The Portland Timbers switch their focus to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as they play host to Tampa Bay Rowdies at JELD-WEN Field on Wednesday night (7:30pm PT; Tickets, webstream, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Find out all you need to know about the opposition.
A brief history…
Playing in the North American Soccer League (NASL), which is the second tier of soccer in the United States, the Tampa Bay Rowdies have been in operation since 2008, but their history stretches back much further than that. In the 1970’s, they were one of the main teams in the old NASL, so the new club decided to keep that name and tradition alive.
Based in St. Petersburg, Flordia, they enjoy a rivalry with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and have a dedicated supporter group called Ralph’s Mob, who are a rowdy bunch (sorry, we couldn’t help it). The club is owned by David Laxer and Andrew Nestor and considered to be a competitive team on the field and a well-run organization off it.
READ: Timbers Flashback: Willie Anderson and the 1975 NASL Soccer Bowl against Tampa Bay Rowdies
How did they fare last season?
It was a clean sheet for Tampa Bay last year as they won the NASL Championship, the Ponce De Leon Cup, and the Coastal Cup. After finishing just two points behind the San Antonio Scorpions in the regular season, Head coach Ricky Hill’s team overcame the Minnesota Stars in the post-season playoffs to wrap up a memorable season by lifting the NASL Championship trophy.
One of the reasons why they enjoyed so much success is that they play as a team and that is reflected in so many of their players registering impressive tallies. For example, in the assists stakes, Mike Ambersley popped up with eight, but both Luke Mulholland and Keith Savage contributed five each and it was quite similar in the goalscoring charts.
How have they done so far this year?
It has been a pretty mixed season with only three league wins secured by the defeding champions, but they have advanced in the U.S. Open Cup – knocking out both USL PRO side VSI Tampa Bay FC and MLS' Seattle Sounders. Losing goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who joined Real Salt Lake, was a blow, but Diego Restrepo has impressed since coming in and has recorded three clean sheets thus far.
Newcomer Georgi Hristov has been a huge signing with four goals and three assists in the league, while also scoring the goal that stunned Seattle. Hill has also strengthened in other areas by bringing in Jay Needham, Jordan Gafa, Amani Walker and Devin Del Do. But results have not gone their way recently with last weekend’s 2-1 loss to the Carolina RailHawks extending their winless streak to three league games.
Head coach: Ricky Hill
A former England international, Hill played over 400 games for Luton Town, while also enjoying spells in France and the United States. Upon moving into coaching, he took charge of Luton for a short period and also worked at Sheffield Wednesday and Tottenham Hotspur. He has been in charge of Tampa Bay since 2011 and guided the team to three trophies last season.
Star Player: Georgi Hristov
This Bulgarian striker (above, left) has proved to be a popular addition to the squad after arriving from Lokomotiv Sofia via a trial with Philadelphia Union. Standing at 6', Hristov uses his height well when contesting aerial balls, but his movement around the pitch is his greatest asset. Always looking to peel away from defenders, he often finds himself in fantastic goalscoring positions and knows how to finish when the ball arrives anywhere near to him.
One To Watch: Raphael Cox
Now 26, this fleet-footed midfielder spent one season with Real Salt Lake after being selected as the 54th overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Cox played six times for Jason Kreis’ team before moving on to the Tacoma Tide and then to the Atlanta Silverbacks. Since 2012, he has been an important player for Tampa Bay, where his running off the ball and accurate passing is of huge benefit to his team.
Who are their main threats?
Expected to line up in a 4-4-2 formation (or possibly a 4-4-1-1), Tampa Bay will be tough to break down in midfield, where they will attempt to restrict space attacking midfielders to roam into. And when it comes to stopping the opposition from playing, former USL Timber Keith Savage is an important player as his tackling and positional covering help to disrupt counter attacks.
Up front, Hristov is the real dangerman, but the key to stopping him is cutting off the supply lines. So restricting the influence of Cox and Mulholland in midfield will be crucial as will tracking the outside backs when they burst forward. At set pieces, Tampa Bay will be look to push the Timbers on the backfoot and they will also be given instructions to shoot from distance if in sight of the goal.
Where are they most vulnerable?
There is a defensive void to fill with Jordan Gafa missing due to being sent off in the win over Seattle in the last round. They do have players that can fill in, but missing a regular starter is always a blow. And Gafa’s speed helped to cover for Takuya Yamada’s lack of, so it will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay plan to patch up their backline for this game.
Similar to their last outing in this competition – against the Wilmington Hammerheads – the Timbers will look to dictate the tempo of the game from early on. If they manage to do that, then Tampa Bay will have to cope with being on the defensive for long periods – something that they are not used to in their league play. And the movement of the Timbers attackers should expose any weaknesses that the opposition show.
Did You Know?
The family connection is strong at Tampa Bay with a father and son combination in head coach Ricky Hill and son Shane, who plays in midfield. Originally from England, they are now settled in Florida.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.