Thursday, June 23, 2011

FC Tampa Bay – Carolina RailHawks (4-6-2011)

During a short holiday in Florida, M. and I went to St. Petersburg to watch a game of Tampa Bay FC. While Tampa Bay has a long legacy in US soccer, FC Tampa Bay was founded in 2008; initially as the FC Tampa Bay Rowdies, in acknowledgment of the NASL team of the same name of the 1970s. (The city also had an MLS franchise, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, between 1995 and 2001. Together with the other Florida franchise, Miami Fusion, the Mutiny is the only MLS team to have ever folded.) As so often in US sports, commercial arguments led to the name change in 2010. It played its first season in the USSF Division 2, but this year changed to the small North American Soccer League (NASL).

FC Tampa Bay also changed its home ground, to Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg; technically it is called Progress Energy Park, home of Al Lang Field. It is a baseball stadium that houses 7,227 people; FCTB’s average crowd is roughly half that. We bought GA tickets for $14 per person and entered the stadium.

For Florida, the weather wasn’t too bad; roughly 85F/29C but with a nice breeze. As I lost my notes, this report is largely based on the official report on the club’s website. It notes that there were 2,688 people, which sounds plausible. Only some ten were from Cary, North Carolina, some 675 miles (1,085 km) north; six sitting in front of us, family of one of the RailHawks players. On the other side of the stadium was Ralph’s Mob, the independent supporters group of the FC Tampa Bay.

From the beginning both teams were fairly even, although Carolina clearly had the better players. FCTB has some quick offensive players, but they often miss aim in their passing. Overall, the quality of play wasn’t particularly high and few big chances were created. Hence, the 0-0 half time score was not surprising. That said, the atmosphere was good, with Ralph’s Mob singing, and the people around us really into the game.

In the second half the game slowed down as a consequence of the heat and substitutions. However, there were also goals. In the 65th minute Carolina got a soft penalty and took the gift: 1-0. Three minutes later they struck again: 2-0. Game over?

As the visitors started to defend their lead, FCTB got more of the game. This finally paid off in the 86th minute, when they scored 2-1. Unfortunately for the fans, the last minutes created a lot of tension, but no more goals. In the end, the 2-1 victory of the Carolina RailHawks was deserved.

I had a nice time at the FC Tampa Bay! While there were less than 3.000 people, many were real soccer fans, and Ralph’s Mob created a nice soccer atmosphere. At the same time, it is sad that a city with such a long soccer history, and with no major competitor in the whole state, attracts just 3.000 people on average. I fear it will be a long time before the MLS will return to Florida.

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