ST. PETERSBURG — Sitting on a shaded metal bleacher at Al Lang Stadium, his gaze alternating between the grass field where the Tampa Bay Rowdies are training and the sailboats docked beyond the outfield wall, Perry Van Der Beck turns nostalgic at the thought of another Rowdies vs. Sounders soccer match.
"Just the name itself, you've got to respect that," said Van Der Beck, the Rowdies' executive vice president, technical director and director of player development. Van Der Beck was 18 when he joined the original Rowdies as a player in 1978 and remained with the team until the North American Soccer League folded following the 1984 season.
"They were good games, quality games, very competitive. We always respected them."
Tonight, the contemporary Rowdies of the new NASL renew a long-dormant grudge with the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer when the teams meet at Al Lang Stadium in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup.
In the first incarnation of the NASL, the Rowdies and Sounders were marquee franchises, regularly packing passionate fans into NFL stadiums. The Rowdies played in Tampa Stadium; the Sounders were tenants of the Kingdome. Both teams played an aggressive, attacking style that was particularly crowd pleasing.
"Those games were very hard-fought because we both brought that British mentality to the game," said Derek Smethurst, a forward who played 31/2 seasons with the Rowdies (1975-78) and two with the Sounders (1979-80). "Some of the things players get cards for now, we would just get up, dust ourselves off and play on. People wanted to see that. They wanted to see the quick-passing, hard-hitting style of soccer."
After the NASL's demise in 1985, the Rowdies continued in various lesser-known leagues until disbanding in 1993. The Sounders quit play in 1983 before reorganizing in 1994 and continuing until 2008 when they were members of the USL First Division. In 2009, the Sounders joined MLS.
Today, the Pacific Northwest is North America's soccer mecca. Through five home games at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders are averaging 39,066 fans, nearly double the number of any other MLS team.
The Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps, also members of the original NASL who began play in the MLS as expansion franchises in 2011, have received exceptional fan support as well — the Timbers selling out every game (20,674) this season while Vancouver averages just shy of 20,000 per home outing.
"I think a lot of it comes from just the population you have, particularly in Portland and Seattle where you have a lot of young professionals and a hipster vibe," Rowdies owner and general manager Andrew Nestor said. "I feel like professional soccer plays well with that crowd, particularly vintage brands like the Timbers and the Sounders. And those organizations have done a great job marketing their teams."
The Rowdies hope to follow the Sounders' blueprint: an original NASL team that — through grassroots efforts aimed at youth players, methodically building the team brand and creating a unique atmosphere at its downtown stadium — can pack the stands every match while competing at a high level.
"I think we're taking all the right steps," Nestor said. "It takes time to develop that, because we're talking about building a genuine fan base."