by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies have been relatively quiet on player announcements so far, but that will change soon as players are set to start reporting to St. Petersburg on January 14. (Yes, they have a keeper under contract. Even a few center backs.) Supporters should expect to see plenty of new faces that have yet to be announced when training starts on January 21.
With midfielder Kwadwo Poku as the only player under contract for 2019 at the start of the offseason, the entire roster was a blank slate for coach Neill Collins. Defender David Najem, midfielders Dominic Oduro and Leo Fernandes and forward Sebastian Guenzatti were all eventually re-signed.
Rowdies COO Lee Cohen hasn’t closed the door entirely on the potential of any more players returning, but he’s straightforward about calling this offseason what it is — a rebuild.
“We’re an expansion team in a lot of ways on the field, but we felt like the guys that we’ve assembled and the players that we want to be here, they want to be here. They want to play for the right reasons, and I think maybe that’s where we maybe got away from a little in years past. They’re here for the right reasons. They’ve probably had opportunities to go somewhere else and potentially do better, but I think they realize what we’re doing.”
Bill Edwards never shied away from splashing cash on players. The strategy paid off in some ways, but never in the most crucial way — on the field. So the question on the minds of many supporters is how the Tampa Bay Rays — a MLB club never known for throwing money around — taking over as owners will impact how the Rowdies assemble their roster.
“Are we gonna be the top team when it comes to spending like we have in the past? No, but I don’t think we were necessarily wise in what we were doing,” Cohen says. “I think we’ve learned the league a lot better. You can’t tell me that Charleston or Pittsburgh, or Rochester when Bob Lilley was there, was the top spending team in the USL. They weren’t. But they understood the league and they understand the dynamics of making a top team. Louisville probably hasn’t been a top spending team, but there is an identity that the team has and there is a cohesion that the team has.”
Does that mean the Rays are drastically slashing spending across the board or changing the type of players the Rowdies go after? Not necessarily. As Cohen is quick to point out, the signings announced by the Rowdies so far line up with what they’ve done in the past. Antoine Hoppenot, Brandon Allen, Ryan Felix are all players with a track record of success in the USL Championship, while youngster Malik Johnson from Toronto FC’s academy has great potential.
“Somebody may say, ‘how much is a guy getting paid?’ To me and our guys it’s not about how much,” Cohen says. What’s the product? What’s the data that we’re looking at? What value are they bringing in? Does this person fit in the puzzle? Because you can throw a dollar at this guy or you can throw 10 cents at him, but if the 10-cent guy fits the puzzle better, than that’s the approach. That’s what we’re looking at as a whole right now; holistically what’s our style of play? What’s the identity we want to have in the locker room? Is it gonna be an exciting field of players that’s gonna energize this crowd. It’s exciting. It’s a team that wants to get out there, wants to run, wants to go after it, wants to score goals.”
From Cohen’s perspective, shifting to “a more strategic approach” in building the roster isn’t a total dismissal of what they did under Edwards.
“Bill put us on a platform for signing a Joe Cole that we weren’t on before. Once you have that platform you don’t necessarily have to go down that path again because you’ve elevated it. What I’ll tell you is that the fans should expect more from the results that we’ve had on the field,” he notes.
The Rowdies may not be targeting big-name internationals in the near future, but their former famous internationals are lending a hand where they can as they club reevaluates its approach to international recruitment. So far the Rowdies have acquired two unannounced players on loan from THE EFL Championship and have gone a lengthy scouting trip to South America.
“You’ve seen some of the signings we’ve had in the past, both internationally and domestic, and they may have not panned out in the direction that we wanted. I’ll say Neill and the staff spend an endless amount of hours, including a trip to Argentina for 10 days, to really continue to develop those relationships internationally. We’re spending time developing and cultivating those relationships not just domestically but internationally through our connections in the UK. We’ll have two players from The Championship that will be playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies next year that we’ll be getting on loan from Championship teams. So we’re using the connections we have through Neill, and Martin Paterson and Joe Cole and Marcel Schäfer. These guys have a reputation. They’ve come here for the Rowdies. Even though they’ve left, that doesn’t mean they’ve left in the capacity of being ambassadors but also reliant resources that we can tap into.”
The goal for Cohen and his staff in this rebuild is not just to improve the results on the field. The aim is to establish the Rowdies as a flagship club in the USL Championship for years to come. They already have a storied name. Now it’ll take some time and a lot of work to earn the reputation they have in mind.
“I won’t say the fan base needs to be patient, but if you look at the roster it’s a revamped roster. It’s gonna take a little time to where we see ourselves, but I can tell you the results will be there,” the Rowdies exec says. “The group is gonna be here in less than 10 days to start the preseason. It’s not gonna be something where we roll up on February 1 and just go. We know we have to build the camaraderie between this group both on and off the field because it’s going to be so many new guys, and guys that have been playing in the west and guys that have been playing in the west, and guys that have come in from MLS.
“We can be cliché every year and say we’re going for the championship, but what are we doing to get there? That’s the discussions we’re having. I don’t want our goals to be to win the championship because that’s a facade. Everybody says that. Everybody says they want to win the championship. What are we doing to win the championship? What are we doing from the technical staff that we have in here? Give Bill a lot of credit. He hired Neill. I can’t tell you the amount of time this guy spends from a due diligence standpoint and the amount of hours he puts into it. It’s unbelievable. His assistant is Martin Paterson — another former player. This is the type of stuff we can learn from the Rays. Kevin Cash was the youngest manager in MLB. He sat with them, what, four years? Look at the buy in for them and what the results on the field were. That’s what we’re learning. We’re gonna trust the people that we have in place here and the processes that we’re starting to develop. It’s not going to develop overnight, but it will happen and fans will feel the excitement.”
This is part two of our interview with Rowdies COO Lee Cohen. You can read part one on the Tampa Bay Rays takeover from Bill Edwards here.
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies