Editor’s Note: The Rays recently announced their acquisition of the historic, local Division II soccer team the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The team has three games left this season and is vying for the playoffs. To help us all learn more about the team, I’ve invited Jake Nutting from The Unused Substitutes, to tell us more.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and their iconic Green and Gold hoops have been a part of the region’s sports scene for over 40 years.
They made their original debut in the summer of 1975, a year before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ever took the field. With English star Rodney Marsh and leading scorer Derek Smethurst in tow, the Rowdies won over the community and claimed the North American Soccer League’s Soccer Bowl title by knocking off the Portland Timbers. Average attendance at Tampa Stadium steadily grew throughout the team’s ten-year stint in the NASL, reaching its apex in 1980 when it averaged 28,345 a match. The NASL dissolved after the 1984 season, but the Rowdies continued on, playing in various leagues before eventually ceasing operations in 1993.
In 2008, local entrepreneurs Andrew Nestor, David Laxer and Hinds Howard announced their intention to revive the Rowdies. However, a legal dispute over merchandising rights and the trademark prevented them from specifically calling the team the Tampa Bay Rowdies. They eventually launched in 2010 as FC Tampa Bay Rowdies in the United States Soccer Federation D-II Pro League at George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. The following season saw the team move across the bay to Al Lang Stadium as members of the reincarnated North American Soccer League.
2012 was an important year in the modern era of the club. With ownership securing the rights to use the Tampa Bay Rowdies name, both the club and supporters were finally able to embrace the history and culture that comes along with it. Head coach Ricky Hill led the Rowdies to their most successful season of the modern era that year, capturing the Soccer Bowl title in a dramatic penalty kick shootout against the Minnesota Starts (now Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United FC) in front of 6,200 at Al Lang.
Despite their average attendance pushing past 4,000 for the time in 2013, ownership was still operating the team at a significant loss. The future of the Rowdies was in doubt until December of 2013, when St. Petersburg mogul Bill Edwards stepped up to purchase a majority stake in the team.
Edwards immediately invested in the roster and in Al Lang Stadium to make the dilapidated baseball venue more soccer friendly. 1,200 premium seats were added to the sideline that first year and Edwards wrested control away from the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, negotiating a management agreement with the city for the Rowdies to become the primary tenant and operators of Al Lang. Gaining control of Al Lang was key to putting the Rowdies in good financial standing, as they were able to take in more revenue from ticket and concessions.
Millions of Edwards’ own money continued to be put toward renovating Al Lang the next year, overhauling the locker rooms, replacing much of the seating in the stands, and even turning the field into one of the best in lower division soccer. All the improvements to Al Lang lifted the atmosphere and gameday experience for supporters, who began to show up in greater numbers. The team’s independent supporters group, Ralph’s Mob, has been ardent in its support throughout the years. The group takes up a large section of Al Lang, along what used to to be the first base line.
Edwards’ relationship with the other NASL owners grew strained over time. At the end of 2016, he announced he’d be moving the Rowdies to the United Soccer League, which had been operating as the third tier of American professional soccer but was in the process of moving up to the second tier. Jumping to the USL meant the Rowdies were losing historic and local rivals like the New York Cosmos or Jacksonville Armada FC, but it offered a more stable situation. USL matches were easily accessible through the league’s YouTube channel (and are now exclusively available to stream through ESPN+). Rowdies home matches have been broadcast on ThisTV and Estrella TV for the last two years as well.
Even with the cash infusion over the past five years and marquee signings like former Chelsea star Joe Cole, the Rowdies have struggled to find consistency on the field. Ricky Hill was dismissed as manager at the end of 2014 after an abysmal season. Thomas Rongen then came in but was axed midway through the 2015 season due to various reasons but mostly a personality clash with Edwards.
Stuart Campbell, a member of the 2012 championship team, stepped up from an assistant role to become head coach. His first full season in charge was not much of an improvement as the Rowdies finished with the exact same amount of points, but he managed to secure their first postseason berth since 2012 the next year when they debuted in the USL’s Eastern Conference.
The Rowdies entered 2018 as preseason favorites but quickly stumbled out of the gate.
After dropping five of their first nine matches, the Rowdies cut Campbell loose and made the unusual move of appointing defender and fan-favorite Neill Collins as the new head coach. As a player, Collins earned admiration as one of the smartest and most passionate players on the field. At the time of his appointment, Collins was having one of his best seasons as a player.
The 35-year-old Scotsman has had many challenges thrown at him while he’s attempted to guide the Rowdies. Beloved midfielder Marcel Schäfer, who was the impetus for much of Tampa Bay’s attack, retired in July to become Sporting Director at VFL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. Starting center back Ivan Magalhães also exited the team abruptly, though for very different reasons. Magalhães was released after being arrested for assaulting third-string keeper Matias Reynares at their apartment. Reynares was also released for his role in the incident.
Injuries have also plagued the Rowdies all year. Both of their starting right backs went down early with season-ending injuries. A handful of others have sustained knocks that have kept them out for weeks at a time. The most recent to go down was Georgi Hristov, the team’s all-time scoring and appearance leader. A native of Bulgaria, Hristov has earned a reputation as a Rowdies legend for his contributions since signing five years ago, including his decisive goal to best MLS’ Seattle Sounders 1-0 in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup. It’s unknown whether Hristov will be able to return to action.
With two matches remaining, Collins still has a shot at getting the Rowdies into the postseason as they sit three points out from the eighth and final Eastern Conference postseason berth. With a home match up against the Charlotte Independence and a trip to Bethlehem Steel FC remaining, the Rowdies could finish with a maximum of 47 points if they win out. That might not be enough to get them over the finish line, though, after last night’s last minute tie against Atlanta United II.
HIGHLIGHTS pres. by @FlyTPA— Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies) October 4, 2018
With the Rowdies just minutes away from the win, @atlutd2 found a late equalizer to even the match at 1-1. The fight for a playoff spot continues this Saturday at home. pic.twitter.com/HZBz6xJoMx
The Rowdies need New York Red Bulls II, Nashville SC, North Carolina FC, Ottawa Fury FC and Bethlehem to drop some points in the last two weekends of the USL regular season if they want to play postseason soccer this year.
The Rowdies final match of this season is on Saturday night at 7:30 PM against the Charlotte Independence at Al Lang Stadium. For tickets, call (727) 222-2000 or click here.