to live up to it. There's a game to play tonight and Cole is expected to be on the field for it when Tampa Bay, which is not out of the NASL's spring title race, takes on expansion team Rayo OKC for the first time.
Cole, 34, a midfielder who has played in three World Cups for England and won as many Premier League titles for Chelsea, has been met with the highest of praise.
"In my mind I believe Joe Cole could still do a job in the English Premier League. That's how highly I value his playing ability," Tampa Bay coach Stuart Campbell said at Wednesday's introductory news conference.
Captain Tam Mkandawire, used to having players look up to him, has been on the giving end since the news of Cole's signing began to circulate. Mkandawire, 32, was born in Malawi but played professionally in England until joining the Rowdies last season.
"He was the player that was talked about. Great talent. Huge signing for us," Mkandawire said. "When I found out we were interested, it was amazing and I was delighted. He really is second to none and should bring a lot of quality and experience to our team."
So, no pressure, Joe.
Actually Cole's expectation level has matched that of Campbell and the rest of the Rowdies: To bring a championship back to Tampa Bay, which won the 2012 title but has not been to the playoffs since.
"I want to start something big. I want to win championships," Cole said Wednesday.
The quickest route to playoff qualification is winning the 10-game spring slate. The Rowdies appeared out of it by losing April 23 to then-perfect Carolina, but the RailHawks have since dropped two straight. New York and Carolina both lead at 12 points; the Rowdies are in fifth place with eight but have played one fewer game.
Only five games remain in the spring so tonight's is key, especially with the buzz surrounding Cole.
"The league's pretty funny, anybody can beat anybody. But we have a game in hand, and if we do our job correctly. … But, not trying to look further than (tonight) because we have to take care of business," Mkandawire said.
OKC is a point behind the Rowdies with two wins, both against Florida teams. Michel leads with three goals and former MLS veteran Robbie Findley has two.
"They're a good side. But so are we," Mkandawire said.
Even if they'll be the side feeling a little more pressure to perform now.
"I've told Joe on numerous occasions how good the Rowdies fans are," Campbell said. "So please don't disappoint. Everybody come out, let's fill the stadium for him and give him a proper Rowdies welcome."