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Rowdies set sights on another championship run

Brian Hartz

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After a disappointing end to the 2020 season in which the USL championship match was canceled, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are putting the past behind them as they gear up for 2021. Courtesy photo.

They might not have received a boat parade, but as they prepare to open their 2021 season at home on May 1, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are just as much a part of the 2020 “Champa Bay” phenomenon as the Stanley Cup-winning Lightning, Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers and American League champion Rays. The USL Championship soccer club, under the guidance of player-turned-coach Neil Collins, posted a regular season record of 10 wins, three losses and three draws, and then stormed through playoffs to secure a spot in the championship match vs. Phoenix Rising FC.

Scheduled to be played on Nov. 1, 2020, at the Rowdies’ home pitch at Al Lang Stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, the title bout was canceled because of a Covid-19 outbreak among team personnel. Rather than reschedule the match, the league essentially, and somewhat awkwardly, bestowed co-champion status on the Rowdies and Phoenix Rising FC.

In a statement, the team said it was “disappointed” that the match had to be canceled but called the league’s decision “the best possible outcome for the health and safety of our fans, players and staff,” adding that it was “proud to be Eastern Conference Champions.”

But for Rowdies President Lee Cohen, who was part of the Rowdies organization in 2012 when the team won the North American Soccer League championship, the 2021 season represents a chance to take care of unfinished business.

Lee Cohen, a longtime Rowdies staff member, is now team president. Courtesy photo.

“Could we have played [the championship match] two or three weeks later? Maybe,” Cohen told the Catalyst. “I think there is unfinished business, in some respects, but we’re not hanging our hat on it. We’re not looking back and thinking, ‘Man, I wish we could have [played for the title],’ because we can’t change anything. We’re not going to look at the past; we’re going to look forward and figure out how we put our stamp on 2021, what we want 2021 to look like. We know there’s going to be a little bit more of a bull’s-eye on our back.”

The team, which returns 15 players from last year’s squad, has high expectations for another deep playoff run in 2021 but takes nothing for granted. “We look at the achievements in 2020 and say all of those things are doable,” Cohen said. “But the biggest thing we’ll focus on is that ‘21 is ‘20 done. It means nothing — you don’t get another trophy in ’21 because you were good last season.”

With much of the roster intact and Collins and his coaching staff returning for another campaign, there won’t be many changes on the pitch itself, but fans can expect a much different experience in and around the stadium. For starters, single-game tickets are, for the time being, not available. After playing much of the 2020 season with no fans in attendance, the Rowdies are continuing a policy established in the latter half of 2020 that will make socially distanced “pods” of seats available to season-ticket holders. Overall capacity will be limited to around 2,000 fans, Cohen said, though the team has targeted June as a possible time to ease attendance restrictions, assuming that the Covid-19 vaccination effort continues to move the population toward herd immunity.

“Single-game ticket sales will become open at some point,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to put more people in the building, but we feel like we’re in a good spot. Last year, we started out our first game back with 150 people.”

The grassy hill on the southeast side of Al Lang Stadium has been upgraded with socially distanced, stand-up tables. Courtesy photo.

Parents might be disappointed to learn that the grassy, hilly berm on the southeast side of the stadium — a popular play area for kids — has been fitted with standing tables where fans can eat food purchased from the food trucks that, after being canceled for 2020, will be back this season. But instead of the berm, kids will be able to play video games courtesy of an on-site mobile gaming trailer. The club also plans to install a large inflatable soccer goal and turf area where kids can burn off energy by kicking soccer balls around with their friends.

“The berm, the hill, it’s a fun spot for kids,” Cohen said. “We recognize that, but it’s also probably a spot we should have done something with a long time ago. It was actually quite dangerous at times for kids who rolled down it; it was kind of like carnage. But I’m sure parents loved it because the kids were extremely tired and worn out by the time they went home.”

The Rowdies open the 2021 season at home next Saturday, May 1, vs. Charlotte Independence. Cohen said tickets are going fast but about 100 seats remain for anyone who’s interested in signing up for a season-ticket package. For more information, contact the Rowdies ticket office.

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