ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers first played each other as members of the North American Soccer League 35 years ago.
Tonight, their tempestuous rivalry comes full circle.
For the first time since the reincarnation of the NASL, both teams will face off brandishing the nostalgic monikers that conjure images of their storied pasts. The Strikers were known as the Miami FC Blues until reverting back to their original name before the 2011 season. The Rowdies acquired the trademark to use the legendary name this past offseason.
"Strikers vs. Rowdies, historically, is the game," said Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill, who got his first experience with the game as a player/coach for the Rowdies in 1992 when both teams were members of the American Professional Soccer League. "There's no other game that will capture the imaginations, in my mind anyway."
Rowdies midfielder Keith Savage, who played with Portland before joining Tampa Bay, compares the Rowdies-Strikers rivalry to the one the Timbers have with Vancouver in the Major League Soccer.
"This (rivalry) feels similar," he said. "It's a local derby. It's fun. Fans are fired up, and you just get a sense from them and the environment and coaching staff that it's just a fun game to play."
Savage's father, Bruce, was a defender for the Strikers during the 1982 season. Rowdies forward Matt Clare also is familiar with the rivalry through family. John Clare, a Strikers defender, would often take his preteen son to training sessions and games, where Matt got a firsthand look at the vitriol between the clubs.
"You kind of learn the history of it just through that," Matt Clare said. "Every game between those two was always three or four sending-offs. There was always some pushing, some shoving. It's always been a battle between the two clubs."
A battle that should intensify as each team returns to its historic roots.
"The name changes only heighten the importance of the game," Hill said. "We have supporters here that can go back and reflect and recite games gone past years from the mid 1970s and so on."
Tonight, at Al Lang Field, the two sides vie for the Coastal Cup, a trophy given to the winner of the season series since the 2010 season. Tampa Bay hasn't lost to its rival in league play the past two seasons (four wins, four ties), capturing the Coastal Cup both times.
In 2012, the Rowdies hope to keep the status quo.
"We don't look at any one opponent different than the other," Clare said. "We know that every game is going to be a dogfight, but when Fort Lauderdale comes to town, you know it means more as far as the Florida pride goes."