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Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Shrewd Changes Should Ensure Success

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The Tampa Bay Rowdies have made big changes since the end of the 2014 North American Soccer League season. Coming off a season where the team struggled, new management has quickly made several moves, including a raid on the rival Fort Lauderdale Strikers, who were inches away from winning the NASL title in 2014. The Rowdies have announced eight new signings since December 20th. Four of the new signings have previously played with the Strikers, one with Orlando City and the sixth grew up in Coral Springs which is a Fort Lauderdale suburb and was the 2012-2013 Broward County High School Player of the Year.

Farrukh Quraishi and Thomas Rongen, who built the most successful team in Major League Soccer’s first season, have renewed their partnership almost two decades later to rebuild the Rowdies. In 1996, the pair built the Tampa Bay Mutiny from scratch into the best team in American professional soccer. They appear well on their way to repeating a similarly difficult feat this offseason.

Darnell King, the all-time appearance leader for the latest incarnation of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (the fourth different Strikers organization that has called Fort Lauderdale home since 1977) and a graduate of Florida Atlantic University is heading home to the Tampa Bay Area after making the NASL Best XI team in 2014. Joining King with Tampa Bay will be Martin Núñez, who has called Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale home since 2010 with the exception of a season away in Minnesota (2012). Núñez has played in the most NASL title matches (five) of any player in league history and grew up in Miami.  Stefan Antonijevic, who was named the 2013 Player of the Year by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers supporters group Flight 19, was also signed by Tampa Bay.  Antonijevic started all but a handful of games this past season during Fort Lauderdale’s run to the NASL finals.

Former Carolina RailHawks players Brad Rusin, who spent 2014 down I-4 with Orlando City and Gale Agbossoumonde (whose pro career began in Fort Lauderdale during the 2009 Miami FC season) also joined the new look Rowdies this week.  Another new Rowdies signing, Darwin Espinal was Broward County’s standout High School soccer player while attending JP Taravella High School in Coral Springs.

Tampa Bay’s 2014 season was one of transition. Local investor Bill Edwards’ purchase of the team should hasten a new era where the Rowdies re-emerge as a major force on the local sports landscape from an imaging and marketing perspective. However, last season did not go the way that was planned on the pitch and the team cut ties with Ricky Hill after four seasons. Hill was the 2012 NASL Coach of the Year and that same season he led the Rowdies to the Soccer Bowl title.

From a personal perspective, Hill was probably the single easiest NASL coach to work with when I served as league’s Director of Communications from late 2009 to May 2013. He is an outstanding tactical manager who prefers a stylish passing game to the type of dour long-ball football you often see come from Hill’s native England. He is also one of the most successful black coaches ever produced from the British Isles.

But this season, despite spending lavishly on new players, the results simply were not good enough and as the season wore on Hill’s personnel decisions became more bizarrely unpredictable. Highly rated players were left on the bench, while less fancied and effective ones were given 90 minutes regularly. By season’s end it had became plainly obvious that a change needed to bee made by the club.

The Rowdies gave up 50 goals last season, an embarrassing number for a club that had been built with a stout defense and strong goalkeeping in the previous seasons. With this in mind, the club proceeded to make  revamping the defense an off-season priority.

After taking the options for 2015 on just eight players, the Rowdies released Hill the same day they named President and General Manager. Quraishi’s pedigree is second to none in Tampa Bay area soccer and his appointment was a statement of intent about how serious the Rowdies are about getting things right. Perry Van der Beck, a former teammate of Quraishi’s with the Rowdies in the 1970s was reassigned to the role of Assistant GM. The new Team President wants to see the Rowdies become a premier club for player development and on-the-pitch success once again.

Unsurprisingly Rongen, the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers player and coach, was named as Hill’s replacement in early December. Teaming with Quraishi in 1996, Rongen led the Tampa Bay Mutiny to the best record in MLS. Rongen also won the 1999 MLS Cup with DC United and led the US U-20 Men’s National Team to knock-out stages of the U-20 World Cup in 2005 and 2007 beating Argentina (with Lionel Messi) and Brazil respectively in those tournaments. Rongen’s appointment was a no-brainer and was met with great enthusiasm from the Rowdies faithful.

By bringing in Quraishi and Rongen, the Rowdies have sent a statement of intent to the rest of NASL and US Soccer community. Rongen’s Florida ties helped secure six of the new signings the Rowdies unveiled recently. His relationships and knowledge of the state’s youth development and pro games are unrivaled. Quraishi indicated that the Rowdies will make player development especially of local Florida players a priority going forward. With Rongen on board, it is quite likely the Rowdies will become a model club in this regard.

Speaking to Quraishi recently, he raved about Rongen’s ability to psychologically connect with players based on newer coaching methods, and his adherence to attractive attacking soccer made him an easy fit in the market. This is in addition to his experience in the Tampa Bay area and deep-standing Florida ties.

Rongen’s charisma and experience in broadcasting will also help the Rowdies increase the club’s profile locally and nationally. By hiring one of the known commodities in American soccer, Tampa Bay has made itself more relevant than ever.

With the new ownership in Fort Lauderdale thus far finding this offseason to be a difficult transition period, the Rowdies have a unique opportunity to recapture the crown of top NASL team in the state of Florida. Jacksonville Armada’s entry into the league for the 2015 season, coupled with Orlando City’s move to Major League Soccer, means more eyeballs than ever will be on professional soccer in this state. That is a good thing as the Rowdies appear poised for big things in 2015.

What is even better is that the Rowdies are honoring their roots and making themselves a Florida-centric team at the very same time. At this level of pro soccer, community ties and relevance are critical. This is not the Premier League or Serie A. Even at the MLS level, it is still critical to have some community orientation and local ties. Neighboring Orlando City has long realized this and the Rowdies now are building the type of squad that will endear themselves to those involved in the game in this state. Fans have heard lots of fluffy rhetoric from the new Fort Lauderdale Strikers ownership about wanting to be a “global brand” while marketing aggressively in Brazil and England. If the Strikers want to really matter, they’ll mimic some of the early moves that Quraishi and Rongen have made and secure the home front first.

Photo credit: Tampa Bay Rowdies

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