Kickoff time: 7:30 P.M ET
Al Lang Stadium
Tampa Bay Rowdies (0pts 0W-0D-0L)
vs. Indy Eleven (0pts 0W-0D-0L)
We finally have soccer on the horizon again in the USL Championship! The first two games of the 2023 season kick off at 5:00pm this Saturday evening, with Memphis and The Miami hosting Loudoun United and FC Tulsa, respectively. Closer to the hearts of Tampa Bay sports fans, the Rowdies have their first match at 7:30pm that day. Indy Eleven come to town with a couple of familiar faces in tow. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+; but, with it being at home, fans and club alike expect a large crowd to welcome the team!
What should we know about the new-look Rowdies?
The Tampa Bay Rowdies come off preseason with a much changed team, as well as some important returnees and one major absence. Last year, the goalkeeper position rotated between three starters: CJ Cochran, Raiko Arozarena, and Phil Breno. Cochran won the position for good after Arozarena was given a shot and did not impress in his stint. However, toward the end of the season, Cochran then went down with an injury while Arozarena was out on loan. Breno had come to the Rowdies on loan from Forward Madison, where Arozarena was, and he stepped into the role without many expectations. Despite this, he earned hero status more than once in the final stretches.
Breno lasted through the end of the season and playoffs with Arozarena backing him up. This year, both Breno and Arozarena have returned to the club. Breno was signed to a permanent contract while CJ Cochran was not, his long-term injury likely playing a role. The Rowdies then decided to bring in another keeper to round out the corps, Connor Sparrow signing from The Miami in south Florida. He has arrived to much fanfare after several strong years in the league, and appears to be the likely starter in net from day one.
Last season in defense, the Rowdies switched between going with three at the back and wingbacks in the midfield to four at the back and more traditional fullbacks to start. Those left wingbacks included Seb Dalgaard and Jake Areman most frequently, with Dalgaard and Conner Antley appearing on the right. The regular three central defenders – who did not always stay in central positions – included Aaron Guillen, Robert Castellanos, Jordan Scarlett, and Antley. Laurence Wyke and Thomas Vancaeyezeele filled in positions across the back line at different times.
Readers in the know will be aware that a significant number of these players are no longer here. Vancaeyezeele was released from the club, while Castellanos and Wyke have joined MLS clubs. In somewhat unfortunate news, Scarlett has joined a direct rival in Louisville City. However, the replacements for those players who have left should inspire fans with confidence. For one, former USL Defender of the Year Forrest Lasso has come back to Tampa Bay and has made note that there’s unfinished business.
Lasso won the USL Defender of the Year in both the previous seasons he was with the Rowdies, before a stint in the Swedish top division. He’s joined in the defense by newcomer Freddy Kleemann, a central defender from California who dealt with an ACL tear in 2022. Kleemann does not have much professional experience; but, his years in college at the University of Washington suggest he has a lot of potential. Jordan Doherty also returns to the club after a season in his native Ireland, while Tate Johnson and Santi Castaneda seem set to compete for more minutes as depth pieces in the upcoming campaign.
In the midfield, the Rowdies have only lost two regular contributors year-over-year, with the aforementioned Wyke in MLS and Junior Etou leaving for Pittsburgh. Newcomers to the midfield corps include Charlie Dennis from Oakland Roots, Zach Herivaux from Birmingham Legion, and Ariel Martinez from Hartford. Lewis Hilton, Yann Ekra, and Dayonn Harris should reprise their role as important players on this team. In preseason, Harris started on the wing vs. CF Montreal of MLS, suggesting he may continue to receive more responsibility this year. Herivaux in that same game started as one of the center backs. His versatility will allow him to get on the field a lot, while also potentially plugging holes as the coaching staff determines their best possible XI.
Charlie Dennis’ role may suddenly be larger than even predicted, as 2022 USL MVP Leo Fernandes went down with an injury. During the preseason, Fernandes tore his Achilles tendon, thus ruling him out for the rest of the year. He had just taken on a shift in position last year from being a regular wingback to a more roving role where he could do as he pleased – and to good effect. Filling his shoes will be a conundrum for the coaches to figure out.
