Coffee Talk: Don’t Get Cocky, Kid

Things were looking pretty good heading into last Saturday. I wouldn’t say I was feeling overly confident that the Tampa Bay Rowdies were guaranteed a win after a bitter 2017 series with the Baby Bulls, but I was feeling pretty good about their chances. Three wins in four matches to start out the year, including a brilliant 5-0 win over Ottawa the week before. Plus we were enjoying the first back-to-back good weather days of the year.

Why wouldn’t I feel just a little confident? Am I not entitled to that every once in a while?

Cut to two and a half hours later, when I’m riding the train back to the city in a daze, trying to remember my way home, wondering how things the Rowdies got the snot knocked out of them.

The first sign that it was gonna be a rough afternoon came early. My under the radar MVP for the year so far David Najem went down with a non-contact injury after stretching for the ball 13 minutes into the match. The right back tried to continue but ultimately exited ten minutes later, shortly after New York notched its first goal. The team did not provide an update on Najem after the match, but his injury happened directly in front of me in the press box. It did not look good.

Losing Najem was big test for the Rowdies depth, and it’s one they did not handle well. Stuart Campbell’s bench selection boxed him into a corner as he didn’t have a natural right back to call on. So, he inserted Ivan Magalhães into central defense and shifted Hunter Gorskie out on the right side. Gorskie and Magalhães will both want to forget this match quickly and move on. Both struggled throughout and were at least partially responsible for many of New York’s goals, though I shouldn’t just single them out as no one on the back line (or anyone in a Rowdies shirt) can claim they had a good showing last week.

The point is the Rowdies could not have failed this challenge any worse than they did. Fortunately, Campbell knows he’ll be without Najem this week so we’ll likely see Kyle Curinga slot in at right back. Curinga showed last year he can excel in the position at this level. However, this doesn’t erase my new concerns about defensive depth. Championship contenders rely on their depth to carry them through tough patches. Granted it’s just one performance, but I didn’t see anything from Magalhães that tells me he can get the job done when called upon.

The shakeup at the back is hardly the only the reason the Rowdies were on the wrong end of such a lopsided scoreline. New York just outworked the Rowdies in every area of the field, plain and simple. The hosts put the Rowdies’ back line under pressure, preventing any buildup out of the back. Multiple Red Bulls II players swarmed any midfielder any time the ball even came in their vicinity, hampering any interchange with Georgi Hristov or sustained buildup into the final third. The Baby Bulls wanted it more.

Lethargy or a lack of urgency away from home, again, bit the Rowdies in the backside. It’s not that the Rowdies gave up at any point. The problem is they seemed to lack ideas or purpose. Instead of responding to New York’s pressure by moving the ball quicker and working harder to open up space off the ball, the Rowdies often took too many touches and dribbled into defenders. Their only two true scoring chances were bang-bang sequences in which they moved the ball down the field with minimal touches.

Campbell’s hesitancy to pull from the bench or make adjustments in the match didn’t help matters either. Perhaps he was concerned about using up another substitution so soon after Najem’s injury, but that seems inconsequential when everyone watching could see what the Rowdies had on the field wasn’t working. Hristov was hardly getting a whiff of the ball up top and the midfield was being totally overrun by New York’s pressure.

It was obvious the Rowdies needed a boost when New York banged in its second goal in the 53rd minute, but Campbell didn’t pull the trigger until the 63rd. As Sebastian Guenzatti stepped to the center to enter, though, New York added a third to diminish any hope of a comeback. Even more confounding is why Campbell didn’t swap in forward Jochen Graf until the 75th minute despite the three-goal deficit. It was a bit maddening watching Graf take his warm-up penny off and stand around and stretch in front of the bench for nearly five minutes, waiting for the nod from Campbell.

The drastic swings from Ottawa to New York has really left my head spinning. Do I think the Rowdies are as bad as the Red Bulls II scoreline suggests? No. But do I think they’re as good as the Ottawa win made me hope for? Definitely not.

That’s not to say I don’t think this is capable of winning it all. This is American soccer. It’s less about how many you win and more about when you win. However, I do have a lot more worries than I did a week ago. Are the Rowdies still too reliant on aging veterans? Is the defense championship quality? After several years in charge, does Campbell have the acuity to get the Rowdies over the top? Are the Rowdies doomed to be a mediocre road team for eternity?

It’s entirely possible all these questions are resolved and the Rowdies are a powerhouse by the end of the year. It’s a long season. For me, though, none of these issues can be resolved by one or two good performances. Maybe it’s just  because I had a front row seat last week, but it’s going to take a lot to wipe away the memory of last week’s loss and convince me that this team is different.

Jake Nutting
Writer at Large for The Unused Substitutes and NASL Beat Writer for Empire of Soccer. Fullbacks are people too.