by JAKE NUTTING
As both a former player and the current head coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Stuart Campbell doesn’t need much coaxing to get amped up for Saturday’s meeting with the rival New York Cosmos at Al Lang Stadium.
“I can’t wait,” Campbell said of the occasion. “It’s one of the biggest games in U.S. Soccer. It’s the biggest and oldest rivalry in U.S. Soccer, so it’s a huge event and I can’t wait for Saturday night to come.”
Squaring off with the Cosmos might carry added value for Campbell due to the fact that it was against them that he recorded his first win after being promoted from assistant to head coach in August of last year. That thorough 2-0 victory for the Rowdies was undoubtedly the highlight of Campbell’s run as head coach last fall, and after failing to the Cosmos on the road twice since that cheerful night, Campbell is eager for another chance at Tampa Bay’s historic rivals.
“It’s always a must-win game for me, even if we were playing them in preseason or a practice game,” Campbell said. “The Rowdies want to beat the Cosmos. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first game, the last game, we want to beat them.”
Saturday night will be the first and only match with the Cosmos that the Rowdies will host this year unless the two NASL heritage sides somehow come together in the postseason with the Rowdies holding home field advantage.
“I think when the Rowdies are playing the Cosmos there’s a certain buzz about the town,” Campbell explained. “Obviously we’re really excited to have them coming here. We want to go out and have a good performance. It’ll be another great atmosphere in the stadium. As I’ve said before, our supporters have been tremendous all season at home. They’ve been right behind us, and I’m sure it’ll be the same and probably even better on Saturday night because of who we’re playing.”
Campbell and company will be glad to have the benefit of home support behind them after their unfortunate loss in New York back in the Spring Season. The Rowdies pushed the Cosmos to the edge that night only to have an equalizer from Danny Mwanga waived off due to an incorrect offside decision in the waning minutes.
This Saturday, the Rowdies have a shot at balancing the scales from that slight while also proving they’re capable of beating the league’s first-place team outright.
“We were extremely disappointed to have that decision go against us,” Campbell said. “We weren’t the first team and we won’t be the last team to have a decision go against us in New York. It’s happened on multiple occasions for us. So we’re disappointed at the time, but we’ve dusted ourselves off and bounced back and we’re looking to make amends for that on Saturday night.”
Campbell declined to comment on the status of regular center backs Tamika Mkandawire and Neil Collins for Saturday, leaving fans and more importantly the opposition to guess what exactly they’ll be facing come first kick. Replacements Stefan Antonijevic and Justin Chavez were solid in Saturday’s 3-0 rout of Puerto Rico FC, the team’s first clean sheet since late May. Chavez was even included in the league’s Team of the Week for his performance against Puerto Rico.
The Cosmos have had their own instability issues in central defense. The perpetually injured Roversio is out once again, meaning the Cosmos will be forced to go with Jimmy Ockford or David Ochieng to partner with captain Carlos Mendes. Ockford has been exposed at times at center back, while Ochieng was steady in his only two league starts this year.
With the Cosmos finishing as losers in five of their seven matches on the road this year, including a 3-0 drubbing to expansion side Rayo OKC last week, the Rowdies couldn’t ask for a better scenario at home. It’s on them to capitalize, though, if they hope to post back-to-back wins for the only the second time this year.