Through two games, Rowdies coach Ricky Hill has been most pleased with his team's attitude and fitness level.
That, and the fact the team has conceded just one goal, which he says could easily have been avoided.
"Still need to do better regarding ball retention in good areas of the field," Hill said. "…Overall though, very pleased with the spirit and the attitude."
Tampa Bay proved very capable in defense in the preseason — a 4-3 loss to Fort Lauderdale in the finale notwithstanding — by shutting out five straight college opponents. The solid play of starting defenders Andres Arango, J.P. Rodrigues, Frankie Sanfilippo and Takuya Yamada, plus goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, has continued in the regular season.
Puerto Rico and FC Edmonton played long balls into the Rowdies' box, hoping a carom would create a scoring opportunity. The Rowdies defense, for the most part, has withstood the more direct attacks.
"It's been good for us because mentally we've had to be alert, mentally we've had to stay keen and alive to ensure that we don't concede off the first or the second ball when it falls, so that's been pleasing likewise," Hill said.
Carolina blues: Last season, Tampa Bay lost all four matches to Carolina by a combined 10-3. The RailHawks were the only team to sweep Tampa Bay.
But this isn't the same Carolina team that topped the NASL regular-season standings the past two seasons. Gone is F Etienne Barbara, who led the NASL with 20 goals and named most valuable player in 2011. Barbara has joined MLS's Vancouver along with former Tampa Bay standout Long Tan.
Barbara's partner up top, Pablo Campos, has also moved on. Campos was second in the NASL with 12 goals in 2011, including both in a 2-0 win over Tampa Bay in the teams' last meeting Sept. 3. Campos signed with NASL expansion club San Antonio in the offseason.
"Those Carolina games are a poor indictment on the ability that we had last year," Hill said. "For whatever reason, we never managed to come out with a good enough result for me. I can't say they were vastly better than us in any of those games. … We were always in it, but we always ended up shooting ourselves in the foot more often than not by defensive lapse in concentration or tracking or set pieces."
Tampa Bay has beaten Carolina once in six tries, a 2-1 road victory in the first meeting.
Injury update: F Fafa Picault hopes a walking boot on his right foot to protect a broken bone in his big toe will come off this week.
"Once it's off, maybe he can start joining in straight away," Hill said. "I would think within two weeks, he'll be really ingrained in the squad."