Up top, the Rowdies have replaced most of the players from 2022. Steeven Dos Santos, Jake LaCava, Kyle Greig, and even club legend Sebastian Guenzatti have left in the offseason. They’ve been replaced by JJ Williams and Felix Schroter, with former RBLR column subject Cal Jennings also taking a slot on the roster. These players come from diverse soccer backgrounds and there is much hope they can combine with returnee Lucky Mkosana to raise the scoring standard at this club. Lucky’s role as a super sub is likely to continue.
Without much to go on, this column will forgo the coverage of where each team is in the standings or what their recent records suggest of them and their forms. Further analysis of the rosters will have to suffice.
What should we know about Indy Eleven?
Indy Eleven come into 2023 with the same coach from the previous year, Mark Lowry, who will be looking to improve on what was a worse-than-expected record. After not qualifying for the playoffs, Lowry has brought in players who should be able to properly implement his preferred formation. Tim Trilk and Yannik Oettl will compete for the starting goalkeeper position, with Oettl the expected number one.
Mechack Jerome and Bryam Rebellon return and should be starters at the fullback positions in a relatively 4-4-2 formation. In between them, Jesus Vazquez, Younes Boudadi, and Adrian Diz Pe will vie for the two center back positions to be divvied up. Several All-League selections have come to Indy’s midfield and will also fight to be in the XI: Aodhan Quinn, Cam Lindley, and Jack Blake are likely the most important potential contributors here. Wingers include another former All-League selection in Solomon Asante and the impressive Jonas Fjeldberg. Harrison Robledo, an FC Cincinnati homegrown signing, is in Indy on loan for the season.
Up top, two former Rowdies will be looking to bite us in the butt in Juan Tejada and the aforementioned Guenzatti. Rowdies fans weren’t given much of a chance to say goodbye to either of these favorites, and seeing them in another team’s colors will certainly be a downer. However, it is important to remember that Forrest Lasso and co. should have a good grip on their strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and desires on the field. Local fans can hope that comes good when they’re lining up as opponents this weekend. Neill Collins, of course, will be doing his utmost to prepare his charges to get the season off on the right foot.
Behind Enemy Lines with special guest Brian Cook (@SoccerwithBrian) of Eleven Soccer Podcast (@ElevenSoccerPod)
Indy Eleven supporters have every reason to believe that the team has been in a rebuilding phase since their North American Soccer League Spring title win in 2016. This team has lacked identity, cohesion, and the most vital adjective of all for USL league play, consistency. Supporter’s don’t necessarily believe that they need to win every game, but in 2023 the goal for Mark Lowry’s side should be to begin to restore the fabric of hope that was once sewn so strong but now seems to be pulled thread by thread.
In order to have success Saturday, Indy Eleven will be hoping to catch the Rowdies off their game this early in the season. With the additions of former Rowdie Sebastian Guenzatti, Jack Blake, and Cam Lindley this team has decided to go leaner and meaner in 2023.
The key to Indy Eleven’s success will be their use of the press. Mark Lowry is finally getting his system in place with players he wants. His style is very aggressive, very forward, and very high intensity. As it grows, the system should only get stronger but early on in the season against a team like the Rowdies, you have to make sure the communication and cohesion is fluid so when two players commit to a press, someone is watching where the ball is going.
The Rowdies have a team tailor made to beat this press especially early on. Play high, long balls past the back line for players to run onto and the Rowdies could make Indy’s season opener a long one. If Indy Eleven do in fact get this press right, the system that Lowry has in place should return Indy Eleven to the glory that supporter’s have come to expect from Indiana’s Team.
Score Predictions from the RBLR Rowdies Podcast:
Our crew will be guessing the score of each Rowdies game this season. Correctly predicting the outcome and the score will earn three points, guessing the correct outcome will get one point. We’ll be joined by a special guest pick each week, and the winner will get bragging rights!
Carlos Rueda: 1-0
James Knowles: 3-0 Rowdies
Yurika Wheeler: 2-0 Rowdies
Special Guest (John Morrissey @usltactics): 2-1 Rowdies