ST. PETERSBURG — Short of getting awarded a Major League Soccer franchise — and they're trying hard on that front — it was as eventful an offseason as the Tampa Bay Rowdies have ever had.
"Normally it's pretty quiet. This one … well, you'd do well to beat it," said coach Stuart Campbell.
It has finally come to an end. The Rowdies take the field tonight as new members of the United Soccer League, hosting Orlando City B at Al Lang Stadium.
The Tampa Bay franchise awaits a May 2 citywide vote on whether St. Petersburg can negotiate a lease up to 25 years with Rowdies owner Bill Edwards. The team plans to expand the downtown stadium to 18,000 seats, with Edwards paying for it through $80 million in private investment.
Tampa Bay is one of 11 markets vying for a Major League Soccer franchise, with the league expected to announce this year the addition of its 25th and 26th teams.
But the MLS can wait. The Rowdies dropped out of the North American Soccer League, which is down to 10 teams, to join the USL, which has 30. The Rowdies will play 32 games: home and away to each Eastern Conference opponent with an extra home game against Ottawa and Charleston, an additional trip to Orlando, and one game against a Western foe, at San Antonio.
Campbell and staff had a lot of tape to dissect. "Straightaway my staff and I started watching games. Hundreds of games between us," he said. "We got in depth into their style play; we had a good look."
One thing that jumped out: The average age of a USL roster is much younger, and the legs are a lot faster. The Rowdies had to respond.
"We have a lot more speed than we had last year. More energy from our younger players. We can press the ball further," Campbell said.
One of those speedy additions is Deshorn Brown, 26, who scored 20 goals in three seasons with MLS Colorado (2013-15). Brown, who has played 14 games for the Jamaican national team, most recently suited up for China's top league Shenzen (seven goals, 14 games).
Darwin Jones, 24, scored 14 goals for USL Seattle 2 over the past two seasons.
Alex Morrell, 22, a Lakeland George Jenkins High product, was drafted by the Chicago Fire out of North Florida.
"You blink and you might miss a couple of the new guys," Campbell said. "It would be a good bloody race between Darnell (King), Darwin, Deshorn, Alex.''
King is a prime example of how the Rowdies maintained their key pieces. At the top of that list is Joe Cole, the three-time English Premier League champ who was added early last year (nine goals, seven assists). Leading scorer Georgi Hristov (11 goals) is back, along with captain Tam Mkandawire and goaltender Matt Pickens.
In all, the Rowdies have 11 returners and 11 new faces. Based on preseason alignments, British defender Luke Boden, 28, will start, along with 25-year-old Brazilian midfielder Leo Fernandes.
"It's really competitive," Campbell said. "We went with a smaller (numbers) squad. Come Saturday there will be some disappointed players sat on the bench that deserve to be starters.
"When you make a transition to another league, I was wary how players would perceive it. But thankfully, all the players we wanted to bring back, wanted back. They weren't short of offers. They really believe in what's happening with the Rowdies."