ST. PETERSBURG — New Rowdies coach Robbie Neilson came across as polite and approachable as he greeted media members for the first time Thursday at a news conference at Al Lang Stadium.
But don’t let his big smile fool you. Tampa Bay forward Leo Fernandes said that while Neilson is genuinely friendly, he also struck the 2022 USL Championship MVP as “very intense” in an initial private meeting.
“As soon as (Neilson) started speaking, I could tell he’s coached at the highest level and he’s very smart and energized,” Fernandes said. “I’m very excited to start working with him. I wish preseason was next week, to be honest with you.
“I have a very good feeling about him, and I feel we will have a very good plan moving forward.”
Neilson, 43, brings more than 350 matches of coaching experience with Heart of Midlothian and Dundee United of the Scottish Premiership, Scotland’s top league, and MK Dons FC in EFL League Two, the fourth tier of the English system. He recorded the highest winning percentage in the history of Heart of Midlothian (58.8%) and Dundee (57.1%).
Before getting into coaching, Neilson appeared in more than 200 matches during 10 seasons as a player at Heart of Midlothian.
Why leave for Tampa Bay?
“I came here a few months ago and took a tour of soccer clubs on the East Coast, and the (Rowdies) fan base was so outstanding and there was such a great energy,” Neilson said. “Coming to America was very exciting for me, and I like to try new things and take on new challenges.”
Neilson steps into a solid situation with the Rowdies, who finished second in the Eastern Conference this season at 19-9-6 before losing in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2019.
For the vast majority of the season, the Rowdies were without Fernandes, who ruptured his left Achilles tendon during a preseason match. Then in the middle of the season, longtime coach Neill Collins left to take over at Barnsley FC of EFL League One, the third tier of the English system.
Collins went 98-77 across all competitions over six seasons. In 2021 he was named USL Championship Coach of the Year after guiding the Rowdies to the league’s best regular-season record and a club-record 71 points. He led the team to four straight playoff appearances, including two Eastern Conference titles.
Neilson said he is well aware of the Rowdies’ winning tradition and plans to raise it higher.
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“There’s such a great ambition here to continue to be successful,” he said. “We’ve got a fantastic squad, and now it’s about adding a bit more quality and energy to get it to the next level.”