ST. PETERSBURG — If the motivation for fans to come to Al Lang Stadium matches that of the players inside it, tonight should be a special night.
The Rowdies return home after a three-week absence for a meeting with Carolina. And while a win would be a much-needed boost to Tampa Bay's playoff hopes, that wouldn't be the end of the contest's positive impact.
In what has been dubbed the "Go Gold'' match, part of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Rowdies chairman Bill Edwards has pledged to donate $10,000 to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital if the game is sold out.
"Everyone will be on board and hopefully our fans will be on board. All we gotta do is sell out and we've got $10,000 instantly," said Rowdies midfielder Keith Savage.
He and his teammates have even more incentive to win tonight. Edwards will kick in an extra $5,000 if the Rowdies are victorious.
The team has a special connection to Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and his name is Cole Eicher. The 14 year old from St. Petersburg has formed an indelible bond with the team since he was diagnosed with brain cancer in February, 2014.
After hearing of his prognosis, and that Eicher was a big soccer fan, the Rowdies invited Eicher — after six weeks of radiation treatment for a brain tumor — to practice. He was surprised to be signed as an official member of the Rowdies.
"I was his locker mate and we hit it off right away," Savage said. "I made sure to tell him it's not just a one-day thing … we're going to be a part of your life. It turns out he made an impact on pretty much the whole team. He's a grown man in a 14-year-old's body. It's incredible."
More incredible: Eicher has beaten cancer. Now he's doing all he can to promote awareness, with the hopes that others can experience his triumph.
Eicher spoke to the team early this week, his voice strong if a bit shaky from relaying his happiness.
"He had a great speech; he's very good at this by the way. I'm not as good as him. His mentality, his thinking and his soul … he's always been that positive and full of energy," said Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov. "Back then (in 2014) he had the cancer, he had lost a lot of weight, it was a bit said because he was at the young age. (Now) us as professional players, we'll do our best. Money, let's be honest, that's the most important thing about raising awareness so all the research can be done."
Other NASL teams were moved by Eicher's words, to the point that several are hosting similar campaigns.
"Last year what we did, was just the Rowdies. We raised a lot of money, did a great job, but that was basically it," Eicher said in his address to the team. "Now it's kind of bigger. But you guys are probably going to do it the best. I just know it."
Rowdies midfielder Joe Cole was so moved by Eicher's words, he pledged to donate $1,000 to All Children's for every goal Tampa Bay scores tonight.
Gold is the ribbon color that represents childhood cancer awareness and the Rowdies will have it on their jerseys tonight, and several affected children will be guests of the team.
"Surround yourself with those kids," Eicher said. "Ask questions. Make them a part of you … give them courage just like how you did to me. You took my mind off of cancer and you put it on soccer."
Kickoff is tonight at 7:30. Carolina (8-9-6, 30 points) comes in one point ahead of the Rowdies (7-8-8, 29), who have drawn two straight on the road, to follow a 1-6 span with a three-match unbeaten streak.
As of late Friday afternoon there were several thousand seats still available for purchase.