by Reggie Merilus
After finishing the 2018 season in the NO. 12 position on the Eastern Conference table, a major reboot from top-down was in store. Past defender Neill Collins, entered the 2019 season as a first-year head coach after the firing of Stuart Campbell. The Rowdies also returned only two starters for 2019 in midfielder Leo Fernandes and forward Sebastian Guenzatti. Two fan favorites in Joe Cole and Georgi Hristov, both retired at the end of last season.
“Things have changed drastically,” said head coach Neill Collins. The Rowdies started the season with a full youth movement with 22-year-old forward, Juan Tejada, 18-year-old midfielder Jordan Doherty, and 20-year-old Caleb Richards.
The strategy to go young paid off. The Rowdies started the season off to a hot start with a record of (9-1-6, 33 points). The team sat atop the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings for a good part of the season. Halfway through the season, Tampa Bay already set a franchise record with five road wins.
Despite all the change, Collins said he always had faith in this team. “They’re as good as anyone in this division home and away,” said Collins.
Tampa Bay ended the season with a record of 16-8-10, with 58 points. Forward, Sebastian Guenzatti led the team with 18 goals scored in the season. The team stumbled on the way to the finish line with a costly 2-1 loss against Hartford Athletic.
Tampa Bay returned for a tough matchup against the two-time defending USL champions, Louisville City on Saturday, Oct. 26, at Slugger Field. The game ended in 2-2 tie.
These two teams last played in April, in a game Tampa Bay led 1-0 until the 88th minute. Collins was pleased with what he saw in the early-season matchup saying, “I thought the first 40 minutes were as good as we’ve played since I’ve been the head coach.”
When asked during media availability on Tuesday, what’s the difference between facing Louisville City this time around, Collins said, “There’s even more on the line because your season is going to end.” Collins also said, “For some, it’ll be their first playoff experience which is great and some have been there and we’re hoping for them to use their experience to help the others through.”
Despite the draw against the defending champs, players remained in high spirits going into Saturday. When asked by reporters on Tuesday his thoughts on making the playoffs, midfielder Andrew Tinari said, “Last few games, we let up a little bit but we’re excited to put our best foot forward and see where it goes from there.”
Tinari was apart of the remodeling of the roster when he signed with Tampa Bay in April after playing two seasons with the New York Red Bulls II.
Another new member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies is rookie forward, Juan Tejada. Tejada scored 10 goals this season at a 30% conversion rate. Tejada was key in helping Tampa Bay reach a team modern-era record (from 2010) fifthteenth win when he scored two goals against Charlotte in September.
When asked during Tuesday’s media availability about the difficult matchup against Louisville, Tejada backed up his head coach’s faith in this young team saying, “Of course the stakes are higher but we’re going to treat this as a normal game. We’re ready, we’re a very talented group and we’re gonna give it our all.”
The team is looking to cap off their promising 2019 season with a championship.
Reggie Merilus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org