ST. PETERSBURG — As tumultuous as the Rowdies' 2015 season got at times — coach fired, long winless stretches — circumstances nearly tilted in a far-better direction.
The NASL's unique postseason format, one spot guaranteed to essentially the one-third mark leaders, is back. The spring season starts when the Rowdies host Indy Eleven at 7:30 tonight at Al Lang Stadium.
And Stuart Campbell, now the coach after taking over for Thomas Rongen, will do all it takes to avoid what happened last year: The Rowdies finished second to New York by a mere point in the spring.
"It's a sprint straight from the offset, isn't it?" Campbell said. "The way the league's structured, there's going to be times where you may be tiring, and over the course of a (longer) season you would have been happy to take a point. But, because of the reward on offer (to the spring winner) you may — well, not may, I will — take a gamble or two along the way in regards to trying to gain three points instead of one."
In other words, win at all costs. Tonight offers a fitting first foe, as the biggest slip last spring came at Indy when the Rowdies felt robbed. They were forced to play 9-on-11 in the 89th minute and gave up a tying goal in an almost unheard-of eighth minute of stoppage time.
Second place in the spring left them in good stead to nab one of the other three playoff spots with a decent fall, but it all went downhill as Tampa Bay went 5-10-5 in the second portion of the schedule. Rongen was fired after a 2-6-1 fall start, and Campbell took over on an interim basis.
From a team that scored just 18 goals in those 20 games, there were bound to be changes. In December, Tampa Bay scooped up forward Tom Heinemann, who scored 12 goals for Ottawa last year.
He'll be the "1" in Campbell's preferred alignment, a 4-2-3-1 with fellow new face Michael Nanchoff (formerly with Portland of MLS) looking tremendous in preseason as one of the two holding midfielders. Kalif Alhassan, also with MLS experience, has been added to midfield, which returns talented second-year pro Darwin Espinal, Juan Guerra and the most well known Rowdie, Freddy Adu.
Georgi Hristov looks to regain the form that saw him score 21 goals for the Rowdies over the 2013-14 seasons; he had just two last year.
New captain Tam Mkandawire heads an incredibly deep defensive group, any of eight players worthy of starting. "There's very strong competition just to get on the field, and that's how it should be," he said. "No one should feel their place is too secure."
Mkandawire added that the club is ready physically after playing three MLS teams in the preseason, then embarking on a swing through England.
"Any professional soccer player will tell you the first three weeks of preseason training is very tough. You've got morning and afternoon sessions, so almost their rest was going out to play an MLS team on a Saturday night," Campbell said. "Then rather than take it easy and play some local team, we thought we'd go and really test them over in England, against teams that are three-quarters of the way through the season so they couldn't be any fitter if they tried."
What he said he liked most was how their British opponents didn't hold back, and how the Rowdies responded.
"I was interested to see how my team would adjust, and they stood up. They looked after each other, which is pleasing considering it's a lot of new players in the group," Campbell said.
Despite a push from newcomer Michael Langer, goalkeeper Matt Pickens is expected to start.
Campbell hopes their fitness level gives the Rowdies an early edge. Strangely the three state foes (Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami) will all be road trips, but on the plus side the Rowdies will only play two of the 10 spring games out of state.
As for Campbell's style of play, now with a full offseason under his belt?
"Hopefully it's going to be exciting soccer," he said. "There's going to be big emphasis on the defenders to do their part and then also we've got some creative players on the team, and I want them to go out, express themselves and score, create, and ultimately win games. Can't look into the crystal ball, but all I can say is we're ready."