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The names are no longer familiar, but Rowdies are winning like the old days

John Romano | Coach Neill Collins and president Lee Cohen revamped the roster in favor of younger and hungrier players.
He's only three years removed from his own playing days with the Rowdies, but coach Neill Collins already has Tampa Bay in the USL Championship game on Sunday.
He's only three years removed from his own playing days with the Rowdies, but coach Neill Collins already has Tampa Bay in the USL Championship game on Sunday. [ MATT MAY | Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies ]
Published Nov. 25
Updated Nov. 25

ST. PETERSBURG — The meeting that would change their lives was about to start, and two of the three participants were still a little fuzzy about the finer details of the rapidly developing plan.

Hours earlier, Neill Collins had been just another player in another disappointing loss for the Rowdies in 2018. Shortly after the 1-0 defeat in Jacksonville, president Lee Cohen rang Collins to tell him then-owner Bill Edwards had decided to fire coach Stuart Campbell.

This wasn’t a mere courtesy call. Edwards, who had spent millions refurbishing a stadium and chasing star players, wanted to meet with Cohen and Collins to ask the veteran defender to take over as coach.

So as the team bus traveled from Jacksonville and his teammates slept, Collins sketched out ideas for turning a franchise around. He went to bed at 4 a.m., got up at 6, transferred his thoughts onto a computer and printed out a meticulous plan.

But the details weren’t as important as the message. And Collins, who was 34 at the time and had never coached a day in his life, made it clear this would work only if the team would be run by him and not the guy signing the checks.

Steevan Dos Santos holds up the USL Eastern Conference championship trophy as the Rowdies celebrate their win over Louisville City FC Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.
Steevan Dos Santos holds up the USL Eastern Conference championship trophy as the Rowdies celebrate their win over Louisville City FC Saturday at Al Lang Stadium. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“That, for me, was what was needed at that point in time,” Cohen said. “Someone that was going to be confident and say, ‘Listen, thank you for the way the stadium looks. Thank you for investing in the team. But no thank you for wanting to put your hands on it. Let me do that, because that’s what I know.’

“There’s players that think they can coach, and there’s players that were born to coach. Neill was a player who was born to coach.”

The next season, the Rowdies had practically cut their losses in half. A year later, they reached the USL Championship final before the pandemic halted the postseason. And now they are days away from hosting the USL Championship match against Orange County at Al Lang Stadium (8:30 p.m. Sunday).

“Neill has paid this club back over and over and over again for us giving him this opportunity,” Cohen said.

‘Are they team-first guys?’

Ironically, Neill Collins was exactly the type of player the Rowdies needed to stop pursuing. A native of Scotland who had made a name for himself with a handful of top clubs in the United Kingdom in his 20s, Collins was on the downslope of his career when he came to Tampa Bay in 2016.

He understood the lure from both sides of the equation. The USL is a notch below Major League Soccer, but the Rowdies were still a brand name and Edwards was eager to fill the roster with familiar names from Europe and elsewhere. Players, meanwhile, were happy to find a soft landing spot in a warm location during the twilight of their careers.

That strategy may have been a marketing success, and it provided a golden parachute for a handful of fading stars, but it did little to help Tampa Bay in the standings. Essentially, the Rowdies had become a mismatched collection of names and styles without any cohesion.

And so, in their first offseason as a tandem, Cohen and Collins tore the roster apart. Popular players such as Joe Cole and Georgi Hristov were quietly sent into retirement while the Rowdies went about looking for players who would fit their team-first mentality.

It was around this time that Edwards sold the team to Stu Sternberg, which turned out to be a perfect fit for what Cohen and Collins were proposing. The idea of a roster that was greater than its individual parts was exactly the kind of philosophy that new executives Matt Silverman and Brian Auld had also employed as presidents of Tampa Bay’s baseball team.

So a team that had an average age of close to 32 in 2018 was suddenly filled with a bunch of 24-year-olds a year later.

“Are they hungry? Are they eager to get better? Are they team-first guys? Those are the big things,” Collins said. “I’ve never seen a group of players like this. And Kevin (Foley), my assistant, we played together on a successful team in England, he says he’s never seen a group of guys who support each other and encourage each other the way this team does. It’s just phenomenal.”

It’s also not as easy as it seems. Finding personalities that fit is one thing, but finding talented players with the right personality is another.

In that sense, Collins was fortunate the Rowdies got off to such a hot start in 2019. It validated what he and Cohen were trying to accomplish, and it made it easier for others to buy in.

The Rowdies' Lucky Mkosana (77) celebrates after scoring the tying goal against Louisville City FC during the Eastern Conference final Saturday in St. Petersburg.
The Rowdies' Lucky Mkosana (77) celebrates after scoring the tying goal against Louisville City FC during the Eastern Conference final Saturday in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Collins tells the story of Max Lachowecki coming off the bench to score a big goal against New York and then sticking around to help carry the equipment into the locker room afterward.

“Little things like that can build. Players think, ‘I want to be like Max because I want the coach to see me, too,’ " Collins said. “When we get off the bus, everybody goes straight to taking the bags off. And if you don’t, you’ll hear it because Forrest Lasso, the four-time defender of the year, is carrying bags.

“I think the misconception sometimes in coaching is that you go in and do your speech and everyone just buys in. No. We all have our moments where we don’t quite (work) well with others, and you have to use it as a teaching moment to say, ‘That’s not what we do.’ "

The marvel in all this is that every player — and coach, for that matter — is striving for something better. Whether that’s MLS or a spot in Europe, they are all trying to be noticed by another team.

And yet they’ve come to understand that, at this point in their careers, their individual goals may be best served by being part of something larger.

“In the USL, you need people that are hungry to play. They’ve got to love the job, because they’re not going to make millions at it,” Collins said. “We had too many guys that weren’t in love with winning and pushing themselves. They loved living in St. Petersburg. They loved being part of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. But they weren’t willing to make the sacrifices to win.”

Those players are gone now, and their replacements are younger with names that are less familiar.

But the name on the front of the jersey remains the same, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are one victory away from being champions once again.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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