The Rowdies Are Back

A Kick in the Grass

“This better make Sports Casualties on Monday.” – Corey Frauenfelder during the closing moments of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ home opener. You’re welcome.

You didn’t see it on Sportscenter or read about it on any major Web sites this weekend. Unless you frequent local Tampa Bay Area media, you probably didn’t hear about it at all.

There is a new professional sports franchise in Tampa, and they should be familiar to anyone that is knowledgeable about the city’s sporting past. They are the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a soccer club that plays in the United States Soccer Federation – Division 2.

The Rowdies are a reincarnation of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of old, a team that played in the North American Soccer League during the U.S. soccer boom of the 1970s. The league brought international soccer stars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Rodney Marsh to an American audience that was typically clueless about the sport.

In Tampa, the Rowdies gave the city both its first major professional sports franchise and its first professional sports championship when they debuted in 1975 and won the Soccer Bowl. The next year the Buccaneers would begin their inaugural season in Tampa, but it was the Rowdies who brought victories.

The Rowdies were led by names like Marsh, Oscar Fabbiani and Steve Wegerle. They had passionate fans (referred to as “Fannies”) that helped the team often only trail the New York Cosmos in attendance. The Rowdies also had cheerleaders who were referred to as “Wowdies.” According to the always accurate Wikipedia, there was a section made famous as the “North End Zone Gang” at Tampa Stadium in which “college-aged beer swilling fans” would regularly perform wild antics such as throwing dead mullet onto the field.

The Rowdies carried a slogan stating that “The Rowdies are a Kick in the Grass” and a catchy theme song to match.

The latest rendition of the Rowdies is a slightly different breed that is a hybrid of what the namesake once was and a new youthful generation.

The uniforms are still green and yellow, the old theme song is still played and members of the old team were both in attendance and recognized before Saturday night’s inaugural home opener. However, many things have changed.

Many find those changes necessary, including Marsh.

“Embrace the past, respect it, but don’t dwell on it.” Marsh said. “Make a new dynasty.”

The Rowdies no longer play at Tampa Stadium. Cars are now parked where the giant structure of concrete and aluminum bleachers once stood. Tampa Stadium has officially been non-existent for 11 years. The last event held at the stadium was a 1998 Major League Soccer game between the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New York MetroStars. The Mutiny, Tampa’s last taste of professional soccer, would soon meet the same fate as the Old Sombrero.

With Tampa Stadium gone and Raymond James Stadium a bit of an overkill for a lower tier soccer club, these Rowdies play at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the spring training home of the New York Yankees. Yes, soccer on a baseball field. Complete with one corner of the field dominated by clay.

A Kick in the...Clay?

On Saturday night, the Rowdies drew an announced sellout crowd of 8,082. Not the impressive numbers that the 1970s Rowdies occasionally put up, but not bad for a league which had an average attendance of 4,284 in  2009. The crowd was passionate and eclectic.

In place of the “North End Zone Gang” was now a raucous group known as “Ralph’s Mob.” They sang and chanted the entire game, making sure that everyone in the stadium was aware of their electric presence.

Ralph’s Mob is an independent fan group named after the Rowdies’ mascot of the 1970s. It is currently made up of 180 members, a total that will surely grow after their presence on Saturday night.

The Mob holding strong.

The players on the field are much more blue collar than the international stars that once donned the green and yellow stripes. While I could not find any records of player salaries, one can only guess that they are minimal. After all, some MLS players make as little as $20,100 per year playing in the most premier league that the United States has to offer. The USSF – Division 2 is not at that level. It is the soccer equivalent of the United Football League or Triple-A baseball.

So with these Rowdies, you see names like Stanley Nyazamba: A midfielder with flashy footwork who resembles Lil’ Wayne from afar. Or Jeremy Christie: A journeyman playing for his fifth professional club who was just added to New Zealand’s World Cup roster today. And then there is Chad Burt: A fan favorite because of his status as the team’s only local (he’s from St. Petersburg).

On Saturday night, the Rowdies tied the Austin Aztex 2-2 in their Steinbrenner Field debut. Christie scored on a penalty kick with five minutes left to ensure that the Rowdies would not go down in defeat. A red card had caused them to play down one man for the final 30 minutes of the game.

The fans erupted as Christie’s penalty kick went straight into the goal as the Aztex goalie took a leap of faith and poor prediction to his right. They erupted again when the final whistle sounded, applauding a team and a new beginning. This time the Rowdies returned the favor, walking up to the wall along the first baseline where Ralph’s Mob was located and applauding the crowd.

These Rowdies will probably be in a tie with Arena Football’s Tampa Bay Storm for the least recognizable or celebrated pro athletes in Tampa. However, on this night they were something much larger. They were a mixture of nostalgia and a welcomed change in atmosphere.

As the post-game fireworks began, a familiar song broke out.

The Rowdies run here,

The Rowdies run there,

They kick the ball around.

The Rowdies run here,

The Rowdies run there,

Then they fall on the ground!

Oh, The Rowdies, The Rowdies,

The Rowdies aaa-are…

A kick in the grass!

Welcome home, Rowdies. May 27 is dollar beer night.

A semi-unrelated, but still awesome, video.

-Bryan

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