After a fairly successful campaign through the preseason schedule, the Tampa Bay Rowdies (yes, that's their name once again) open their third season tonight at Puerto Rico. Next Saturday, the Rowdies return to Al Lang Field for their home opener against Edmonton. But before the first kick, take a peek at the story lines that will figure prominently throughout the weeks and months ahead.
With a glut of forwards on the roster — six total, including holdovers Mike Ambersley, Tsuyoshi Yoshitake and Matt Clare along with newcomers Daniel Antoniuk, Luke Mulholland and Fafa Picault — Rowdies coach Ricky Hill has decided to switch to his preferred 4-3-3 formation, abandoning the 4-4-2 and extra midfielder the team played with last season. "There's no point playing with two (forward) and having four in surplus," Hill said. "(I) … played all my career practically in a 4-3-3, and it is a very attacking formation." The key will be the forwards' ability to maintain possession in the final third and keep pressure on the opposing goal. Otherwise, the team could be stretched thin in midfield and vulnerable to a quick counterattack.
The ageless wonder
While most men his age have long ago traded in a pair of shin guards for a coach's whistle, 37-year-old midfielder Takuya Yamada — he'll be 38 on Aug. 24 — remains an integral component to the Rowdies' success. The versatile Yamada logged the sixth-most minutes (1,992) on the team last season and proved a capable alternative at defender when the team needed help in the back. He'll again fill a wild-card role for coach Ricky Hill. "His professionalism and appetite and determination and drive are exemplary," Hill said. "He's a credit to himself, and we're fortunate as an organization to have him as one of our leaders on the field." Assisting Yamada in the leadership department is England's Stuart Campbell, who takes over the David Hayes player/assistant coach role, with the emphasis on player. Hayes (no longer with the team) was brought in last season as Hill's assistant but was pressed into game action as early season injuries mounted on defense. Campbell, a 34-year-old midfielder, played for Bristol Rovers in Football League One (the third tier in England) in 2011. Said Hill: "His vast experience and ability can help with what we already have in place."
The MVP candidate
After joining Tampa Bay in 2011 from A.C. St. Louis, Mike Ambersley quickly established himself as the team's most dynamic player. An unselfish striker with a tireless work rate, the 29-year-old led Tampa Bay with 11 goals (tied for third in NASL) and seven assists (third in NASL) and was named to the league's Best XI. He enters the 2012 season as one of a handful of preseason favorites to win the Golden Ball award, given annually to the league's top player. Ambersley, though, isn't focused on individual awards. "If you have 20 goals and your team is 2-26, you're not going to win anything," he said. "The most important thing is just to win, and then from there, all the other outside things will take care of themselves."
Additions and subtractions
Besides Stuart Campbell, the most notable offseason addition for the Rowdies was Luke Mulholland — who, coincidentally, knocked the team out of the playoffs last season by scoring the lone goal in Tampa Bay's 1-0 loss to eventual NASL champion Minnesota. The Preston, England, native scored two game winners in the playoffs for the Stars. "He gave them the lift they needed in that latter part of last season, so I'm hoping he can do the same for us through our season," coach Ricky Hill said. Also, keep an eye on Fafa Picault, who wowed scouts at the NASL combine. The 5-foot-8 forward will spend a couple of weeks on the bench with a slight fracture of his big toe but offers a blend of speed and athleticism to the Rowdies' attack that was missing after the departure of Pascal Millien, a fan favorite. Millien joined the Sligo Rovers (in the League of Ireland Premier Division) during the offseason. Also gone is dynamic midfielder Mozzi Gyorio. Hill said the Rowdies had hoped to re-sign Gyorio but couldn't come to terms on a contract.