ST. PETERSBURG — As a former defender for 16 professional seasons, including 67 matches with the Rowdies, coach Neill Collins knows when things don’t look quite right on the field. He got that feeling as the 2019 season came to a close.
In the final 17 games, the Rowdies recorded only two shutouts, finished the season 16-8-10 and lost to Louisville in the United Soccer League conference quarterfinals. Top defender Caleb Richards was on loan from Norwich City so he would not be coming back for 2020.
Collins decided none of the other defenders were coming back either.
He wanted to start from scratch in the back, and that included goalkeeper. When the Rowdies begin the USL Championship season Saturday night at the New York Red Bulls II, they will have all new players in the back.
“We just made the decision that we needed to get stronger," Collins. “The proof was really where we ended up in the standings (fifth in the Eastern Conference). We think we have guys in here now who will steer the course and add some intangibles to the team."
Evan Louro, 24, will take over in goal. This will be his fourth professional season and the first time he has played for another club outside of New York Red Bulls II.
Louro signed with the Rowdies on Jan. 17. Two days later, on his birthday, he packed up his car in New Jersey and drove 18 hours nonstop to St. Petersburg. A day later, he was on the field with his new teammates for the first day of preseason training.
“Quick turnaround," he said.
Louro, who was the Red Bulls II goalkeeper in a 2-1 playoff win over the Rowdies in 2017, will face his old squad to start the season. As for playing with a new team, he doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“At the end of the day my job is to save the ball," Louro said. “But I’ve been with the same club for 11 years (including amateur years), so it’s weird to have this transition. But soccer is soccer everywhere. It’s been a smooth transition."
Louro will have a new group of players in front of him. None of the defenders has played with each other, so getting to know each other on and off the field has been a focus.
“I always felt that once you get settled partnerships, that’s when you’re at your best," Collins said. “After a while, playing next to the same guys it becomes second nature. We have to give the guys some time in that respect."
Right now, those guys are Louis Lomas — who like Richards before him is on loan from Norwich City — Forrest Lasso and Aaron Guillen. They have gotten a bulk of the minutes in preseason matches. Max Lachowecki and Jordan Scarlett could also see playing time.
Lasso was with Nashville SC last season while Guillen played with North Carolina FC.
“This isn’t that hard for me," said Guillen, who played collegiately at Florida Gulf Coast. “I can just go with the flow. We do have a new defense, but we’ve already created good partnerships and I think we’re going to be a good defense."
While the defense is revamped, this isn’t a brand new team all together. Nine players return, including forwards Juan Tejada and Lucky Mkosana and midfielders Leo Fernandes and Dominic Oduro.
It is not unusual for USL rosters to change drastically from one season to the next. It is a developmental league with players either advancing from a lower league or moving down from Major League Soccer or other international leagues.
Regardless, Collins hopes he doesn’t have to build up the back again next season.
“This is a different team but we do have eight or nine players back who form our core," he said. “And then hopefully next year we can have more continuity. Hopefully this team will be successful and we can keep them together."