TAMPA — When the Steinbrenner Field gates opened at 6:02 p.m. Saturday, ushering in a new era of Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer, Joe Paight was the first fan out of about 100 lined up outside to enter the stadium.
Paight, the boys soccer coach at Tampa's Middleton High, quickly grabbed his complimentary rosters from the usher and rushed to grab a seat in the Ralph's Mob section behind the south goal.
"It's great to have soccer back in Tampa," Paight said, beaming as he viewed the converted baseball field for the first time. "I think it was really a shame when the old Mutiny team folded."
Professional soccer made its return to Tampa as the Rowdies opened the home portion of their schedule against Austin.
For some fans, the nine-year wait — the Mutiny was part of MLS's contraction in 2001 — was entirely too long.
"This is a really big area for soccer," said Domenic Colangelo, who accompanied Paight to the game. "It's surprising it's not more popular than it is."
On this night, anyway, soccer was popular.
An announced sellout crowd of 8,082 screaming, chanting, enthusiastic supporters took in the Rowdies' 2-2 tie with the Aztex.
Team owner and president Andrew Nestor hopes his team can continue to build on the legacy of the old Rowdies while expanding the fan base to include a younger breed of fan who might not have been alive when the Rowdies last played in 1993.
"It's exceeded my expectations," Nestor said. "The people are already familiar with the team. It's such a mix.
"You see half the stadium filled with vintage Rowdies jerseys and half filled with new merchandise, young and old, soccer clubs, supporting clubs, all the old Rowdies."
After the game, Rowdies coach Paul Dalglish said the crowd was "brilliant."
"They were unbelievable," he said. "They're going to come here and see more goals scored. They're going to come here and see maybe better performances. But I tell you what: They're never going to go anywhere and see more heart from a team."
Jeff Thompson, wearing a brand new Rowdies jersey as he tailgated in the parking lot a couple of hours before the game, bought season tickets the moment they became available. He drove from Fort Walton Beach — about 435 miles — on Friday night, picking up college-age sons Morgan (Florida) and Alex (USF) along the way, and was one of the first in the parking lot.
"We were kind of sitting over there tailgating with a misty look in our eye," Thompson said. "We were like, 'We can't believe we finally have soccer in Tampa.' "
The Rowdies are back. And judging by Saturday's turnout, bay area fans couldn't be happier.