A prolonged preseason slate is reason enough for the Tampa Bay Rowdies to want to get the season started for real.
And there are even more substantial explanations for their eagerness ahead of Saturday night’s USL Championship season opener, with the defending Eastern Conference champion Rowdies hosting Charlotte at Al Lang Stadium.
It’s been a full six months since Tampa Bay was set to host the 2020 league final against West champ Phoenix Rising. The match was canceled once several Rowdies players and staff, including coach Neill Collins, tested positive for COVID-19.
Rather than declare co-champions, Tampa Bay and Phoenix simply were labeled conference champs, and the league set up a marquee matchup between the sides for May 15, the third of four straight home matches for the Rowdies.
“Unfortunately you don’t start in the finals. That’s the tough thing. You only get (back) in if you do the hard work,” Collins said. “It’s just long, it’s too long (in between). I think six to eight weeks off would have been great, then back and you start in March. But I’m so excited that we have games to look forward to.”
Fifteen players return from that 2020 team, and there will be more fans in the stands to see them. For Saturday’s opener, only season-ticket holders are permitted, but that still should produce an attendance figure around 2,000 as opposed to last year when just a few hundred were allowed for the regular season. Additional fans will be permitted in for future home contests.
“Having the fans back in the stadium is going to be amazing, we’re looking forward to that and we’re excited,” said captain Sebastian Guenzatti, who topped Tampa Bay with 10 goals last season. “We did everything we had to do in preseason. Everybody is ready.”
The buildup matches have been closed off to fans, wrapping with a 3-1 win over the University of Tampa last weekend. Guenzatti and fellow veteran Leo Fernandes (five goals last year) both scored in the first half with Forrest Lasso adding a second-half tally. Prior to that, a quartet of newcomers had produced eight of the nine Rowdies’ goals: exactly two apiece for Jordan Adebayo-Smith, Steevan Dos Santos, Dayonn Harris and Laurence Wyke.
Collins staunchly desired to hang on to the core of last year’s side that went 13-3-3 and won its division. The Rowdies return starting defenders Lasso, Jordan Scarlett and Aaron Guillen along with goalkeeper Evan Louro.
“Last year, for all our strengths, our strikers didn’t get as many chances as I would have liked,” Collins said. “I think we could have done a lot better at providing them a bit more opportunity in front of goal and I think we can get that from them this year.”
One said striker, Juan Tejada, is ready to roll after an injury-tainted 2020, and it would appear fellow forward Dos Santos, who scored five goals for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds last year, could be expected to make a quick impact. Collins refers to Dos Santos as the kind of “back-to-goal” player Tampa Bay hasn’t had in several years.
“This guy is a monster, if you see him, especially up close,” Guenzatti said. “Something different that we haven’t had in the past, a big target forward.”
Though the Rowdies lost fan favorite, and constant threat on the wing, Malik Johnson along with Dom Oduro, Collins thinks he’s found suitable replacements. Harris, a former UConn standout who was drafted by MLS Real Salt Lake and comes to Tampa Bay after a year with the Monarchs, and Luiz Fernando have crowd-pleasing styles. Matt Srbely is a two-way midfielder from the Toronto FC system, and Wyke could fill the defending midfield role of Oduro.
Other key returners in the midfield include Yann Ekra, Sebastian Dalgaard, Zach Steinberger and Jordan Doherty and super sub, forward Lucky Mkosana, is back as well.
Various factors necessitated a regionalized schedule last year, with Tampa Bay playing three division opponents four times each; this year things are a little more spread out. Tampa Bay was placed in the Atlantic Division alongside Charleston, which finished right behind the Rowdies despite beating them three times, vastly improved Miami, Pittsburgh, New York Red Bulls II, Hartford, Loudon and Saturday’s opponent.
The top four teams from each division will qualify for the postseason.
“There’s no getting away from it; it’s a tough division,” Collins said. “We’re going to have to play a lot more games on (artificial) turf this year; I think people underestimate how different that is. It’s a great challenge. The important thing for us is to be ready for the challenge of all these teams, and try and thrive on that.”
Charlotte at Rowdies, 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Al Lang Stadium