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The State of the 2019 Rowdies Roster

The Tampa Bay Rowdies were quiet for much of the offseason, but that has changed in recent weeks. With still a few weeks left to go until the club kicks off its 2019 USL Championship seasson, 22 players have been confirmed for the roster ater a flurry of signing announcements.

Preseason action started a couple weeks ago with closed door matches, but things will pick up in earnest this weekend and supporters will get their first look at the new squad as the Suncoast Invitational comes to Al Lang once again. With all the changes happening for the Rowdies on the field as Neill Collins exerts his influence in his first offseason as head coach, The Unused Substitutes takes a look at who’s returning, who the new faces are and what they have to offer.

Noteworthy Roster Tidbits

  • Much has been made about the Rowdies placing a stronger emphasis on younger players this offseason. The numbers back that up. With a few weeks until the start of the season, the average age of the 22-man roster is 24.8 (24.9 when Kwadwo Poku turns 27 next week and if you round up.).
  • Looking solely at the 14 new signings, the average age is 24.2. No one on the current roster is over 28. If that remains the case, this will be the first time in the modern era that the Rowdies do not have anyone 30 or above. The Rowdies fielded 9 players over 30 last season and 8 the year before that.
  • This offseason has seen the Rowdies undergo the most roster turnover since Thomas Rongen took over ahead of the 2015 season. Rongen held on to only 5 players from the previous year. So far Neill Collins has brought back 8 players. For comparison, the Rowdies retained 13 players in 2016, 11 in 2017, and 12 in 2018 under Stuart Campbell.
  • Of the 8 holdovers from last year, four were signed after Collins took charge as coach last May.
  • Unless we get a surprise signing in the next few weeks, this will be the Rowdies first season in the USL without a player from the club’s NASL era on the roster.
  • Leo Fernandes and Sebastian Guenzatti are now the longest serving Rowdies players. Fernandes leads the roster with 42 appearances, but Guenzatti is close behind with 38. With that in mind, supporters won’t be celebrating any new additions to the 100-appearances club this year. Five modern era Rowdies have reached the milestone so far, while nine players from the club’s original incarnation have 100 or more appearances.
  • The Rowdies have filled 6 of their 7 allotted international roster spots. Jaime Siaj (Spain), Dominic Oduro (Ghana), Jordan Doherty (Ireland), Caleb Richards (England), Pape Diakite (Senegal), and Mohamed Kone (Ivory Coast) are the current internationals. Kwadwo Poku (Ghana) has a Green Card and thus does not count as an international.
  • The outgoing players from 2018 combined for 29 goals and 21 assists last year. In total, the signings this offseason scored 36 goals and recorded 28 assists last year.

Unused Substitute’s Picks for Best Offseason Moves

Dan Endonino — Signing John McCarthy. Everything starts and ends with solid goalkeeping. Having a keeper of his quality stopping shots and communicating with defense will be a great thing through the season. His signing was the statement I was looking for beyond keeping Oduro.

Matt Cox — Signing Antoine Hoppenot. No one can immediately replace Georgi in the hearts of the supporters, but his goals have to be replaced immediately, and going out and getting a guy with Hoppenot’s experience at this level said a lot to me about the intentions and direction of the club.

Jake Nutting — Re-signing Dominic Oduro ranks at the top of my list. There weren’t many highs for the Rowdies in 2018, but picking up Oduro was undoubtedly one of them. I look forward to seeing him to evolve as a player and I hope he sets the example for the type of signing the club targets going forward. Identify younger guys with potential that have slipped through the cracks for whatever reason and provide them a platform to capitalize on that potential.

Goalkeepers

Matt Pickens’ absence was felt last year. Cody Mizell and Akira Fitzgerald are both fine keepers in their own respect and even bailed the Rowdies out of precarious situations at certain points, but it was clear Collins was not sold on either as his ideal keeper as the season wore on. Daniel Vega entered the picture late in the season and seemingly fit the mold better, but the Argentine was only on a short-term deal and has since moved on to MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes.

Enter Philadelphia Union backup and frequent Bethlehem Steel FC starter John McCarthy. Before linking up with his hometown Union, McCarthy earned acclaim as the USL Goalkeeper and Rookie of the Year with the Rochester Rhinos in 2014. Since then he’s accrued valuable experience filling in when needed in MLS and with Bethlehem, but he hasn’t been firmly planted in one place. Collins believes having some consistency and a genuine shot to cement himself as the number one keeper will only boost his level. The only other keeper signed at the moment is Macklin Robinson, who spent last year with New York Cosmos B in the NPSL. With just half a dozen professional experiences at North Carolina and Pittsburgh under his belt, Robinson will have his work cut out for him in pushing McCarthy for the starting spot. However, both should be adept at playing with the ball at their feet, as that is something Collins has noted will work well in the style he hopes to play.

