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Tampa Bay Rowdies welcome new head coach, optimism

Veronica Brezina



Tampa Bay Rowdies' new head coach Robbie Neilson. All photos by Veronica Brezina.

Hailing from the United Kingdom with a robust championship-winning career under his belt, Robbie Neilson will be taking the reins of the Tampa Bay Rowdies as the new head coach. 

“Robbie has been a winner wherever he’s been. He has tremendous respect for Rowdies’ history, culture and traditions,” Tampa Bay Rays President and Rowdies Vice Chairman Brian Auld said during a media event Thursday at Al Lang Stadium in downtown St. Petersburg. 

“It’s been a challenging and turbulent period for the organization, having lost a number of key personnel over the years,” Auld said, thanking COO Ryan Helfrick and Head of Soccer Operations Nico Castillo for their guidance, among others. 

Neilson has coached over 350 matches during his stint at the Heart of Midlothian and Dundee United F.C. in the Scottish Premiership, and England’s MK Dons FC. He previously achieved the highest winning percentage of any head coach in the history of the teams. 

Neilson will replace Nicky Law, who took over the role earlier this year when former head coach Neil Collins left the Rowdies to coach the Barnsley FC of English Football League One. 

The Rowdies have experienced a revolving door in leadership changes, and fell short this season, losing to the Birmingham Legion FC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. With the loss, the Rowdies exited in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2019.

“The Rowdies season did not end the way we wanted to; however, the men and women who operate the organization left us in a position to be successful season after season after season,” Auld said, sharing his optimism for the new coach. 

From the left: Rowdies Head of Soccer Operations Nico Castillo, Head Coach Robbie Neilson, Vice Chairman and Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld and COO Ryan Helfrick at the Nov. 9 media event at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. 

With Neilson heading the team, Law will transition to the role of assistant coach as part of Neilson’s technical staff, which will include returning assistant coaches Stuart Dobson, Eric Wilde and Russell Stirling. 

“I met the leadership group in the last couple of days. I think it’s a fantastic match for myself and my values both as a person and a player,” Neilson said. “Nico and I discussed what areas we need to improve in. We’ve got a fantastic squad, and now it’s about adding a bit more quality and energy to get it to the next level.”

Neilson first connected with Castillo while touring the East Coast of the U.S. Conversations matured over the past few weeks before Neilson inked the multi-year contract with the United Soccer League Championship club.

Al Lang Stadium. 

“I had a few options in England and one in Scotland. This one excited me. I think when you come to a soccer club, you have to have a spring in your step,” Neilson said to the St. Pete Catalyst, recalling the moment he received the call from the Rowdies. 

He was impressed by the Tampa Bay Rays’ involvement with the team and the strong roster of players. 

Neilson, 43, first started his career at the Heart of Midlothian, a club where he appeared in over 200 matches during a 10-year tenure as a player. In his first season, Neilson led Hearts to a Scottish Championship title, earning the club promotion to the Scottish Premiership and Neilson his first of three Scottish Manager of the Year nominations. The following year, he guided Hearts to third place in the league to qualify for the UEFA Europa League.

Two years later, Neilson returned to Scotland to take over at Dundee United for the 2018-2019 season, capturing the Scottish Championship title the following season. Neilson was then recruited for a return to Hearts, leading the team to claim the Scottish Championship title and make an appearance in the Scottish Cup final.

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