NASL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rowdies

Defending champions look to repeat in 2013 season
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL)

The defending NASL champions will have a target on their back this season. Two teams will certainly be gunning for them: last year’s regular season winners, the San Antonio Scorpions, and the 2011 champions who lost out on repeating to Tampa, Minnesota United.

The Rowdies have had a good offseason, bringing in quality players who will immediately slot in as starters to fill gaps in the defense and attack. The primary goal this season for Tampa Bay is to get back to the championship match to defend its trophy.

To prepare for this, Tampa has had perhaps the most active preseason of any team in the NASL. In February, Tampa got in on MLS preseason action, playing a friendly tournament against DC United, Montreal Impact, Sporting Kansas City and USL PRO side, Orlando City. Although the Rowdies didn’t notch a win in any of these early friendlies, they set their starters and trialists against high-profile competition. Doing so sets the Rowdies ahead of the curve when set next to other NASL sides.

This month Tampa has gotten into more standard preseason kick-arounds, having played against University of South Florida, Eckerd College and University of Tampa and will play St. Leo University.

It’s been the I-4 Derby that has gotten the supporter’s blood pumping in this preseason. The I-4 Derby has become the local rivalry between the NASL’s Rowdies and USL’s Orlando City, teams separated by just over an hour’s drive. Three preseason games to determine who gets central Florida bragging rights, either Orlando City’s Iron Lion Firm and Ruckus supporter groups or Tampa’s Ralph’s Mob. Unfortunately, the Rowdies dropped the first two matches and will be playing for pride in their final match against Orlando on March 30th at Art Lang Stadium in Tampa.

But as every sensible player and supporter will tell you, preseason results mean little. What should be taken from all these matches is that Tampa is going to be looking to burst out of the gate in the first half of the NASL season. Tampa’s opener on April 6 will see a team that will have 2 months and 10 matches under its belt. Squad members will be fit and should be quite comfortable with each other.

The most significant player loss for the Rowdies going into the 2013 season will be goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who signed with MLS side Real Salt Lake after an outstanding 2012 season. It looks as though Andrew Fontein will be Tampa’s starting goalkeeper, but in front of the rookie goalkeeper, there will be an experienced defensive line. Tampa also plucked star centerback Jay Needham from the in-hiatus Puerto Rico Islanders. Needham had been a rock in defense for Puerto Rico and he will certainly anchor the back for Tampa alongside Daniel Scott.

Fullbacks Frankie Sanfilippo and Andres Arango should continue to perform admirably as they split time with midfielder-turned-defender Takuya Yamada. Yamada has logged so many minutes over the past few season that it looks like the Rowdies are looking to have the talented veteran (38 years old) play more of an off-the-bench role. Much like the seemingly immortal Ryan Giggs, Yamada has the quality to put in brilliant performances if he is given the necessary rest time between starts.

Age is going to be a factor for Tampa. Like Yamada, team leader Stuart Campbell has the quality to play well regardless of his age (35). Both midfielders will be vital for any success Tampa will have. Yet one can’t help but wonder not if, but when the minutes will catch up with them? For example, English striker Carl Cort (35) will see his first full NASL season, but injuries have been a nagging issue. Yet when he’s fit, Cort’s strong presence on the pitch and leadership can sway a result.

It is perhaps with this in mind that most of the Rowdies signings have been forwards, either in their prime or entering it. Stepping up to play alongside constant threat Mike Ambersley (6 goals, 8 assists in 2012) will be former Minnesota United forwards Amani Walker (7 goals, 5 assists) and Devin Del Do as well as Bulgarian forward Georgi Hristov. Of the new forward signings, Hristov is probably the most interesting as he brings UEFA Europa League experience to the Rowdies.

At 23, 26 and 28, respectively, these new signings could create a solid core of forwards for Tampa for the next few seasons. This is important because aside from Ambersley, the Rowdies have had a bit of a revolving door in their striker core. There needs to be more stability for the team in the final third, a constant presence outside of Ambersley. Walker’s familiarity with the league and success certainly makes him a prime candidate to be that striker partner.

Tampa is yet another team with a midfield that will be its driving force for any success. Luke Mulholland has grown to become a major player for Tampa, journeyman Keith Savage is diligent in holding down the Rowdies’ midfield and Stuart Campbell is a general on the pitch. These midfielders will be the heart of Tampa’s attack. None of Tampa’s forwards and none of their tactics are built upon a single goal scorer; the Rowdies are a team that spread the goal scoring around the pitch.

In 2012, Mulholland scored 5 goals and had 5 assists, Ambersley had 6 goals and 8 assists, forward Daniel Antoniuk had 7 goals and 4 assists, Savage had 2 goals and 5 assists and, before he was transferred to Yokohama FC Hong Kong, midfielder Tsuyoshi Yoshitake had 6 goals and 2 assists. In manager Ricky Hill’s system, it seems that the goal scoring load is evenly dispersed and each player in the middle and final third are expect to not just score but provide service.

Evans Frimpong and the gaffer’s son Shane Hill will most likely platoon on the midfield wings alternating depending on form and opposition. I am too hesitant to say that Yamada has an automatic starting position, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to start every match this season. I like how Ricky Hill has been deploying Yamada in the defensive line during the preseason, as he has the presence of mind and soccer intelligence to make the transition successfully and give the team some much needed flexibility.

The Rowdies will most likely sign a few trialists before the season begins. Tampa native Will Dieterich looks in a good position to land the back-up goalkeeper spot. Rightback Anton Blackwood is a product of the Arsenal youth system and would provide some much needed defensive depth. And 28 year-old forward Jemal Johnson, who has experience with a slew of English clubs (most prominently with Wolverhampton and Milton Keynes Dons) has been seeing time in midfield with Tampa and could land a spot.

Predicted Starting XI

Andrew Fontein; Frankie Sanfilippo, Jay Needham, Daniel Scott, Andres Arango; Hill/Frimpong, Campbell, Mulholland, Savage; Ambersley, Walker

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.