by JAKE NUTTING
Marcel Schäfer has known this day was coming for the last two years. That doesn’t make it any easier, though.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder will put an end to his playing career after Friday’s match against Penn FC at Al Lang as he assumes the Sporting Director position at his former Bundesliga club, VFL Wolfsburg.
“It’s like a little bit bittersweet feeling. That’s the best word to use I think,” Schäfer said. “On the one hand I’m excited about my new job. I played 10 years for Wolfsburg. I have a very, very special relationship there and this opportunity’s just great. But on the other hand, I was proud to be a soccer player for 16 years and I was proud to be a soccer player for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It’s a little bit of a sad feeling now that it is over, because I really love to be a soccer player. I put so much passion in the game and I have so much and I have so much love for the game, and it is over.”
This was always the plan for Schäfer, who says he only made the move stateside last year because he didn’t want to play for any German team other than Wolfsburg, where he appeared in over 250 matches. After Wolfsburg’s struggles at the bottom of the Bundesliga in the last two seasons, though, the club is embarking on an immediate rebuild and wants Schäfer back now rather than in the fall, as was originally planned.
All this came together in the last two weeks, leaving Schäfer with limited time to savor his final days as a player.
“I enjoy [these last days] more because it’s just three or four times more being here with my teammates in the locker room, making funny jokes, talk some shit things, what you do in the locker room. I really enjoy it,” he said. “For sure the game on Friday will be very special for me. It will be emotional, but it’s a soccer game and we’ll try to win it. That’s our goal. Soccer is all about winning, it’s all about emotions, it’s all about passion. We want to put that in and hope to win and give me a good goodbye.”
Schäfer has only been with the Rowdies for a little over 15 months. So why does it hurt so much to see the club lose him?
For starters, Schäfer early departure leaves a huge void to fill on the field. The German led the Rowdies with 11 assists last season and remains their most prolific creator with 39 scoring chances created this year. His contributions played a big part in getting the Rowdies back to the postseason for the first time since 2012, and he also shined with two goals in the club’s 3-0 victory over Cincinnati in the opening round of the playoffs.
Supporters have also begun to take Schäfer in the starting XI as a given. Until a suspension eliminated him from the June 9 match against Nashville SC, Schäfer had started in every possible league match since signing ahead of the 2017 season. With those 46 USL appearances and 1 US Open Cup appearance, he’s had plenty of chances to make an impression.
The admiration supporters have developed for Schäfer goes beyond statistics, though. His demanding nature and the intensity that he approaches every game with is palpable.
“The competition every day in training and on Saturdays, for sure playing in front of amazing fans… I’ve always enjoyed these things,” he said. “I think I was not exactly always the player with the most talent, but I think I was the player with the most passion and one of the best attitudes. This was definitely one of my strengths.”
Head coach Neill Collins credits Schäfer for his efforts off the field in building team camaraderie as well.
“He likes to socialize with the players and that’s kinda the stuff that goes unseen,” Collins said. “He puts a lot of things together with the lads, he organizes team outings. These are things that might not seem applicable to the field, but they certainly are. It brings togetherness. So the boys will definitely miss him in that respect. He’s a really proper family. That’s the type of character this club needs and likes and hopefully we can give him a good sendoff on Friday evening.”
That strong bond within the team Schäfer helped form made it particularly difficult to inform his teammates he’d be leaving them to finish the season without him.
“That was very, very hard. To be a part of the Rowdies was not only a job. It was more than that because of the fantastic relationships. I’m just here one and a half years, but we feel really familiar here,” Schäfer said. “It was definitely more than a job for me. This was maybe the toughest part. I’m honest; I had tears in my eyes because to explain the situation, that you leave very soon and are no longer a teammate, that was very, very hard. But everyone, I think there is no doubt, in my situation would do the same. They really understand my situation and wish me good luck and all the best for the future and that is really great.”
Schäfer also made the most of his time in Tampa Bay, getting up close looks at how the market’s other local sports teams operate by touring their facilities and talking with their executives. It’s all knowledge he hopes will be useful as he readies to take on his role overseeing Wolfsburg’s first team.
“You cannot compare the sports one to one, but it’s interesting to see how other franchises in other sports work to be the best in their leagues. Like the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was very interesting to talk to their General Manager Steve Yzerman and Victor Hedman. He’s definitely one of the best defenders in the league. It was interesting to see how they work and what they do to be the best in their sport and what do they do around the facility. I have really learned a lot and have many ideas to put in or bring back to Germany.”
Though his time as a Rowdies player may be coming to a close, Schäfer prefers to view his relationship — and possibly Wolfsburg’s relationship — with the club as just beginning. On top of his new position as Wolfsburg’s Sporting Director, Schäfer has taken on the title of “Rowdies ambassador.”
“The U.S. is a very interesting market. I think it’s just a matter of time before Wolfsburg comes to the U.S. for a training camp. We cannot guarantee anything, because you never know what happens, but I think there is always the possibility to come back here to the Tampa Bay area. Our U-20 team was already here and played at Al Lang in 2017 and everybody was happy to be here. It was just positive things they brought back to Wolfsburg. I can speak for myself. My family will definitely come back because we really love it here. We will come back to Al Lang when it’s vacation time for us.”