The Rowdies will depart from St. Petersburg as a team today for the first time since March for a weekend road trip.
A Saturday match (7:30 p.m.) against Birmingham Legion FC is the team’s first on the road since the USL Championship resumed play two weeks ago.
Tampa Bay flew to and from New York for its season opener the weekend of March 6 just before it became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic and the season was subsequently suspended.
To reduce exposure to COVID-19, the Rowdies cut flying out of their travel plans for the rest of the season. All of Tampa Bay’s opponents are within driving distance, thanks to a revised schedule with an emphasis on reducing travel. Today’s trip to Birmingham, Ala., is the Rowdies’ furthest of the regular season, and they will make the nine-hour trek with their traveling group spread across two buses.
Rowdies president Lee Cohen said he discussed the team’s travel plans at length with manager Neill Collins. They considered staying near Gainesville, Lake City or Tallahassee to split up the trip but opted to leave three days before the game and drive straight through.
“Speaking about it, we just felt like, let’s get all the way to Birmingham,” Cohen said. “And let’s just get to the hotel that we’re going to stay in, and the guys are in the hotel that they’re going to be in the duration of the trip versus adding another touch point, adding a place that we don’t necessarily know.”
The travel group of 24 team personnel includes 18 players, four coaches, an operations manager and an athletic trainer. Cohen said that group isn’t any smaller than it has been in the past because of the added substitutes allowed with the league changes.
Cohen and Collins have repeatedly praised the players for their strict adherence to league and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) health and safety protocols but recognize the added risk that comes with a trip outside of the team’s bubble in St. Petersburg.
“The fact that we’re on a bus and the fact that we’re going to stay in a hotel, of course we’re opening up more possibilities to potentially expose yourself to the virus,” Collins said. “But again, I think we’re going to limit that as much as anyone possibly can.”
According to a statement released by the USL Championship on Monday, 2,357 tests were distributed to 1,227 players and staff from the league’s 35 teams. Only nine individuals from eight different clubs tested positive.
“It’s positive from the league point of view, because we’re going to play these teams,” Collins said. “So you want to know that the players are going to be safe.”
Even with those low numbers, the Rowdies’ travel precautions are an attempt to make sure they stay low or are further reduced. But the players aren’t lamenting the change in plans. In fact, a few said they prefer traveling by bus to flying.
“It’s what I’m used to,” said defender Mustapha Dumbuya, who played more than a decade in the United Kingdom. “It’s only when I came over here I started taking flights to games. And it was a bit strange at first, so it’s nice for me to get back on the bus. I do love a nice little long bus trip, for sure.”
Defender Forrest Lasso also said he won’t mind the extra hours on the road.
“One of the most special things about what we do is the camaraderie we have with our teammates off the pitch,” he said. “Many, many bus trips in my career to many really special places, and some of them were a couple hours and some of them were through the night.”
Cohen said he’s been in discussion with other teams regarding their travel plans. He said North Carolina FC flew into Tampa last weekend, while Atlanta United 2 drove. Later in the season, Miami FC and Charleston Battery will drive to St. Petersburg, and Philadelphia Union II will fly.
A potential downside? Collins said flying is often time consuming and can lead to a bad performance once his team gets off a cramped plane and onto the pitch.
“You know how you feel when you come off a fight? No one ever feels the best,” he said. “I think we all associate flying with going on vacation, as well. So, you know, I think going on the bus maybe focuses people a bit better.”
Contact Kyle Wood at email@example.com. Follow @Kkylewood.