ST. PETERSBURG — The look of the Rowdies' roster has been ever-changing, but unfortunately the results haven't followed suit.
Tampa Bay's extended dip in production has seen it drop to 12th in the Eastern Conference, while other clubs have upped their play and surpassed the Rowdies in the league table. Two of those teams happen to be visiting Al Lang Stadium next, beginning Saturday with Indy Eleven (7:30 p.m, kickoff).
"We know it'll be a tough task, as this league is getting tougher all the time," Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. "The standard of things is getting a lot better. And we need to get better — but we will."
No one is moping amid a stretch that has seen the Rowdies take just two matches — both against last-place, winless Toronto — from their past dozen.
But now, just past the midway point of the USL season, talk must turn into production or the Rowdies (6-8-4, 18 points) will miss the postseason. Last year Tampa Bay earned two playoff games, falling in the East semis.
In last weekend's 2-0 defeat at chart-topping Cincinnati (41 points), the Rowdies saw one midfielder (Kwadwo Poku) make his debut, another (Afrim Taku) get his first start and recently-returned D Kyle Porter enter the starting lineup. Goalkeeper Cody Mizell also got his first start since May.
It worked out for a half, but ever-dangerous Cincinnati pressed forward and got the breakthrough on Emmanuel Ledesma's ninth goal of the season in the 54th minute. Cincy put away the Rowdies on an 84th-minute breakaway.
"We've got a lot of new pieces, we had four debutantes (as starters) last Saturday," Collins said (Stefano Bonomo had played 61 minutes but also got his first start). "And that's not because I don't trust the people that were here, I do, but circumstances have dictated that I've had to make changes. These lads are going to get better as they get more games — we know that we need wins but, they'll come."
Of the players that took the field in Cincinnati, only five played in Collins' coaching debut May 19.
Bonomo and Poku both have proven goal-scoring histories, and there's a feeling that if one (or both) find the back of the net, the switch will flip for Tampa Bay. Both might be expected to get their first home starts against Indy.
"We're coming home this weekend and I think we need to get a result — for the fans, for everybody," Poku said. "It felt really great (to play last week) but the most important thing (was) we couldn't get the results. It's not over yet. We have ambition here, to get in the playoffs and we'll take it from there. I know we're working hard, the coaching staff, the guys, everybody."
Indy (8-6-4, 28 points) comes in on a 10-day break, and a small downturn which has seen it drop two of three, including 2-1 at Charleston on July 11.
Before that, the Eleven went on the type of run Tampa Bay seeks, three wins and two draws from five games, and they sit in sixth place.
Next weekend, the New York Red Bulls II, which have won three straight to climb into fourth place, visit Al Lang. The top eight teams make the postseason, with Tampa Bay currently five points out.
"One thing about the league table, regardless of other results, we need to win games," Collins said. "And we know what we need to do better. The boys are desperate to put things right. When you've worked the way they've worked, it's only a matter of time before things click into place."