By JAKE NUTTING
For the first time since 2011, Tampa Bay will play host to the U.S. Men’s national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. This Wednesday night at Raymond James Stadium, Coach Bruce Arena and the national team players will look to shake off the disappointment of Saturday’s 1-1 result against Panama on Saturday in Nashville with a Group Stage matchup against Martinique.
One of the faces of providing studio coverage of the match and the rest of the Gold Cup is Fox Sports’ Rob Stone, a lover of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Tampa Bay area in general. In the lead up to Wednesday’s match, The Unused Substitutes spoke with Stone about the importance of the market having a strong showing for the match and where he thinks the Rowdies stand in the competitive race to win one of the four Major League Soccer expansion slots that are up for grabs.
Below are some highlights of our conversation with Stone. The full interview will air on Tuesday night’s show on Radio St. Pete and will be available in podcast form shortly after that.
On the Gold Cup finally making its way back to Tampa Bay while the Rowdies are pushing for MLS
Stone: The value of that game for the Tampa Bay soccer community I think is pretty high and maybe it needs to be talked about a little bit more. I think Nashville is getting a lot of MLS momentum right now. They’re getting these crowds, same with Cincinnati who you guys just beat the other day. I think it’s imperative for the Tampa Bay community, if they do want professional soccer, to keep showing up in numbers. I know there was a good crowd on hand for that long-delayed win over Cincinnati, but you need to turn out for these big games in these big venues to show the world and MLS that you guys are serious about once again having an MLS club in our area.
Stone’s High Expectations for a Rowdies-Orlando City Rivalry
Stone: With a snap of MLS’ fingers, Orlando and Tampa is up there as the number two rivalry immediately. I also don’t think we need to discount the potential for a great Atlanta rivalry. It’s almost a triangle between all three southern cities. We all know how easy it is to get to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Tampa/St. Pete or Orlando. I think these things will kinda strengthen the national road map of MLS. Having those rivalries just waiting for you, it sounds so cliché to say, but it’s priceless. We’ve got turnkey rivalries waiting to exploit in MLS. Should Tampa Bay join MLS, I am going to do everything in my power to badger my executives at Fox Sports, saying ‘whatever you do please just get me to the Tampa Bay opener and give me Tampa Bay-Orlando, because it’s gonna be something special and you guys are going to appreciate it.’
Why the uniqueness of Al Lang is the perfect spot for the Rowdies and MLS
Stone: I go through this a lot with non-Tampa/St. Pete friends. This stadium is going to be fantastic, guys. It already is really unique and different in a good way, in a creative, charismatic way. I need to get my peers out there to see it and understand so they can finally go ‘oh, yeah now I finally see what Stone’s talking about.’ You say Florida to non-Florida residents and all they see is bugs and heat and humidity. People don’t get it. Please just come to a Rowdies game with me. They’re always welcome to come with me whenever I’m in town. Take it in and you’ll understand the breeze and the view and how glorious it is and how downtown St. Petersburg has really grown into an underrated jewel of the Southeast and just how perfect that downtown location is. To me, the Rowdies seem ready for MLS right now. If they got the notice today, they’re ready to fire up next season. That’s how well-organized this franchise is right now and I think that’s one of the big things they have going for them.
On the steady progress of the Rowdies’ MLS bid compared to other markets
Stone: Why would you want a drama filled club in your league? I think that’s been one of the perks of the Rowdies’ bid. It’s just been very calm, very straightforward. What do you need? Here it is. You want a stadium? We already have one and here’s the plan and here’s how we’re going to pay for it and we don’t have to go to votes on this. What’s our name gonna be? Oh, we already have one of the legendary soccer names in all of America. Our colors? Yeah, we got it. We’re good. Destination city? Done. Check. Rivalry? Done. Check. To me, as I start rambling more and more, it becomes more and more of a no-brainer for me. Hopefully the league feels that way too.