There isn’t much time for despair in professional soccer, at least for the front office and coaching staff.
A few days after crashing out in the second round of the postseason in an extra-time loss against New York Red Bulls II, Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell and his staff got to work analyzing what went right and what went wrong in the team’s debut season in the United Soccer League. In those assessments, they came to the conclusion that as bitter as the postseason loss was, it was still a good year and wholesale changes were not what was needed.
In the end, the Rowdies retained 13 players. The biggest change required, according to Campbell, was in the type of player they sought to fill out the other half of the roster.
“[The playoff loss] was just one of those games where we couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net through some misfortune and a little bit of inspired goalkeeping,” Campbell said. “So when we sat down on the Monday after that, we still felt the season had been a success on the field and off the field. We wanted to build on that. We wanted to try and improve our team. We wanted to go a little bit younger. I think that was our big takeaway from our first season in USL and we managed to do that in the offseason.”
Broadcasters noting that the Rowdies carried one of the oldest rosters in the USL as matches wore on became a familiar annoyance for many Rowdies supporters last season. That isn’t likely to change with veterans like Marcel Schäfer and Joe Cole still likely to garner much of the attention as regular starters. In fact, the average age on the roster still has only gone down from 28.3 at the start of last season to 27.4 today.
The team’s commitment to getting younger is hard to deny given the signings this offseason, though. The average age of the ten new additions this year is 24.4, with half of those being under the age of 25. Notably, this is the first offseason in which the Rowdies have not added a player over 30 since 2013.
Another important goal for Campbell was seeking out players with USL experience. Jack Blake and Matias Reynares stand out as the only two acquisitions that have never played in the USL before. Reynares, 19, is unlikely to see much time as the third option at keeper, while Blake is coming off a breakout year with the Jacksonville Armada that earned him the league’s Young Player of the Year award.
Swiping Kyle Curinga and Max Lachowecki off last year’s USL regular season champion Real Monarchs, as well as Junior Flemmings and David Najem from 2016 USL Cup winners Red Bulls II has Campbell confident they’ve brought in the right mix of youthful experience.
Campbell also feels his follow up season in the will be a smoother one now that the Rowdies are no longer the new kids on the block.
“I think myself and the rest of the technical staff watched hours and hours and hours of film before last year. We had a little experience having played a few USL teams in the Open Cup and preseason, but nothing actually prepares you until you’re in those stadiums, playing in those environments on different surfaces,” he said. “We’ve got a year’s experience behind us, so I know that we’re better equipped than we were in our first year.”
Following in the Rowdies and Campbell’s footsteps this year are former NASL foes North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven. The two sides add to an already stacked Eastern Conference that will see 16 teams vie for eight postseason spots.
“I think the Eastern Conference is incredibly strong, and that’s no disrespect aimed at the west. It’s just life,” Campbell said. “With the teams coming into the Eastern Conference and some of the signings others have made, I think every team feels they deserve to be in it at the end. That’s just my honest assessment before a ball has been kicked. I’ve looked through all the rosters and I think every team in the east has made improvements from last season, so it’s gonna be tough for everybody.”
Campbell got Tampa Bay over an important hurdle last year in earning the team its first postseason berth since the 2012 championship season. Now entering his third season in charge, though, Campbell isn’t feeling any added pressure to get over the next hump and deliver on a league title.
“We place a great amount of pressure on ourselves every year,” he said. “The goal is always the same. We set our standards and our expectations extremely high. Nobody puts themselves under more personal pressure than me. The same goes for the players.”
Saturday’s season opener in Cary, North Carolina could be a good indicator of whether Campbell’s squad is ready to take the next step. With an abysmal road record of 6W-15L-11D over the last two seasons, Campbell will need to find a way to improve results away from Al Lang Stadium if the Rowdies are going to be considered a serious title contender.