TAMPA — The first point in Fafa Picault's NASL career materialized, innocently enough, from a throw-in.
Rowdies defender J.P. Rodrigues flipped the ball to Picault to restart play against Fort Lauderdale in the Strikers' half of the field. With a defender trailing, Picault cut sharply to his right toward the goal, using his turbo boost to blow past his marker.
As he neared the end line, he slowed, searching for the right pass until Mike Ambersley briefly flashed open in the middle of the box. Picault left-footed an accurate ball to Ambersley, who buried the ball in the 30th minute for the Rowdies' first goal in a 3-1 Independence Day victory at Al Lang Field.
In eight seconds, Picault transformed a routine throw-in into something showcasing the speed and technical ability that made the forward a highly sought after prospect after the NASL combine in February.
"In flashes … he's shown that he's an immense talent," coach Ricky Hill said of Picault's assist after the July 4 victory. "Now I want those flashes — I'm being selfish — to be more regular and for longer periods."
Picault, who at 5 feet 8, 140 pounds is often the smallest player on the field, has had more time to display that talent in recent weeks, starting the past five games (four wins, one loss). He missed the monthlong training camp and first month and a half of the regular season after breaking a foot bone during the final day of the three-day NASL combine, an injury that was initially thought to be turf toe before an MRI revealed the more serious injury.
Picault, 21, made his Tampa Bay debut May 19 at Atlanta and has appeared in every game since.
"The last three starts I'm building my confidence with my body and just getting back to the normal game that I'm used to playing. That's helped a lot," Picault said. "I feel at least close to the level that I should be playing at."
Before arriving in Tampa Bay, Picault spent four seasons playing for the reserve squad of Italian side Cagliari Calcio. Picault never started a game in Serie A, Italy's top league; he played in the Campionato Nazionale Primavera, a league for reserve teams. But he trained with the first team under the tutelage of coach Massimiliano Allegri, now at famed AC Milan.
"The players are all technical," Picault said of his time in Italy. "It's not the fastest. In America, the game is extremely fast, extremely physical. There, it's less physical and more a lot of thinking, a lot of tactical play, a lot of technical play."
Picault, who said it took three months living on the island of Sardinia to learn Italian, has also appeared for the U.S. under-20 team. A dual citizen holding Haitian and American passports — his mother is Haitian and his father is French-Haitian — Picault (real first name Fabrice) was born in New York City and grew up there playing soccer at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan before moving to Miami at age 9.
"It's kind of the park that made me," he said. "My dad and I, we spent five, six hours in that park, every day, whatever it took. I didn't drink or (eat); I was just there all day, every day."
As the Rowdies embark on a two-game road trip that starts tonight at Minnesota, a healthy Picault brings another dimension to a team seeking a fifth straight victory.
"I'm a lot more confident now," he said. "When you're confident physically, your game elevates naturally."
Yoshitake honored again: Forward Tsuyoshi Yoshitake was named the NASL's player of the month for June despite missing the first half of June with a chest injury. In three games Yoshitake scored four goals and had one assist to help the Rowdies win all three. Last month Yoshitake was twice named the offensive player of the week.