By Scott Pinsker, Tampa Bay Rowdies contributing writer
ST. PETERSBURG, FL -- The Tampa Bay Rowdies enter the 2014 season with as many world championships as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning - combined. Expectations are sky high that the 2014 NASL campaign will conclude with the Rowdies raising their third Soccer Bowl championship trophy, and claiming their second world title in just the past three years.
"I understand the excitement," acknowledged Rowdies general manager Perry Van Der Beck, while watching the team's first full practice at Walter Fuller Park. "We have a terrific new owner [St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist Bill Edwards]. We added some exceptional new players in free agency. There's an incredible energy in the air. The stars all seem to be aligning for a 2014 championship run. But I'm nowhere near ready to make any bold guarantees. That's not our style. I think it's better to stay humble and earn these accolades the old fashioned way."
Still keeping his eye on the Rowdies' progress, Van Der Beck reiterated his point: "On paper, this is a championship-caliber team - but championships aren't won on paper. Championships are earned on the field."
As they were in 2012. Tampa Bay native JP Rodrigues was a starting defender on the Rowdies 2012 Soccer Bowl championship team. Born in Tampa General Hospital and a standout soccer star at Land O' Lakes High School, Rodrigues sees many parallels between the 2012 team and this year's squad.
"Looking at our offseason pick-ups, you can't help but get excited. We now have two 2013 NASL Best XI players, and if we all do what we're capable of doing, this team should really light it up."
Four-year starter Frankie Sanfilippo was a captain on the Rowdies' 2012 championship team and echoed his teammate's expectations.
"This will be a special team. Maybe even more special than 2012. The real key will be dominating at home. That's what gave us the edge two years ago. If we can rally our hometown fans behind us, if they become our loud and vocal 12th man, Al Lang Stadium will be a tremendous home field advantage. We certainly have the players to compete against anyone."
Among these players is reigning NASL league MVP Georgi Hristov. Originally from Bulgaria (where his older brother is a rock star), Hristov moved to Tampa Bay in 2013. After overcoming the initial culture shock, "Here, everyone says 'Hi!' to you. Even if they don't know you! In Bulgaria, that doesn't happen," he once said, Hristov has embraced his role on the Rowdies and now lives permanently in Tampa Bay with his wife and 10-month-old daughter.
"I have the coolest teammates!" he exclaimed. "This is such an incredible group of guys. We're all focused on winning that third Soccer Bowl championship."
Last year, Hristov led the NASL in assists, despite missing five games with injuries. But he insists that he pays scant attention to individual accomplishments.
"This is a team game," he said. "My only individual goal is to give my best. If the team doesn't win, personal accolades mean very little."
Perhaps the Rowdies' most intriguing offseason acquisition was NASL superstar Brian Shriver. A Tampa Bay native who was a three-year team captain at Clearwater High School, Shriver led the entire NASL in scoring last season as a member of the Carolina RailHawks, winning the league's coveted Golden Boot award.
Teaming the NASL's reigning assist leader with the NASL's reigning scoring leader could result in plenty of offensive fireworks.
"Playing against Georgi, it was easy to see that he's a great player," said Shriver. "And I can tell you, I'd much rather have him as a teammate than an opponent!"
Shriver claimed it was a "no-brainer" to sign with the Rowdies and return home to Tampa Bay, where his mother, father, brother and grandparents still live.
"The organization is clearly growing. The team is getting better and better."
But like Georgi Hristov, Shriver downplayed the importance of personal accomplishments.
"My primary objective isn't to score goals, but to win games. It's all about winning. I would definitely be disappointed to repeat as the NASL scoring leader, but fail to bring home the Soccer Bowl championship."
With these splashy offensive upgrades, it might be tempting to overlook the Rowdies' defense. That could be a mistake.
Born in Venezuela and raised in Colombia, Diego Restrepo played soccer at USF for a pair of seasons before transferring to the University of Virginia. As the starting goalkeeper for the Virginia Cavaliers, Restrepo was a key contributor on UVA's 2009 NCAA championship team, where he was named the MVP of the ACC Tournament and the Defensive MVP of the NCAA Tournament. He also shattered American soccer legend Tony Meola's school records for games played (25), shutouts (16), consecutive shutouts (11) and consecutive scoreless minutes (1,176).
Now in his second season with the Rowdies, the 25-year-old goalkeeper is determined to become a champion again.
"Last year we were good enough to contend for the title, but the ball just didn't bounce the right way," Restrepo said with a rueful sigh. "This year, we're 100 percent dedicated to bringing the 2014 championship back to Tampa Bay."
According to Restrepo, the turning point of the 2013 season was on Sept. 29. The Rowdies led the New York Cosmos 3-1 at halftime. But they lost the game 4-3. The New York Cosmos went on to win the 2013 Soccer Bowl championship.
"Will things be different this year?" Perry Van Der Beck wondered aloud. "Maybe. Possibly. But at the end of the day, you don't become a champion by pounding your own chest and telling everyone how great you are. Being a champion is something you earn - little by little, one step at a time."
Van Der Beck paused, watching Georgi Hristov center the ball to Brian Shriver. The NASL scoring leader fired the ball towards the goal, only to be stymied by Diego Restrepo's diving save.
"This year," Van Der Beck continued, his voice rising with excitement, "it's all up to us."
The Tampa Bay Rowdies open the 2014 season on April 12 in historic Al Lang Stadium, located on Downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront. For individual and season tickets, please call (877) ROWDIES or visit rowdiessoccer.com.
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