 Defenders

Based on the club’s defensive signings, it seems Collins got tired of everyone asking if he’d have to put his boots back on when the back line was stretched to its limits. No one will doubt the Rowdies’ depth at center back this year. By the end of last year, Collins had the defense in a nice groove. Returning from that group arecenter backs Tarek Morad and Papé Diakité— two of Collins’ most impactful signings. The back line improved greatly once the duo became regulars and they were a big reason why the Rowdies were even in postseason contention late in the year. Joining them are Mohamed Kone, Ryan Felix and Shawn Berry. Kone, 25, is an unknown as he’s never played stateside before. His career so far has been spent in Eastern Europe.  This will be Felix’s fifth season in the USL. With only 16 appearances last year in San Antonio, he’ll be hoping to return to the level he reached in 2017 with Rochester, when he appeared in 33 matches and was regarded as one of the best defenders in the league. Berry has an incredible wealth of experience, having played in Germany’s second tier as well as the top tiers of Austria and Poland before landing with Real Salt Lake last year. That stint at Salt Lake only resulted in a handful of appearances, but with his pedigree he still has the potential to catch on in the USL.

The Rowdies are a little lighter when it comes to outside backs. Morad and Barry are capable of playing out on the left and right side respectively, but David Najem and Caleb Richards are the only out and out fullbacks currently signed. Everyone is ecstatic to see Najem return from last year’s season-ending injury, which ended up being the first omen of how dark things were gonna get for the Rowdies. His return on the right side will be a much welcome sight considering how strong he looked at the start of last year. Looking to the left side, the Rowdies have Richards, 20, an intriguing addition beyond just what it means on the field. Richards is the first loanee from Norwich City following the announcement that the EFL Championship side and the Rowdies have entered into a partnership that they intend to be long and fruitful. The big question is how Richards and Najem will be utilized. As fullbacks? Or wingbacks in support of a three-man back line made up of all the physically imposing center backs that are on the roster? We’ve certainly seen Najem is capable of either role. We’ll see.

Midfielders

A lot was placed on Kwadwo Poku’s shoulders, perhaps a bit unfairly. The team was a mess in many ways, and it’s hard for any player to step in (especially after going so long without competitive minutes like Poku did) with so many injuries and changes to the lineup week to week and still expect everything to work out. Keep in mind, Poku’s productivity in Miami was when he was surrounded by some of the best talent in lower division soccer. Still, Poku only recorded one goal and assist, which has to improve this year. It’s on him to prove he’s the player everyone hoped for.

Also returning are Leo Fernandes and Dominic Oduro. Fernandes, 27, had a decent output of 3 goals and 3 assists last year, though it still feels as if he has yet to hit his ceiling with the Rowdies. Producing with consistency has been an issue, but he still has a lot of support among the fan base and Collins obviously thinks there’s more to pull from him. Oduro came out of nowhere in 2018 to become a favorite. He rarely put in a poor performance in central midfield, aiding in the rehabilitation of the defense in the back half of the season.

The newcomers to the midfield include Jordan Doherty, Yann Ekra, Andrew Tinari and Zach Steinberger. Doherty, 18, is another loanee from an EFL Championship side (Sheffield United) and is another sign of Collins’ focus on injecting youth into the squad. Highlighted for his passing skills, the Irish youth international will compete for a spot in the midfield but was also mentioned as a potential option at center back. Ekra is entering his eighth season in the USL, mostly recently as a regular with the Charlotte Independence. He’s been used in a central forward position in the past but it sounds as if the Rowdies will rely on his skills in midfield to open up opportunities for others. Steinberger earned a reputation during his time with the Jacksonville Armada as a tireless player who always seems to find a way into dangerous positions when it counts. He split time between the Indy Eleven and North Carolina, with the latter stint showcasing his talents a little better. Tinari is a former Red Bulls II player who, in addition to scoring 9 goals and 6 assists in two seasons with RB II, led the entire league with 110 scoring chances created last year. Capable of playing multiple positions and roles in midfield, Tinari should come in handy this year.

 Forwards

Many eyes will be on this year’s crop of forwards to see if anyone can step up and fill the void left by the departure of Rowdies legend Georgi Hristov. The only forwards returning are Sebastian Guenzatti and Leon Taylor, who both had hot streaks at different points last year. Guenzatti, whose workrate can never be questioned, hit his stride in the final weeks of the season and ended up netting 5 goals. Meanwhile, Taylor got off to a hot start in his debut in June, scoring a goal in each of his first three matches. However, ab injury hampered his ability to find consistency. Heading into his second year, Taylor has a chance to become a face of this younger Rowdies squad.

Jaime Siaj, 23, and Malik Johnson, 20, are in similar situations as younger players still looking to make a name for themselves. After a brief trial with the Rowdies in 2017, Siaj signed with Charlotte and then moved to Oklahoma City last year. Despite being rated highly based on his talents, Siaj only managed a few goals at each stop. Johnson is aiming to spread his wings after coming out of Toronto FC’s academy system and making over 70 appearances for TFC II. Perhaps these two can be diamonds in the rough that end up turning heads across the league.

Youth is nice, but having some experienced strikers on the squad definitely has value. Brandon Allen and Antoine Hoppenot check that box. Since striking out from the Red Bulls organization, after netting 24 goals in two years for RB II, Allen has had trouble producing with regularity. The back half of 2018 saw a slight uptick with a midseason move to Nashville that resulted in 8 goals in 21 appearances. Hoppenot, however, joins the Rowdies after two of his best years as a professional. He followed four seasons with the Philadelphia Union (69 appearances, 7 goals) with a scoreless season at FC Cincinnati before signing with Reno 1868 in the USL’s Western Conference. In two seasons with Reno, Hoppenot showed a habit of being lethal on the wing, bagging 17 goals and 19 assists in 67 matches. The Rowdies are hoping he’ll carry that momentum into their attack in 2019.

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