by JAKE NUTTING
With the kickoff of the 2016 NASL season right only a few days away, we’ve picked five important questions facing the Tampa Bay Rowdies heading into the new year. There are many topics worthy of discussion as Stuart Campbell and the Rowdies look to clinch a spot in the playoffs for the first time since winning the Soccer Bowl in 2012.
1) Can Heinemann replicate his Ottawa performance and carry the Rowdies attack on his back?
It may seem unfair to pin all the expectations for an entire season on one player, but Tom Heinemann’s performance in his first year with the Rowdies could very well be the deciding factor on how the club fares. He had a remarkably good season with Ottawa last year as the Canadian side shocked the NASL and rocketed up the standings to claim the Fall Season and reach The Championship Final. With 8 goals (7 in the Fall Season alone) and four assists, Heinemann was unquestionably the engine of Ottawa’s attack.
Prior to last year, the 28-year-old was typically an inconsistent finisher in MLS and the lower divisions. Matching what was a career-year for Heinemann could be a tough ask, but that’s exactly what the Rowdies are banking on to get back to the playoffs.
There will be considerable pressure on Heinemann to be at the top of his game in an attacking unit that is lacking in many true striker options. He’ll not only be asked to finish, but to also bring a high work rate every match and set up teammates when they charge forward. Danny Mwanga is the only similar option on the roster, but it’s been quite a while since he was a dependable scoring threat.
2) Is this finally Freddy Adu’s year to shine?
If you happen to be one of the few who doubt the drawing power of Freddy Adu, I suggest you let go of that belief post haste. All it took was one darn good free kick preseason goal from the former youth phenom to generate posts from major outlets across the internet. Now at 26-years-old, everyone wants is wondering if this is finally Adu’s year live up to the (unrealistic and unfair) hype hoisted on him when he turned professional at only 14.
Adu has acknowledged it’s up to him to prove his worth after years of squandering his potential, and there isn’t much room for excuses heading into this season. The supporters are all behind him, and the Rowdies have compensated him well financially and provided him with his first full preseason experience in several years.
The only thing working against Adu at the moment is the plethora of attacking talent the Rowdies have added in midfield. He’ll have stiff competition for minutes with newcomers Kalif Alhassan, Junior Burgos, Eric Avila and Walter Ramirez, as well as the holdovers Darwin Espinal and Georgi Hristov. If Adu’s words this offseason are sincere, he already knows he has to earn his opportunity in the spotlight.
3) Who will rise out of the trenches to claim their spot on the back line?
Stuart Campbell retained the core of the defense that allowed the third fewest goals in the NASL last year, but that does not mean there won’t be changes at the back.
Longtime Rowdies captain and center back Frankie Sanfilippo is as hungry as he’s ever been to become a regular again after his one-year stint in Fort Lauderdale. Incumbent center back Stefan Antonijevic will need to stay sharp if he wants to edge out Sanfilippo and Sheffield United veteran Neil Collins.
Left back Zac Portillos is also making a return, albeit after a season-long Achilles injury. He’s eager to get back on the field after the bitterness of going down two matches into season. He’ll need to beat out Ben Sweat, who matured over the course of last season to become one of the top left backs in the league.
On the right side will be two players who can easily relate. Darnell King was a top performer in his first year back in his hometown, but now he has fellow Tampa native and MLS veteran Jeremy Hall nipping at his heels for the right back position.
4) Can the Rowdies continue the upward attendance trend and prove their stadium expansion bid is deserving?
After opening up the new-look Al Lang Stadium to rave reviews in 2015, the Rowdies are already moving to expand the venue from the 7,500 to 18,000 seating capacity sooner rather than later. It’s unclear what hoops the Rowdies will need to jump through for approvval, or when that approval might come, but the team and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman are already angling to see the team receive a new long-term lease (over 5 years) to manage the stadium. A vote on that extension will likely come in November.
Expanding or financing city-owned venues for sports teams is an arduous task in the current economic and political climate, but the Rowdies can make the path a lot smoother if they keep bringing more people to Al Lang. Attendance has grown steadily every year since the team relocated to the venue in 2011, but they saw a significantly higher uptick of 24.2 percent last year thanks to increased marketing and word of mouth from the renovations.
With no positive buzz or media attention from renovations to stir excitement this year, keeping that trend on the rise will fall on marketing efforts and community outreach. The Rowdies will need to increase their efforts in both of those areas throughout all of Tampa Bay (not just St. Petersburg or Pinellas County) to prove they’re an organization on equal footing as the Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning, and thus worthy of a hefty investment from the taxpayers.
5) What should be expected of Rowdies 2 in its first year?
It may not be the academy that diehard supporters have their hearts set on, but Rowdies 2 is an important step in player development. With the hiring of former Ocala Stampede boss Cheyne Roberts as the first head coach of their NPSL reserve squad, the Rowdies have made it clear they intend to scout the college ranks for under the radar talent to nurture for the first team. Look no further than Darwin Espinal as evidence of how scouring the Southeastern region of the U.S. for college talent can pay off.
Immediate dividends from Rowdies 2 in its first year seem unlikely given the hit and miss nature of development, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The New York Cosmos reaped the benefits of their first year running an NPSL squad with the rise of midfielder Ruben Bover, who became a regular contributor in the playoffs after excelling in the NPSL. The addition of a reserves squad also opens up the possibility of signing youth internationals like New York did with Haji Wright. Recently, a handful of youth internationals have shown a preference for the NASL’s player contract setup over the more stringent rules of MLS.
IMAGE, PATRICK PATTERSON
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