Saturday, the Tampa Bay Rowdies come to Minneapolis - for the moment, at least, as the first-place team in the NASL. It's been an eventful fall season for Tampa, even two games into the year; in week one, they played perhaps the match of the year, falling behind 3-0 at San Antonio after 18 minutes, then scoring four goals before halftime to retake the lead and eventually winning 7-4. This was followed up in week two with a scoreless draw, but one against the New York Cosmos, the renewing of a rivalry from the old NASL - a rivalry that was strong enough to sell out Al Lang Stadium in Tampa Bay, even now.
To get the lay of the land with the Rowdies, I talked to Mike Manganello, who covers the Rowdies for the Tampa Tribune.
SC: Rowdies midfielder Luke Mulholland, who might be the league's best player, was sent off last week after getting two yellow cards, and won't play this week. What happened?
The first one was very strange. The Cosmos goalkeeper had the ball, and I think Luke was just pressuring him too much, or when the keeper dropped the ball he was too close and made contact - it was a really strange, a very soft yellow card. And then the second one was for a tackle that ended up being about 30 seconds before the final whistle. He could easily have made it out of that game.
SoccerCentric: That epic 7-4 game - what happened there?
Mike Manganello: It seemed like [Tampa head coach] Ricky [Hill] was trying to play the ball on the carpet the first twenty minutes. Because the the team hadn’t played any preseason exhibitions, it wasn’t working, and they couldn’t control the ball like they needed to. They kept giving it away, and they got burned very quickly. After the 18th minute, when they were already losing 3-0, they kind of changed tactics and wanted to play over the top a little more, and that helped them get back into the match. And then I think the confidence of erasing a 3-0 deficit can propel you pretty far.
SC: Tampa has been the league's best road team this year - but has won just once in seven home games. Why?
MM: I have no idea, and no one on the team or the coaching staff seems to know either. We always talk about how, despite having low numbers, the crowd support seems enthusiastic. Their home field is set up for home-field advantage; there’s always a cross-wind that other teams tend to struggle with when they’re playing the ball in the air, the field is very small and compact, which other teams may not normally be used to, the grass isn’t perfect... it feels like the kind of stadium where they should be able to dominate every home game, just because it’s so strange to the away team. There really isn’t an explanation. I’m not sure.
SC: United and Tampa made a trade during the summer break. We know why United sent Etienne Barbara to Tampa, but why would Tampa pull the trigger on sending Mike Ambersley to Minnesota?
MM: I think the team didn’t quite have enough faith that he was putting in his full effort to recover from the knee sprain he had all spring season. I think that they saw him as a guy that was just kind of collecting paychecks, getting back on his own schedule, rather than his schedule. He’s been here awhile, things can get stale. He’s a player that had a lot of success here. It was kind of a risk worth taking for the Rowdies; if they can be the team that settles Etienne, then he can pay huge dividends.
SC: Did the Rowdies make any other moves during the summer break?
MM: No, they didn't. They pretty badly needed a defender that they never got. They could use a left back - they have Andres Arango playing there, he’s not necessarily an outside back, more belongs in the center. If they could get a left back, they could move him to the center and take Jay Needham out of the starting lineup, which would be beneficial.
SC: Former Minnesota striker Amani Walker tore his ACL in San Antonio, and will miss the rest of the year. How does that hurt Tampa?
MM: Well, we’ll see how reliable Etienne can be. I think with his arrival, Amani was going to be facing limited opportunities anyway. It just depends on how much Etienne wants to play here and how well he gets along with the staff and all that. It was strange - Amani apparently didn’t even leave San Antonio injured. He was subbed off for tactics. And then the next day his knee was swollen and they sent him for an MRI and it turned out he had a torn ACL.
SC: How has Tampa Bay been lining up, up front, in the fall season?
MM: Georgi Hristov started, Etienne came off the bench. Evans Frimpong was - I don’t want to say up front, he was a wide player that was always kind of pushing up the side. It was kind of a single-striker front with Georgi and then Etienne came on as a support striker at the end.
My thanks again to Mike; follow him on Twitter at @MikeManganello, if you're looking for info about the Rowdies.