The lads are back at Al Lang Stadium as the Tampa Bay Rowdies kick off the 2023 USL Championship season Saturday. Team officials are exuding excitement.
Founded in 1975, the Rowdies are the first professional sports team to represent Tampa Bay. The club’s modern era began in 2010, and as Chief Operating Officer Ryan Helfrick recently noted, the team has sent new benchmarks ever since.
With a successful core group of players, a bolstered lineup, a new lease at Al Lang and stadium upgrades, Helfrick and other stakeholders have high aspirations for the 2023 season. After reaching three consecutive Eastern Conference championship matches, the goal is to wear the league crown in November.
“We’re expecting to do big things this year,” Helfrick said. “We want to bring trophies to the Tampa Bay area. And specifically, St. Pete.”
Here are some things to know before Saturday’s season opener against the Indy Eleven, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m.
Team owners – who also own the Tampa Bay Rays – signed a new facility management, maintenance and operation agreement with city officials last fall. The deal provided the Rowdies with $200,000 for much-needed capital improvements.
For the first time in nine years, the team – and fans, during post-match fireworks shows – will enjoy a new pitch. The bright green turf is noticeable from 1st Street South.
“I would tell you five years ago that we had the best field in the USL Championship,” Helfrick said. “Last year, I’d say we had one of the best fields … now, I think we’re back to having the best field in the league.”
While fans may not notice, he said several other minor improvements are complete. Chief among those is waterproofing the stadium, and Helfick said that rain would no longer leak from the stands into the concourse during a downpour.
Seating just over 7,000 fans, Helfrick said Al Lang is “the perfect size for us.” He explained that intimacy allows fans to sit close to the field and interact with players.
Al Lang also has an intrinsic benefit over other facilities, as Helfrick called its location the best in the nation.
The stadium sits in the heart of St. Pete’s downtown waterfront, surrounded by parks despite the urban environment.
Helfrick noted The Pier serves as a backdrop, the Dali Museum and Mahaffey Theater are neighbors and fans can walk to over 100 bars and restaurants.
“You’re not just coming to a Rowdies game,” he added. “You’re coming to St. Pete. You can really come down and make a day out of it.”
Rowdies fans routinely live up to the team’s moniker, and coach Neill Collins and his players often relay how they feed off that energy. Helfrick said prices are more affordable than other professional sports and that the “proactive fan base” also behaves differently.
He noted that regardless of whether the Rowdies lead or trail opposing teams, fans are standing, cheering and singing fight songs. Conversely, players stick around after the final whistle to engage their supporters, particularly children, despite the match’s outcome.
Helfrick recalled when visibly upset Rowdies collected themselves, signed autographs and took selfies with fans long after a gut-wrenching loss in the 2021 USL Championship final.
“Some of them (players) are even willing to come here for potentially less money,” Helfrick said. “Because they love the city, they love the culture and they love the atmosphere. We live in paradise.”
He explained St. Petersburg, Al Lang, the weather and the loyal fan base make recruiting top talent easier. In addition, the team opened a state-of-the-art training facility three miles from Tampa International Airport.
While the complex is on the other side of the bay, Helfrick relayed that many players live north of downtown in the Gandy area. The Rowdies will feature familiar faces from past playoff squads, including defenders Forrest Lasso and Connor Antley.
Lucky Mkosana – of Mkosana Miracle fame – returns, as do midfielders Yann Ekra and Dayonn Harris. Keeper Phil Breno is also back behind the net.
The Mkosana Miracle
— Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies) November 22, 2021
However, Rowdies’ officials announced the departure of longtime club captain Sebastian Guenzatti in December 2022. He left as the club’s most prolific scorer, notching 65 goals in 161 appearances.
At the time, Collins said, “Seba will go down as one of the greatest players ever to wear a Tampa Bay Rowdies jersey.”
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg bought the Rowdies in 2018, and the team has made the playoffs ever since. The team also reached the USL’s championship match in 2020 and 2021.
Covid canceled the 2020 final, and the Rowdies fell 3-1 to Orange County SC in front of a sellout crowd at Al Lang the following year.
The Rowdies enter the 2023 season with some momentum, earning 3-1 victories over Tormenta FC and the University of South Florida club in the final two preseason matches. Helfrick believes that Collins, the team’s core and several additions can propel the Rowdies to their first championship.
“We brought in a lot of new players that we expect to take us to the next level,” Helfrick said. “And the goal is to win a USL championship.”
For more information or to buy tickets, visit the website here.