When the Tampa Bay Rowdies folded their tent last year, most of the players of the area's longtime pro soccer team packed up and followed the game to other cities.
Not Derek Backman. The longest-tenured Rowdie since the team's 1988 reformation, Backman opted to stay planted at home in Spring Hill, 45 minutes north of Tampa, coaching local youth teams such as the Hernando Heat and Spring Hill Classic and working in his family's interior design business.
"I played a little with the St. Pete Kickers (amateur) team. I had offers for pro teams, but I didn't want to live away from home six months a year," said Backman, who earned a spot on the 1988 Rowdies roster right out of the College of Boca Raton (now Lynn University).
Last month, Backman returned to the local pro ranks when he joined the Tampa Bay Cyclones, the area's first-year entry in the United States International Soccer League's Southeast Pro Division. In four games, Backman has scored five goals, sparking the Cyclones to an eight-game winning streak.
"He was like finding the missing ingredient," said Cyclones forward Adrian Bush, who scored twice and set up a Backman goal in Tampa Bay's 4-1 win over the Orlando Lions on Friday night. "The addition of him to our front line has made our front line really solid. He's an experienced player who hustles all the time and makes you play better."
Tampa Bay (9-3) hosts the Greensboro Dynamo (8-4) at 7:30 tonight at the University of South Florida Soccer Stadium. A win over the two-time defending USISL champion Dynamo would definitely establish the Cyclones as one of the league's top teams.
At 29, Backman is the oldest player on the Cyclones, and though far past his prime, he has something to prove as the new leader of Tampa Bay's rebaptism into the pro soccer world.
"I went to Portugal last month and tried out for a few teams because in this country you're not known like you are when you play in Europe," said Backman, a native of South Africa who earned his U.S. citizenship last August. "I didn't get a spot over there, so the Cyclones starting up was the ideal situation for me. I also tried out for the (local pro) indoor team and would love to play in the MLS."
The expansion Tampa Bay Terror of the indoor National Professional Soccer League begin play at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Center in the fall and a Tampa team is among those that will play in the inaugural season of the outdoor Major League Soccer beginning next spring. But the Cyclones have the jump on the market.
"I'm so happy I stuck it out and can play in Tampa again," said Backman, who played every position but goalkeeper for the Rowdies but lines up at forward with former Hillsborough High and University of Tampa star Bush and 18-year-old Brazilian Junior for the Cyclones. "I played with the Rowdies for seven years, but I feel like I'm 22 and starting over again."
The Cyclones are a good club, Backman said, but not as skilled as some of those Rowdies teams he played on, and certainly not on the caliber of the Rowdies North American Soccer League phase from 1975-1984.
"In the games I've played, the team has played very well and created a lot of chances," Backman said. "And the (USISL) rules promote a style of soccer that is always going forward. The blend of the types of players we have up front seems to work very well. It's exciting soccer."
Who: Greensboro (N.C.) Dynamo (8-4) vs. Tampa Bay Cyclones (9-3).
What: A United States Independent Soccer League game.
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. at University of South Florida Soccer Stadium.
Notes: Greensboro won the USISL championship in 1993 and 1994, but first-year USISL entry Tampa Bay has won eight consecutive games.