by JAKE NUTTING
If you’re feeling as if the 2018 Tampa Bay Rowdies season was its own special brand of crazy, you’re not alone.
Neill Collins knew the job ahead of him in taking over as head coach back in May would be tough, he just couldn’t have predicted how uniquely challenging it would be. Some changes are expected after every coaching shakeup, but no one would’ve have guessed how many the Rowdies would be making.
“I did not for one second want to be making nine changes to the squad,” Collins said. “(Some say) I did that because I was trying to revamp the squad midseason because of this, this and this. That’s not true. What it did allow me to do was bring in players that I actually think made us a better team, but it certainly wasn’t my plan. It’s not something I expected midseason. But circumstances were so extenuating. It really was unbelievable.”
Listening to Collins rattle off the lengthy list of players lost to injuries for the entire season or months at a time, on top of the early retirements of Marcel Schäfer and Tamika Mkandawire, as well as the release of Ivan Magalhães and Matias Reynares as a result of their off-field altercation, it makes you appreciate the fact that the Rowdies were even in postseason contention at all in the final weeks of the season.
Whatever the reason for the turnover, it made it extremely difficult for the new coach and his players to establish consistency on the field. There were signs of progress in the final couple months, particularly in September when the Rowdies won four of six matches. However, consistent results continued to elude them.
“One thing I would say is that for all of the changes, we actually ended up making some positive changes,” Collins noted. “Papé Diakite, Dominic Oduro, Afrim Taku, I thought they had really positive impacts. Then once we got Tarek Morad and Daniel Vega, I think for the last 12 games the performances were very consistent. The results weren’t consistent, but I think I could give you off the record a number of statistics and a number of facts that we were really along the right lines.”
With 2018 behind them and a full offseason ahead, Collins and his staff are now focused on changing the makeup of what the Rowdies will look like going forward. That work started last week with a list of 11 departing players, including the Tampa Bay’s all-time leading scorer Georgi Hristov. After six seasons with the Rowdies and numerous memorable goals, the fan-favorite Bulgarian was not offered a new contract.
Collins is ready to take the heat for not retaining Hristov, or for any of the departing players.
“I could’ve offered him a very low deal in terms of his salary just to say that we offered him something, but I didn’t think that was befitting of Georgi. Or I could have just kept him to pacify a few fans to say we’re keeping Georgi,” Collins said. “But if I don’t think that’s what’s best for the team, then I’m really letting everyone down and I’m not doing my job. I’m quite happy to take any criticism for letting go any club legends because I think it’s the right thing to do to make us better.”
“There were some really, really tough decisions on players that we let go. I know one or two of these players will go and do very well somewhere else and people will say they’ve proven me wrong and they’ve proven the club wrong. They’re not proving me wrong, they’re proving me right. I just feel that they need to go somewhere else to get either more game time, a different environment, or a fresh start. Just like we need a fresh impetus of new players at this club and change behind the scenes.”
All the thought and tough decisions over the last two weeks have been about planning not just for next season, but seasons to come. That means placing a stronger emphasis on identifying and recruiting younger players. Looking even further down the road, Collins is keen on nurturing the relationship between the Rowdies and Tampa Bay United Rowdies to develop local talent and provide a pathway to professional soccer. He’s has already made an effort to improve things in that area during the season, but now hopes to dedicate even more time to it in the offseason.
“Some of the experienced players we’ve had have done fantastically well. They’ve worn the jersey well and with pride and been fan favorites. I think there’s still a place for that type of player but we need a younger team, players that have got huge upside, players that we can coach and develop and make better. Dominic Oduro, Leon Taylor and Pape Diakite — they’re all at a great age with huge potential. There’s potential for us to coach them, for them to have success at the Rowdies ideally but then also to go on and have careers in the higher levels, in the MLS, or Europe or wherever. I want this to be a breeding ground for successful players,” he said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do right now. To plan, and have who we sign to fit that model. It’s the aim so that this time next year we’re not releasing 10 names or 15 names and starting again. It’s maybe five or six names, or maybe even less than that. And we’re adding five or six more and we’re maybe selling someone to an MLS club. I think ideally we want to be building something more sustainable on the playing side.”
Guiding the Rowdies into this potential new era will be the Tampa Bay Rays, who finalized their purchase of the club from Bill Edwards this week. Naturally, there have been questions and concerns among Rowdies supporters about what may come from the MLB club taking over the USL club.
“People assume I’m going to say positive things, but it’s the honest truth,” Collins said of his new employers. “Every dealing I’ve had with them, they’ve been so inviting and they’ve been so excited about the potential of the Rowdies. The culture at the Rays is something similar to the one that we want to develop. The biggest thing with fans is they jump to conclusions without any information and I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. The Rays are gonna do nothing but positive things for this club. I think it’s going to give us a couple of extra gears to move up in the long term because they already run a successful sports team. They’ll give us the tools to be successful and they’ll give us stability and build on the great work that Mr. Edwards has already done. I think they are very open, very honest, and very transparent and you can’t really ask for more than that.”
Collins wants to avoid making too many bold or brash statements for the future, but the type of changes he’s hoping to implement depend on changing much of how the club has operated in the past. Resting on their reputation or history in American soccer, or relying on an owner with deep pockets to splash money on a few recognizable names isn’t good enough anymore.
“People say that we’ve underachieved, but I think that’s sometimes it’s misguided in a way. Yes, we’ve underachieved because we’re the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but when I take a closer look at things, other teams are out there scouting and recruiting from different parts of the world. They’re going out and getting good players and we think we’ve got a good enough squad to do X, Y, and Z. That’s not always the case,” Collins said. “At the end of the day, what anyone has done before is gone. It’s irrelevant. It’s what you’re doing now. That’s why we need to change the perception of the Rowdies. When you’re signing the best USL talent or a few designated players, we need to go out and find a bigger network of players to recruit from and become a better club by doing that.”