TAMPA — After a 17-year hiatus, the Rowdies are back.
The new FC Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer franchise makes its U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 debut at 7 tonight against Crystal Palace Baltimore.
In 1975, the original Rowdies opened their inaugural season, becoming Tampa Bay's first professional sports franchise before folding in 1993. The new Rowdies hope to recapture some of the magic that made the original so remembered and beloved by area fans.
"Everything that the owners have been working towards to get this team in place all becomes a reality (today)," Rowdies coach Paul Dalglish said. "There's an excitement. A little bit of nerves. Nerves are a good thing. It shows you care, as long as you use it in a positive way."
Defender Julian Valentin, who was named team captain, said one of the reasons he signed with the Rowdies was the club's tradition.
He hopes to ignite a renewed passion for the Rowdies and soccer in general in the bay area.
"The more I'm around, the more I can really see how deeply ingrained this club is in the culture here," he said. "It's exciting to be part of that."
The Rowdies won't play in Tampa Bay until May 8 against the Austin (Texas) Aztex at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
Lack of support, however, won't be an issue in tonight's opener at UMBC Stadium.
Valentin suggested the Rowdies might have more fans in Baltimore than home side Crystal Palace. Forward Aaron Wheeler is from the Dundalk section of Baltimore and expects a large contingent of followers, as does Valentin, a native of Lancaster, Pa., and midfielder J.J. Adjeman-Pamboe, who has family in Baltimore.
"That's not a knock on (the Crystal Palace Baltimore) organization, but it says a lot about the people we have coming and the families that are there," Valentin said. "Hopefully, we have a good following, and I'm sure they'll be loud and vocal. I'm looking forward to it."
Wheeler, making his professional debut tonight, had more than 100 inquiries about tickets since the schedule was announced, and he expects "pretty much everybody from the community I'm from" to be in attendance.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm super nervous," Wheeler said. "It's a dream come true to play your pro debut in your hometown, but it's a double-edged sword because of expectations and stuff like that. After you get the first touch or two out of the way though, everything will be fine."
One of the uniquely American aspects of soccer, the field at UMBC Stadium has lines for field hockey, football and lacrosse, as well as soccer, painted on the turf, which could pose a problem for some of the international players not used to the confusing pattern.
It's not a huge concern to Dalglish, who had never seen such a field until his playing career took him to the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer in 2006.
"You seem to care about it a lot more before the game starts than once you're in the game," he said.
Another factor? The artificial turf at UMBC Stadium.
All of the Rowdies' preseason games and training sessions were held on natural grass. The ball tends to bounce higher on turf. Any spin on the ball becomes more pronounced.
"You learn to deal with it," Valentin said. "The game's a little bit different, a little bit bouncier. It's all part of the game. It's really not that much of an advantage for them."
Added Dalglish: "If you've got good players, you can play on anything."
The Rowdies endured a grueling seven-week preseason training schedule and five exhibition games, finishing 2-0-3.
In their last outing, the Rowdies scored an equalizing goal in the 85th minute against USF to salvage a 1-1 tie.
"We controlled possession, and then we kind of became a little bit impatient after 15-20 minutes because we hadn't scored on those early chances," Dalglish said, adding he was pleased with his team's response in the second half. "It might take us an hour to break teams down. We've just got to be patient. … Chances will arise and openings will occur."
Despite the uneven performance, Dalglish believes his team is ready to compete for a championship in its first season.
Starting tonight in Baltimore.
"If you look at the big picture of how we've gone over the seven weeks, we couldn't be fitter, we couldn't be more prepared, so they should be going into the game with extreme confidence," he said.
Bryan Burns can be reached at email@example.com.