Here it is again. More proof for the nay-sayers that still believe we are not ready to host an MLS club in St. Pete.
Over 7,700 fans packed Al Land Stadium to watch the Tampa Bay Rowdies defeat the Orlando City B team 1-0 Saturday night. It was highest-attended match since the Rowdies started calling Al Lang home beginning in 2011. Oh, and the reported capacity of Al Lang? Between 7,220 and 7,500. Sounds like Bill Edwards was making the fire marshal sweat. It is also the largest crowd to watch the Rowdies since the club’s first game at George Steinbrenner Stadium in Tampa in 2010, which drew 8,082.
“It was unbelievable,” Rowdies’ goal-scorer Georgi Hristov said after the win. “Everyone realizes that everyone in this organization is trying to do something good for Tampa Bay. I really appreciate all the people coming tonight and hope they will help us again next game.”
The Rowdies made their debut in their new league, the United Soccer League, Saturday night, comprised almost equally of independent clubs, and reserve, or “B” sides of MLS teams. The Rowdies hosted their in-state rival, Orlando City’s B team, which further displayed that the rivalry runs deep. Orlando may be in MLS, but their insecurity forced them to loan seven MLS-team players to the reserve team Saturday night to face the Rowdies. Didn’t make a difference. Despite the meager score line, Rowdies laid waste to hapless Orlando side, and outshot them 21-3.
A bright spot shone for Orlando in the way of goalkeeper Earl Edwards, Jr., who could make even the most ardent Tampa Bay supporter applaud the efforts he made to keep the match close, with several brilliant saves on Hristov and Joe Cole. Edwards is listed as on loan from Orlando City’s MLS team.
Hristov helped himself to the game’s only goal, which he tallied from the penalty spot in the second half. He had several other golden opportunities to make the score 3 or even 4-0, but failed to convert the chances into goals.
“I try to keep high standards for myself and I am not very, very happy with myself,” the Bulgarian said after the match. “But I’m happy to have scored the goal on an important night for the Rowdies. We played really well tonight and should’ve won by more, so I’m proud of the way all my teammates played. There’s things we can do better, but this is a good start.”
This is the first Rowdies win over the Orlando side. Previous meetings between the clubs have often ended in disappointment for Tampa Bay, but have also been marred by fan misconduct and violent incidents.
Several arrests were made the last time Orlando visited Al Lang. Glass bottles were thrown, fights broke out in the stands, flares and other pyrotechnics burned in the bleachers and the ever-present tough guy Facebook trash talk was relentless.
Saturday’s game was different. Either the Rowdies beefed up security and segregation of fans worked, or just as likely, Orlando didn’t just send their B team, they also sent their B supporters group as well.
About 100-150 Orlando fans made the trip via bus and were quarantined off in the far corner of the stadium inside makeshift temporary bleachers. They were not allowed inside the stadium and were served concessions at their bleachers and entered and exited through the on-field gates. There they displayed their pseudo-tough guy supporter culture with ski masks and the tiring use of their phrase “puto Rowdies” before throwing toilet paper on the field minutes before the final whistle. Looks like they had to resort to using their hands on the bus ride home.
Look, I get it. I’m still banned from the national Croatian stadium in Zagreb after attending a match in 2013. Last time I went back, I found I was also banned from their cross-city rival’s stadium too. The game is about passion and sometimes we can get carried away. But wearing ski masks and balaclavas in 80-degree weather at an American soccer game is just trying too hard.
Defender Luke Boden spent five seasons with Orlando before making the jump to Tampa Bay this year. His first-ever start for the Rowdies came at an interesting time, forcing him to face his old club. He was christened a true Rowdie that night, receiving fan abuse from Orlando supporters every time he touched the ball.
“It was good,” Boden said. “I’ve still got a lot of friends at the club and we like to give each other friendly banter, but at the end of the day, we are professional footballers and we want to win games.”
The Rowdies’ record-setting crowd created an atmosphere found in no other sport. The intimate setting and over-capacity crowd left the stadium feeling like it would collapse with sound and left your ears ringing with chants. Sure, more people made the beer lines longer, and left me with the slight feeling like I needed to let everyone know I liked the Rowdies before it was cool, but nothing can out-do the passion and chorus of song
The Rowdies will continue wanting to win games, starting again this Saturday, April 1 at home where they face Toronto FC’s “B” team. No word yet on how insecure they are, but we are expecting only reserve players for this one.