A Look Ahead: Tampa Bay Rowdies

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Al Lang Stadium the Tampa Bay Rowdies home

One of the most active teams so far this off-season has been the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Unlike the teams in the top third of the league, Tampa Bay have had to do a major overhaul in order to re-position itself to be a contender for the title this coming season. With Stuart Campbell firmly settled and primed for his first full season as manager, waves of new signings have been coming out of Tampa. The team looks poised to make a real push to break into the top third of the league. Supporters are most certainly itching to see their team get back near the top after a couple of seasons of middling performances.

First and foremost has been the augmentation of the attacking third. The first high profile move Tampa Bay made was snagging forward Tom Heinemann from the Ottawa Fury. Somehow, Heinemann emerged from last season’s playoffs with a hugely inflated value. For a journeyman striker who over ten seasons has been with eight teams, never played more than 1800 minutes or scored more than 8 goals in a season as a professional, it’s surprising that the Rowdies rated him so highly and apparently spent a good amount on him. Last season with Ottawa, Heinemann (both affectionately and not-so-affectionately nicknamed ‘Teen Wolf’) set his career high in goals getting hot at just the right time to convince many NASL pundits that he was much more talented than he actually is. Heinemann is an acquired taste, much like his fronting of the Christian folk rock band Stones Cry Out.

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Tom Heinemann arrives in Tampa

It will be interesting to see just how Heinemann works out in Tampa. Former Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver was immensely underwhelming with the Rowdies when he made a similar move from the Carolina Railhawks. Shriver was regularly played out wide rather than as the true striker that he is, which probably contributed to his near ghost-like performances. The difference between Shriver and Heinemann is that the former Ottawa man has no other position he can be pushed into, lacks creativity on his own and, for a big man, the physicality as well.

Tampa didn’t really address the creativity problem but rather doubled-down on the big man up front strategy with its second forward signing, Danny Mwanga. The target man has seen his share of teams as well over his 6 year career (Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, Colorado Rapids, New York Cosmos, Orlando City, and now Tampa Bay Rowdies). Once a featured Major League Soccer future star, Mwanga was never able to find a system that seems to know how to use him comfortably. The 24 year-old can’t be a lone forward and needs a creative, quick strike partner to be effective. Also, like most forwards, Mwanga is only as good as the service he’s receiving from the wings.

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Kalif Alhassan arrives in Tampa

Here is where the Rowdies have made some key additions. Poaching winger Kalif Alhassan from Minnesota United, Tampa Bay found itself a winger who can provide excellent crosses, is a deadball specialist, technically skilled, and tenacious. Look for Alhassan to hold down the right side of the midfield with Freddy Adu anchoring the left. Between the two wingers, we’ll probably see either Georgi Hristov or Darwn Espinal as the central attacking midfielder tasked with being the sparkplug and creative presence on the pitch.

While this leaves Tampa Bay with a competent and potentially deadly attacking third, I have concerns about just who will be the anchor in the center of the midfield. Although NASL veteran Walter Ramirez was signed from in-state rivals Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, he is hardly the dominate presence in the middle of the pitch (in fact, he’s more of a cover option out wide left). The team doesn’t look to be bringing back El Salvadorian international defensive midfielder Richard Menjivar and I think that will come back to haunt them. As of now, Tampa Bay has re-signed midfielders Keith Savage, Juan Guerra, and utilityman Justin Chavez but I can’t any of those guys being a season long solution in the center of the midfield.

**UPDATED**

On Friday, January 8th, Tampa Bay announced the signing of winger Michael Nanchoff. Fans the North American game may remember this name, the 27 year-old was a hot prospect with the Vancouver Whitecaps but never seemed to blossom there and for the past few seasons has been with MLS champions Portland Timbers. Although his time with Portland was spent mostly on loan to the team’s USL side and Swedish minnows Jonkopings Sodra.

With the addition of Nanchoff, it looks as though the Rowdies have secured a possible starter and certainly depth at left wing. This means that should Nanchoff impress in the preseason, Freddy Adu could safely move to his preferred CAM role and push Hristov up as a proper forward again. This would solve the creativity problem and probably get the most out of both Heinemann and Mwanga. Of course, this assumes that Nanchoff finally finds himself comfortable enough to perform. The left winger has been rather inconsistent and underwhelming when given the chance to play regularly leading to his near perpetual bench role. This is a solid pick up and gives Tampa Bay the opportunity to shift its focus to increasing its defensive depth.

Where Tampa Bay look the strongest is in defense. In goal, Matt Pickens is more than reliable as ‘keeper (though, if he’s injured this little depth behind him). Unlike MLS, NASL teams have and use fullbacks properly. With Ben Sweat and Zac Portillos, the Rowdies have good depth at the leftback position. Across the pitch, Darnell King has made rightback his own, and between the fullbacks, centerback Tam Mkandawire is the general of the defense. Yet the general lacks a proper second-in-command. Stefan Antonijevic is functional, if not uninspiring and lately injury prone, and Frankie Sanfilippo though a well-seasoned veteran isn’t the solution. In fact, both of those players are more suited to playing as fullbacks than centerback. Mkandawire can’t do it alone, so Tampa Bay need shore up that position in hurry.

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Suspected Starting XI for 2016 Tampa Bay Rowdies

So, there are still some clear holes in the Tampa Bay Rowdies. First, there is a dire need for a poacher or creative striker to partner with the new muscle forwards signed. Second, the team is in need of acquiring a dominating central midfielder, with vision, strong tackling, and a battery to run box-to-box. Third, and finally, the Rowdies need depth at centerback.

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It will be interesting to see how the Tampa Bay Rowdies line-up and look when they host MLS’s DC United on February 13th. By then, I hope the team has filled in the gaps. If so, the Rowdies will be poised to make a strong showing in 2016.

**all images except for formation via @TampaBayRowdies

 

This article was supported by Rachel Racicot
If you liked this article and would like to see more coverage of the NASL and North American soccer, then consider supporting me via my Patreon site. Even a small pledge helps: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=2706521&ty=h

 

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