ST. PETERSBURG — Although Rowdies fans haven't had many recent opportunities to show out at Al Lang, the United Soccer League turnstiles keep turning at a record rate.
With every club now at least halfway through its season, the USL has surpassed the 1 million mark in attendance at the earliest point in its history. Last year's high of 1.5 million is a cinch.
And though it won't be during the three-game homestand the Rowdies kick off tonight, who knows? Al Lang Stadium might be where the 2 million threshold gets crossed.
"We're already discussing what we'll give the 2 millionth man, woman or child. We know it won't be $2 million," USL commissioner Jake Edwards said.
Average Al Lang attendance has been 5,663 through nine games, good for seventh out of the 30 USL teams — but actually just a couple hundred more than the league average. That's because top draw Cincinnati is well ahead of everyone else at nearly 20,000 per game.
Sacramento, considered a front-runner along with Tampa Bay for an Major League Soccer expansion franchise, is the only other club averaging five figures at 11,569.
There are no qualms from Edwards — no relation to Rowdies owner Bill Edwards — with franchises such as Tampa Bay looking to move to the top of the U.S. soccer pyramid.
"We support it. We have teams with different ambitions," he said. "We've got five, I would argue, of the more successful MLS teams that came out of the USL. We helped prove the market, the teams were able to make the move up. It actually gives us a sense of pride."
Several USL sides are actually MLS reserve squads. And the USL, headquartered in Tampa, is looking to keep growing. It has already doubled in size since 2014; the league mission statement, Vision 2020, calls for another dozen franchises by that year.
After a 3-0 start that promised a possible stroll through the league, Tampa Bay has won only four of its past 16, putting it in fourth place in the East (7-5-7, 28 points). A team the Rowdies outclassed in the season opener, Orlando City B, stole a point last week with a 95th-minute penalty.
"It's a very tough league," Jake Edwards said. "The Rowdies started really strong, were able to get a few home games under their belt, but they've found out teams like Cincinnati, Louisville, Richmond … have very good players. All the feedback I've gotten from (the Rowdies), they're loving it, finding it extremely high in quality. They're in a good spot."
Though their current spot (top four) would have the Rowdies hosting a playoff game, three teams are within a victory of surpassing them. And tonight Tampa Bay hosts East-leading Charleston (10-3-5, 35 points); the Battery has already beaten the Rowdies twice.
On Thursday, Tampa Bay added a potentially large piece toward boosting its standing in forward Walter Restrepo, released last week by the NASL's New York Cosmos.
"Walter is a player we've known for a long time, and he's really exciting to watch," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said. "He's got the killer instinct to take on defenders and go for the goal, which will complement our current roster nicely."
Restrepo (16 goals, 20 assists in six NASL seasons) likely will be available off the bench tonight.