After notching their first point of the year on the road at New Mexico United, Roots get to host Tampa Bay Rowdies. Woof. In our season preview, I predicted that Tampa would return to the USL Cup championship from the Eastern Conference. (If you stand next to an Orange County fan for more than 5 seconds, they will remind you that Tampa Bay won the East last year, only to fall to OCSC.) Tampa is 2-2-0 on the season, but I have not changed my mind about who will win the East. I think this is likely the best team in the USL.
You may recall that Oakland played at Tampa Bay last year, a 3-0 loss that wasn’t even that close. Tampa, a team that has been together for a while now, broke down Oakland with ease. Gone from that squad is Forrest Lasso, USL Defender of the Year, who now plays in Sweden with Ronaldo Damus. Tampa’s defense has not skipped a beat. Robert Castellanos, on loan from Nashville, was slated to take Lasso’s spot, but he went down with an injury in the first match. No idea if he’ll be back. In Castellano’s stead, Connor Antley, formerly a RWB, has taken up the central spot on Tampa’s back line. Further up the pitch, the only newcomer among the outfield players to get significant minutes so far is Jake LaCava, who strangely was loaned from NYRB to Tampa rather than NYRB2… and who has 3 goals in 4 games. I mean, come the fuck on. Rowdies also replaced their keeper, subbing in C.J. Cochran, who they picked up from OKC Energy, for Even Louro. Louro was keeper of the year last year but managed to pull a Bill Gramatica and suffer a horrific injury celebrating Rowdies win in the Eastern Conference final. He has not yet signed on anywhere this year (I would imagine his rehab isn’t complete yet), but is retweeting a lot of official accounts related to Michigan sports teams. Some of this (Michigan men’s bball) is cool; some of it (DCFC) is not. His inspirational rehab posts on insta get comments from Tyler Adams, which is quite the pull. He also appears to have gotten married this offseason. Mazel tov.
Rowdies play a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, sometimes opting for an extra midfielder instead of a true striker. As you can see above, I’m guessing they employ the 3-4-3 against Oakland. Their center backs are incredibly good at progressive passes, something we saw last year. Their first look is the wingbacks, but if you’ve got the wingbacks covered they’ll either look for the wingers between the lines, or play it safe to Lewis Hilton, the engine of the Rowdies’ midfield. Rowdies very intentionally use their width; the wing backs, Sebatian Dalgaard and Leo Fernandes, get a touch on every buildup. Tampa’s attack relies on a heaping helping of crosses into the box, where 6-4 Steevan Dos Santos lurks. The winger, the aforementioned LaCava and Sebatian Guenzatti, also work with the wing backs to advance the ball up the pitch, frequently through the wide areas. Tampa appears to prefer their left side, building up through Fernandes and Guenzatti, which is reflected in the fact that Guenzatti and Fernandes (who play on the side that would be putting the ball into the box) have no goals and 3 assists between them, while Dalgaard and La Cava, on the other side of the pitch, have no assists but 5 goals between them.
Defending Tampa Bay poses a real dilemma. If you try to funnel them through the middle, the back 3 are perfectly capable of bypassing your midfield overload with a long ball to one of the wingers. But if you close down the center backs you might be leaving Rowdies’ midfield with too much space to operate. And if you force the ball outside, you’re practically playing into Rowdies’ hands. Rowdies’ ability to switch play will probably neutralize what you’re doing anyway. Tampa also counterattacks with lightning speed, and takes every throw and restart more quickly than any team I’ve ever seen. Honestly, in terms of attack, this squad has the complete package, and they play like they know it: relentlessly, and with pace. Also, they’re pretty good with corners.
If there is a weakness (there is not), it is in the non-Lewis Hilton midfield role. A rotating cast of characters occupies that other spot, and I don’t want to disparage them too much, because one member of this cast, Yann Ekra, scored on Oakland last year, but its clear that this spot on the field does not contribute as much as the others. Perhaps because of that, Rowdies recently brought out of retirement Joe Cole, a midfielder you know if you watched the Premier League at any point between 1998 and 2015. Cole will not be available against Oakland, but that likely won’t matter.
I don’t think Oakland will play a back 3 for the rest of the season, but it might make sense to employ that shape again in this match, if only to match up with Tampa Bay. I think the least bad option defensively is making sure you close down the defenders when they’re on the ball. If nothing else, this strategy should give you the best chance at maintaining your shape and to generate counterattacks. On the other hand, we’ll need defensively minded players in the wide areas. Azocar and Rito were employed as wing backs because of their offensive prowess. They might not be the right selections here. Rito, in particular, can get lost on crosses, which is not the weakness you want to have against this side. Akeem Ward seems like someone who should get some run here, so long as Guerra trusts his pace. But would you play Ward as a wing back? That attack would not have the same punch. Or do you stick with Rito, on the theory that you’ll probably need at least 2 goals to get a point here?
Rowdies’ defensive strategy is really their offense. They love to dominate possession. As you might expect for a squad with so much continuity, when they do defend, they do so as a unit. They can press a back line, though typically they try to get the ball off of you in the midfield. I would wager, though, that they’re licking their lips watching the film of Roots’ first four matches.
If they’re vulnerable to anything, it is long balls, so if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic here, this is one of them. There will occasionally be space in behind to exploit.
Last year, Oakland went to Tampa having won 4 out of 5, and 3 on the bounce by 3-1 margins. They proceeded to get run off the pitch. Nearly that entire Tampa squad is back. This match should be closer. This Oakland squad looks more capable of matching up with what Tampa Bay wants to do, particularly in the midfield. Oakland’s back line, however, will need to be on its game. It has looked out of sync at times, especially in the last two games, and Tampa’s ability to send threatening balls into the box is tailor made to exploit one of the soft spots of this defense. I think Oakland will probably try its luck pressing Tampa’s back line early. This is a high-risk-high-reward strategy, and if it blows up in their face, it will probably do so early enough in the game that they can adjust. I would also expect Oakland to make judicious use of their subs. They can probably get 15 or so minutes on the front foot by switching up their strategy midstream. The other thing in Oakland’s favor is that the match is at home. I can’t find anything to suggest that traveling west 3 time zones is as rough on the eastern teams as traveling east 3 times zones seems to be on the western teams, but I want it to be true.
The short turnaround from New Mexico may limit how much innovating Roots are able to do from this match, but hopefully the momentum you get from a stoppage time equalizer offsets that.