The Tampa Bay Rowdies are back in Charleston, back at the scene of their only loss.
One would assume the motivation level for Friday’s match is through the roof. Especially after coach Neill Collins declared that seven to eight of his players had a bad game during that Aug. 29 defeat.
But Collins himself mildly muddles that angle.
“We keep trying to bang on about, yes we want to be better than the other teams in our league. But, as corny as it sounds, we want to be the best we can be,” he said, adding the Rowdies can’t focus on “getting one over on (Charleston)… We’re trying to have this bigger vision. So this weekend, I wouldn’t like to think that the players aren’t any more motivated than normal.”
There’s also this: he didn’t have to wait until the rematch to register his team’s response. To him it came four days after the season’s lone loss, when the Rowdies came home to handle business against Miami 3-0, followed by a weather-delayed 2-0 Sunday victory against Philadelphia Union II.
“I see a real focus and enjoyment,” Collins said.
Those victories, and Charleston’s only game since being a draw at Miami, have turned a one-point Rowdies lead in Group H to six. Charleston (21 points) does have a match in hand but Tampa Bay (8-1-3, 27 points) can render that practically irrelevant with a win.
After this weekend, Tampa Bay has one match each against its three Group rivals. The standings reflect Tampa Bay’s quality compared to Atlanta (nine points) and Miami (six). What they don’t tell are how the Rowdies have looked the fitter side going up against generally much younger opposition.
Sunday’s opponent, Philadelphia Union II, had an average age of 17. Tampa Bay is no gathering of graybeards, but even a high-end pro soccer player in his late 20s might have concerns keeping up with a bunch of teenagers.
"What we’ve tried to do over the last couple of years is get a squad that does have the fitness and the energy, plus the know-how, to try and get that balance. When I played here … we certainly had a lot of know-how,” Collins said. “I think it’s quite clear that when you’re playing in the heat, you need to have guys that have the physical attributes to contest with all these teams that have that young energy.”
He specifically credits performance coach Pete Calabrese for his work.
Yann Ekra, 29, scored his first Tampa Bay goal Sunday and says the Rowdies' fitness edge goes back to the training staff’s efforts during the four-month pandemic pause.
"Everyone worked really hard during that long period and I think it made a big difference. Pete helped us a lot,” Ekra said.
While his goal was welcomed, the lack of requirement for Ekra to produce them is a top endorsement for the strength of the Tampa Bay roster. A combination of injuries and said roster sturdiness have him not even among the team’s top 10 in minutes played — and that doesn’t include the stamped-in quartet of keeper Evan Louro and defenders Forrest Lasso, Jordan Scarlett and Aaron Guillen.
"It felt great but to be honest, (scoring) is not something I was really thinking about. All I want is the team to be successful, if I have to score (for that) I’m happy; if I don’t and the team’s still winning, I’m happy, too,” Ekra said.
Tampa Bay likely will be without injured forwards Juan Tejada and Lucky Mkosana in Charleston, but playing time still won’t be easily given. Two Fridays ago Ekra was part of the USL’s Team of the Week, yet didn’t start in the Rowdies' next game. Scarlett, who also scored his first Rowdies goal last week (a header against Miami), earned a spot on the Week 11 team announced Thursday.
Sebastian Guenzatti got “bench” mention on that team, and certainly would have claimed Goal of the Week honors had his rocket volley against Philadelphia not gotten saved. It was set up by Leo Fernandes, who merely collected a pass out of the air, juggled the ball, then flicked it over his head and backward to Guenzatti.
Although it would have been a legendary goal, it will suffice as a strong sign of how the team is feeling.
“I thought some of our play in the first half, between Leo, Seba, Yann, Zach (Steinberger), it was just great,” Collins said. "And that’s when our team (is) playing with confidence, and it was enjoyable. If we keep playing like that we’ll hopefully have a couple of great goals to show for it by the end of the season.”
For now, an enjoyable bus ride home from Charleston will do. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. (streaming on ESPN+).