ST. PETERSBURG — It's not quite a marathon, the fall season the Rowdies embark upon tonight at Al Lang, but Tampa Bay will welcome it compared to the sprint that was the 10-game spring slate.
"To be polite, it's unique," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said of the NASL's regular-season format that allows the spring champion, in this case Indy Eleven, an automatic playoff spot after just 10 games.
That's 10 out of a 32-game schedule. The fall is a true round-robin where every squad faces the other home and away.
"The second part of the season is more customary to how leagues, how the rest of the world operates, while the first 10 really is a sprint," Campbell said. "In any other league it's not until the 10-15 mark where things start to take shape."
And the top of the NASL is one big clump. Indy pulled off the spring title in dramatic fashion, needing to win by three goals in its finale to gain the tiebreaker over New York and beating Carolina 4-1, but only four points separated the top seven teams. Indy distinguished itself by not losing, but had six draws and only 11 goals until that last outing.
Tampa Bay (4-2-4) has 16 points, two behind Indy, overall. Indy, the fall champ and the two teams with the next most overall points qualify for the postseason.
Puerto Rico joins the league — it visits Al Lang on July 16 — and in all likelihood will have to win the fall to make the playoffs.
While there is plenty of time to sort matters, the Rowdies still want to get off to a strong fall start. It begins against Jacksonville, the same Armada side that Tampa Bay tied 1-1 to close the spring slate.
Unlike the Rowdies, Jacksonville took advantage of the most intended purpose of the split-season format, to coincide with the international transfer window. Jacksonville signed a Swedish duo (Alexander Andersson, Nicklas Maripuu) and got two MLS players on loan (midfielder Zach Steinberger, Houston; defender Karl Ouimette, New York Red Bulls).
Not to say the Rowdies won't follow suit at some point.
"I'm happy with what we've got but always looking to improve," Campbell said. "Overall, you take a step back. I'm disappointed we couldn't finish in first place but we're in a good place. I feel like we have a good squad."
Tampa Bay's acquisition of Joe Cole, a three-time World Cup player for England and three-time Premier League champion, has been enormous. Cole has controlled the midfield and been tireless, playing all but the final 12 minutes of five contests.
The biggest offseason pickup on offense, Tommy Heinemann, scored just twice after garnering 18 goals the past two seasons in Ottawa, where he was that franchise's all-time leading scorer. He found himself switched to a reserve role of late, sitting out one game completely and entering as a sub on three occasions.
That's far more action than Freddy Adu has seen as the most recognizable name on the roster. He hasn't even made the substitute list, aside from the U.S. Open Cup. His exclusion has been a mystery to many fans but speaks to the depth of the roster.
Tampa Bay's stay in the Cup lasted two games, ending in a 4-0 loss June 15 at Columbus. Last weekend Campbell put the players through the ringer of a full scrimmage and feels they are ready to resume.
And gladly, with a 7:30 kickoff. The June 11 game in Jacksonville was played at 4 p.m. in brutally hot conditions.
"Oh my life, I much rather we play at night," Campbell said. "I was struggling, and I'm on the sidelines. We needed the rest physically, but more important mentally."