by JAKE NUTTING
The first two games of the year went about as perfectly as the Tampa Bay Rowdies could have hoped for. Two wins and two shut outs are a welcome boost to the team’s morale after entering their first season in the United Soccer League with high expectations.
Nabbing the wins at home are also a plus. Last season the Rowdies only lost three times at Al Lang Stadium, but finished with a frustrating seven draws in front of their home supporters. This weekend offers a chance to grab a third win at home.
“To actually establish ourselves and turn this place into a fortress, I know Stu Campbell has touched on that a good bit,” said Michael Nanchoff. “We want teams to actually dread coming here. We want to make it really difficult for them. As much as we can make it miserable for opponents to come here, then I think the better off we are.”
Saturday night will be the first time the Rowdies square off with one of the USL’s independent teams. How the Rowdies fare against the league’s independent outfits this year will be a stronger deciding factor in where they end up on the table, simply because only four of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference are Major League Soccer reserve teams.
Many might dismiss Tampa Bay’s first two opponents, Orlando City B and Toronto FC II, as inferior teams given their reserve team status, but that viewpoint is a little too simplistic. Last year New York Red Bulls II led the league in goals, allowed the fewest goals, claimed the regular season title and bested another reserve squad, Swope Park Rangers, in the championship final. Some reserve teams in the USL are capable of grabbing a result against anybody in the league.
It is fair, though, to say the Rowdies faced less of challenge than others in the first weeks of the season based on how poor Orlando and Toronto were last year. Orlando was a playoff team but qualified in the last spot, 10 points behind the team ahead of it. Toronto ended the year third from the bottom in the Eastern Conference with just seven wins.
“We’re obviously going to prepare for [this weekend] the same way,” said Nanchoff. “The way I look at it, we don’t take anyone lightly. We don’t take MLS programs lightly, we don’t take non-MLS programs lightly. Obviously Ottawa’s a fiery team. They want to come into our territory and try and take some points away. We’re not gonna let that happen.”
Standing in the way of the Rowdies starting with three straight wins is Ottawa Fury FC, a team that has been a tough opponent for them to knock off over the last three years in the North American Soccer League. With a record of 2W-2L-5D, the two teams are essentially even in their series.
The Canadian side showed that it has taken its competitive style with it to the USL last weekend in its season opener at Saint Louis FC. Ottawa battled to pull even after conceding twice in the first 11 minutes, but an own goal by Sergio Manesio as he desperately tried to clear a shot that had slipped by keeper Callum Irving sealed a 3-2 loss for the visitors.
For more of Unused Substitutes’ interview with Michael Nanchoff, listen to the latest episode of the podcast.
IMAGE, PATRICK PATTERSON/UNUSED SUBSTITUTES