Rongen still putting his stamp on new-look Rowdies

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by JAKE NUTTING
NASL Beat Writer

Three games into his first stint as a coach in the NASL and Thomas Rongen has already experienced a lot – an uplifting win against last year’s Soccer Bowl champions, a frustrating draw against the 2014 regular season winner, and now, a sound defeat at the hands of historic rivals, New York Cosmos.

He’s the first to admit that his Tampa Bay Rowdies squad is still trying to find its place in the league. He and new Rowdies President and General Manager Farrukh Quraishi have performed a complete overhaul to the roster. With that kind of turnover, things can take time to coalesce.

This sort of rebuild is something that Rongen and Quraishi have expeirence with as they were in charge for the birth of MLS expansion side Tampa Bay Mutiny.

“We have 20 new players. We kept six from last year. You know, it feels a little like 1996 when I started in MLS with an expansion team called the Mutiny, where we also had twenty-odd players,” Rongen said after the Cosmos encounter. “We’re slowly getting to a point where I think we’ve identified our top 11, 12, 13 players and trying to find the right balance as well.”

Rongen ended up leading that Mutiny team to the Supporter’s Shield in his first season — a feat that seems a little tougher to match with the Rowdies. Despite a number of positives to draw from, they have already experienced some major setbacks, including losing NASL veteran midfielder Keith Savage for the season on an ACL injury and stud rookie left back Zac Portillos on a ruptured Achilles.

The 2-0 defeat to the Cosmos highlighted some areas of concern for Tampa Bay going forward. New York absolutely dominated in the midfield with players like Raúl, Marcos Senna, and Leo Fernandes having their way throughout long stretches of the match.

“We played against a very good team today, in all fairness. You know Senna and Raúl, but overall Gio’s done a great job. You can see this team has played together for over a year or two years now. That’s a great luxury to have as a coach,” Rongen noted. “They know how to play on this surface. They’re a very good possession team. You know, they’ve got some guys up front that can create some problems.”

Rongen believes he still needs to do some tinkering until he finds that perfect formula in midfield. A small thigh tweak kept Rowdies captain and holding midfielder Marcelo Saragosa out of the Cosmos match. Saragosa’s spot is cemented once he returns from injury but his partner in the midfield is less certain.

Rookie Verneri Välimaa got his first professional start and struggled against the vastly more experienced Raul and Senna. After two straight games entering in the second and making a positive impact, NASL veteran Martin Núñez may be in line get the starting nod.

“We waited a little bit to bring in Martin Núñez and Darwin Espinal in, and those two guys actually changed the game a little bit for us. We were able to string more passes together, get with more ease into their defensive third, and as I said, this is how we got two very good opportunities late in the game to do something positive. So the changes made a difference and going forward I gotta look very hard at, are those potential starters for us. They’ve made differences for us in quite a few games,” said Rongen.

Saturday’s clash between the two historic NASL rivals brought out a crowd of 12,550 to Shuart Stadium, a modern era attendance record for the Cosmos. The history of the relationship between the two franchises is something that Rongen, as a former player in the original NASL, has a unique appreciation for. His excitement at being involved in the storied rivalry was apparent throughout the week on social media, engaging with Cosmos fans in a little friendly banter.

And despite the poor result for his club he was still upbeat about his first experience in the rivalry.

“This is pretty awesome. I have a keen understanding of the history of the league. I’ve played in it … For me it’s a thrill to be a part of this league and a thrill to be a part of this great occasion today,” said Rongen.


The Rowdies-Cosmos rivalry may not be at its zenith like it was back in his playing days, but Rongen relishes the opportunity to help foster it again and educate some of his younger players about the past.

“In the old days it was every team had eleven megastars. So that’s maybe a little bit of a difference. But saying that, I think the players who I try to explain and educate about the tradition of this league, or what it means to play against the Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the world, I think they have a great appreciation for what this league did for soccer in this country,” said Rongen.

“Let’s be real honest — if it wasn’t for the NASL, MLS would’ve never been here. So I’m very proud of, as I said, being able to play there and very proud to be able to coach in it again.”