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Despite offseason losses, expectations remain high as Rowdies enter opener

All-time leading scorer Sebastian Guenzatti departed in December. Reigning league MVP Leo Fernandes was lost to a season-ending injury in the preseason.
 
Forward JJ Williams comes to the Rowdies after splitting the 2022 season between FC Tulsa and Phoenix, where he scored a combined 12 goals.
Forward JJ Williams comes to the Rowdies after splitting the 2022 season between FC Tulsa and Phoenix, where he scored a combined 12 goals. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]
Published March 10, 2023|Updated March 10, 2023

TAMPA — The Rowdies had more than their share of serious shakeups this offseason, but expectations remain high heading into their USL Championship season opener against Indy Eleven Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.

Most notable were jarring roster losses for a team that has reached three straight conference finals and the league final twice in the last three seasons.

The biggest loss? Veteran attacking midfielder Leo Fernandes, the 2022 USL Championship Most Valuable Player, was lost for the season after rupturing his left Achilles tendon during a preseason match.

Since joining the Rowdies in 2017, Fernandes ranks third in modern-era club appearances with 155. Besides his on-field leadership, his absence leaves some big holes on the stat sheet. Last season, Fernandez had 19 goals and nine assists.

“There is no doubt we will miss Leo a lot, and it’s going to take the entire team to step up and make up for his absence,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins, who is managing his biggest roster overhaul (10 new players) since taking over in 2018. “We must adjust in many different ways.”

Also gone is captain and all-time leading scorer Sebastian Guenzatti, who departed by mutual consent in December. He finished his six-year stint in Tampa Bay with 65 goals. His 161 appearances are second-most for any player in the club’s modern era.

Striker Cal Jennings, with ball, signed with the Rowdies after two years with Major League Soccer’s LAFC. The majority of his playing time, however, came while on loan with Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL Championship league.
Striker Cal Jennings, with ball, signed with the Rowdies after two years with Major League Soccer’s LAFC. The majority of his playing time, however, came while on loan with Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL Championship league. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

Guenzatti won’t be far away Saturday. He’ll be on the opposite side of the field, playing for Indy.

“I believe this is the first game I’ve gone into where I haven’t had Fernandes or Guenzatti on the roster, so that definitely feels different,” Collins said. “Guenzatti will definitely be remembered fondly here, and we wish him well. We hope he does well on Saturday night, but obviously we still want to win.”

The spots vacated by Fernandes and Guenzatti will be filled by players with potentially great upsides.

Near the top of the list is 25-year-old striker Cal Jennings, who before signing with Tampa Bay in January spent two years with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC. The majority of his playing time, however, came while on loan to Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL Championship, where he produced consecutive 11-goal seasons.

In the same conversation is forward JJ Williams, who split 2022 between FC Tulsa and Phoenix. He scored nine goals in 22 appearances with Tulsa before transferring in late July to Phoenix, where he added three more.

Both players have voiced excitement about joining the Rowdies.

“I played against the Rowdies many times over the years, and it was always a big deal and a great challenge to play against them,” Williams said. “The Rowdies have the fans, the tradition, the intensity and the execution on the field. I feel I’ve already improved since coming here, because there is more attention to detail and simply a higher standard that is upheld every day. So far I have loved it. I’m so happy to be on the other side.”

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Three-time USL Championship defender of the year Forrest Lasso returns to the Rowdies after spending a year with GIF Sundsvall in Sweden’s top tier.
Three-time USL Championship defender of the year Forrest Lasso returns to the Rowdies after spending a year with GIF Sundsvall in Sweden’s top tier. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

A similar sentiment came from 29-year-old defender Forrest Lasso, a fan favorite who returns to the Rowdies after spending a year playing with GIF Sundsvall in Sweden’s top tier.

In 2020 and ‘21, Lasso was an essential piece of Tampa Bay’s two Eastern Conference titles, anchoring a back line that had 24 shutouts in 55 games. In 2021, he helped the team set a regular-season record with an 891-minute shutout streak.

“As soon as my wife and I touched down in Tampa, we’ve been smiling ear to ear,” said Lasso, who has been named the USL Championship defender of the year three times. “It feels like home. It just feels right. Playing for the Rowdies the two years that I did and now being able to come back, it’s special.

“It’s a club and system that makes you feel valued and respected. You’ve got your best friends in the locker room with you. If you have these few things, going out on the pitch and getting results is kind of easy at that point. To come back here and have that camaraderie again is amazing.”

Returning with Lasso are several more familiar faces, including several with upcoming milestones: center back Aaron Guillen and midfielder Yann Ekra (each stands at 93 appearances); midfielder Jake Areman (98 appearances); midfielder Lewis Hilton (one assist from his 30th regular-season assist in the USL Championship); forward Lucky Mkosana (two goals from his 50th regular-season league goal).