Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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When last we saw the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Twin Cities, Minnesota was beating them 2-0 in the first leg of the NASL championship series. The next week, though, the Rowdies turned around the two-goal deficit, winning 3-1 and then prevailing on penalties to snatch the title from Minnesota.
Now, the two teams are among a host of title contenders for the spring season, with both teams tied for second place, three points behind Carolina. Saturday, Tampa Bay comes to Minnesota; the following Saturday, United makes the return trip.
To help educate us about the Rowdies, I talked to Mike Manganello, who covers the Rowdies for the Tampa Tribune, and who can be found on Twitter at @MikeManganello. He was nice enough to answer a few questions.
1. Did the NASL title help Tampa, in terms of attendance and popularity and coverage locally?
I’m not sure the NASL title helped the Rowdies. Through three home games this year, Tampa Bay’s average attendance is 3,740, just above last year’s average attendance of 3,116. Their home form has been awful — two points from three games — but if the Rowdies can really get rolling at home, attendance should go up. I think more people locally know of the Rowdies than last year, but they haven’t necessarily started coming to games yet.
2. The Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale talk up their rivalry - how much of that is an honest rivalry between the teams, and how much is the two clubs just trying to manufacture a "derby"?
I think the Tampa Bay-Fort Lauderdale rivalry is more for the hardcore fans than the casual fans or organizations. Fans of both teams certainly get up for those games and generally despise the other city, but I’m not sure the players themselves really care. That may change though, considering Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov reportedly ruptured Strikers goalkeeper Cody Laurendi’s spleen in a collision last month. Of course, that left Fort Lauderdale a goalkeeper short, so they went and got Rowdies legend Tampa Bay fan-favorite Jeff Attinella on loan from Real Salt Lake. The Strikers’ visit on July 4th could be … explosive.
You could make a case that the players consider Minnesota a bigger rival than Fort Lauderdale, given their playoff history.
3. Is midfielder Luke Mulholland the league's best player?
I’m not sure Luke Mulholland is the NASL’s best player yet, but could walk into the starting eleven for any team in the league and he’s probably the most exciting player to watch. His footwork is clinical, his creativity is unparalleled and he has amazing touch with the ball. Sometimes he’s not quite quick enough to get back when an attack breaks down, but he eventually gets there. His free kicks are something to watch too. It was ultimately in a loss, but his first half against Atlanta was special. He got an assist with a knockdown header, scored from open play and then score from a free kick in the span of 35 minutes.
4. Other than Mulholland, who should Minnesota fans keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks?
If you want to see good players, watch the Rowdies’ wide midfielders. Evans Frimpong on the left and Raphael Cox are both undersized and play with that extra bit of grit because of it. Both work hard on both ends of the field and never stop running. They’re a very fun pair to watch.
For pure entertainment, watch the disaster that has been Rowdies goalkeepers. After opening the year with two clean sheets, Andrew Fontein was quickly benched after allowing twice being caught way off his line in an ugly 4-3 home loss to Atlanta. His replacement, Diego Restrepo, is very adventurous, often chasing the ball outside the box and relying on goal-line clearances from his defenders. It’s a position of real concern for Tampa Bay.
5. Much has been made about Orlando's MLS ambitions. Is Tampa looking the same way - and if so, would the league ever go back there, after the folding of the Mutiny in 2001?
I don’t think Tampa is nearly as concerned with getting into MLS as Orlando is. Orlando City already has the committed ownership group with the financial power to make the jump, support from the city and stadium plans in place if MLS gives the go-ahead. The Rowdies are still struggling to get local support to begin planning a stadium and I think new investors would have to be brought aboard for the Rowdies to seriously consider trying to get into MLS. If Orlando City’s setup was in Tampa, MLS wouldn’t hesitate to bring them in. Tampa is actually a much larger media market than Orlando and the biggest in Florida, bigger even than Miami. For now though, Orlando and Miami seem to be way ahead of Tampa in the MLS arms race and this state won’t ever have three teams.