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The Tampa Bay Rowdies enter a new era

Mark Parker

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Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Robbie Nielson is intent on winning championships in St. Petersburg, just as he did in Scotland. Photos: Tampa Bay Rowdies unless otherwise noted.

Glasgow, Scotland, native Robbie Nielson flew across the pond with a championship pedigree and a desire to help the Tampa Bay Rowdies reach new heights.

Nielson had multiple opportunities to manage soccer clubs in the United Kingdom but found the winning culture, supportive ownership and fervent fans in St. Petersburg intriguing. While much work remains for the new head coach, stiff challenges await.

The United Soccer League’s (USL) Rowdies kicked off training camp Jan. 29 at their new state-of-the-art facilities in Tampa. The honeymoon phase will end by Saturday, Feb. 10, when the team faces off against Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Atlanta United for a preseason match at Al Lang Stadium.

“We got a few games coming up that will be difficult,” Nielson told the Catalyst. “Just because the squad is not quite done yet, and we’re going against a couple of MLS teams. It will be a tough task for us …”

Fans hope he can provide a stabilizing presence for a club that has experienced unprecedented success – and turnover. In July 2023, fellow Scotsman Neill Collins abruptly announced he was leaving St. Petersburg for South Yorkshire, England, to coach the Barnsley FC.

Collins had 98 wins in 175 matches with the Rowdies and was named the USL’s 2021 Coach of the Year. Assistant coach Stuart Dobson briefly served in an interim role following his departure.

Former player Nicky Law took the reigns about three weeks later and guided the Rowdies to a postseason berth. However, a first-round loss to the Birmingham Legion FC was the club’s first early exit since 2019.

Rowdies’ officials announced Nielson would lead the club into the future in November 2023. Training camp provided his first in-depth interactions with the team, and he came away impressed by the team’s conditioning after a 13-week layoff.

“It’s been so good just to get back on the grass again and get coaching and helping guys develop,” Neilson said. “The guys want to do well. They want to put in hard yards. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”

Coach Robbie Nielson at his first training camp with the Rowdies. While he must adjust to the Tampa Bay heat, he was impressed by the team’s conditioning.

Nielson, 43, has won over 350 matches as a coach in Scotland and England. His resume includes three Scottish Championships and three Manager of the Year nominations.

Nielson believes he can recreate that success in St. Petersburg. He consulted with Collins, a childhood friend, before signing a multi-year contract.

Nielson repeatedly credited the winning culture created by Collins, Head of Soccer Operations Nico Castillo, Team President Ryan Helfrick and Vice Chairmen Brian Auld and Matt Silverman, co-presidents of the Tampa Bay Rays. Law remains on the staff as an assistant coach.

Nielson also noted the Rowdies’ training facilities would rank among the UK’s top five. “We always say 25% is coaching, and the rest of it is all of the stuff in the background,” he said. “So, to really come in here and help develop players … is something that really excited me.”

Nielson said he must adjust to the Tampa Bay heat and nationwide traveling. However, he added that “soccer is soccer” and believes his experience in Europe will translate to the USL.

“When the guys are on the pitch, it’s 11 guys on 11 guys, and it’s tactical, and it’s physical,” Nielson said. “You have an idea of how you want to play with a club … but it’s also always evolving.”

Coach Robbie Nielson pledged to entertain fans with an attacking style of play. Photo by Mark Parker.

While he plans to adapt strategies according to his players’ skill sets, one thing is certain: Neilson plans to entertain fans. He said packing Al Lang by providing an exciting brand of soccer is a priority.

Neilson said the team would attack and dominate possessions to create scoring opportunities. He called the Rays front office’s support “absolutely massive” and plans to apply their data analytics expertise to the Rowdies.

“The ultimate aim is to try and win a championship,” Nielson said. “Then it’s can we win it again and again.”

Several new additions will help achieve those lofty goals. Forward Manuel Arteaga joins the club after helping the Phoenix Rising FC win the 2023 USL Championship. The Rowdies also recently added Jordan Farr, the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year in 2022.

Leo Fernandez, the USL’s Most Valuable Player in 2022, is back on the pitch after missing nearly all of last season with an Achilles injury. Nielson said the team is still filling out its gameday and developmental rosters.

“This is a team that’s had success, and we’re going to try and build on that,” he added.

Neilson urged fans to reciprocate the energy and excitement on the field in the stands. He said filling Al Lang on Saturdays “means we’re doing something right. Come on down and enjoy it. Hopefully, we can entertain you.”

For schedule and ticket information, visit the website here.

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