ST. PETERSBURG ― Here’s a suggestion for those who want to follow the Rowdies this season: Buy a program.
The team that takes the field on Saturday in Memphis to open the 2019 United Soccer League season will look almost nothing like the team that opened the 2018 season. There are only two players on this year’s opening-day roster who were with the team to start last season ― midfielder Leo Fernandes and forward Sebastian Guenzatti.
Two of the team’s more popular players, Joe Cole and Georgi Hristov, both retired at the end of last season. Even ownership has changed. Bill Edwards sold the team to the Tampa Bay Rays in October.
“Things have changed drastically,’’ said head coach Neill Collins, who retired as a Rowdies player at midseason to take over for Stuart Campbell.
Collins said it’s not unusual for rosters to change every season in the USL. But this offseason has been especially active for the Rowdies. The result is a revamped group full of young players.
There is only one player who is over 30, reserve goalkeeper Chris Konopka. Midfielder Jordan Doherty is an 18-year-old from England who is on loan from Sheffield United. Should he play this summer he will be the youngest modern-day Rowdies player to take the field.
Fellow Englishman Caleb Richards is a 20-year-old midfielder who is on loan from Norwich City. Both have caught the eye of Collins.
Perhaps the biggest offseason acquisition was goalkeeper John McCarthy. The 26-year-old spent the previous four seasons with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer.
And then there is forward Juan Tejada. A 22-year-old from Panama, Tejada recently finished a four-year career at nearby Eckerd College. Prior to that he attended IMG Academy in Bradenton. Last year he played for the Lakeland Tropics in USL’s League Two while finishing his schoolwork at Eckerd.
Tejada got invited to a workout in December and was called back in January as a trialist. Tejada impressed in the preseason and made the 24-man roster. He has gone from a fan who attended many matches in the summer to a member of the team.
“To be honest I didn’t expect anything from (the workout),’’ said Tejada, who earned a double major in international business and business administration. “I just came to train. I was going to school and just finished up in January. It’s kind of amazing. I’m still here in St. Pete. I’ve been here almost five years now. This is my city.’’
Collins said he still isn’t sure what his starting lineup will look like for the opener, but Tejada could be on the list.
“He’s met every challenge with a hunger and enthusiasm,’’ Collins said.
Collins also admitted that the starting 11 could vary from game to game. He’s still trying to get to know his new team and its strengths and weaknesses. He expects there will be some youthful mistakes, but as long as there is improvement he’ll live with it.
The Rowdies played eight preseason matches, a few more than in past seasons, and won five of them against a mix of college and club teams. While those don’t count, there is a sense of optimism.
“We’re a totally new team,’’ Guenzatti said. “But when we’re on the field, it feels like we’ve been together for a long time.’’
Rowdies at Memphis 901 FC
When/Where: Saturday, 7 p.m.; AutoZone Park
Noteworthy: Memphis is an expansion team and will be playing its inaugural match on Saturday.