Tampa Bay United Rowdies players huddle before taking on NCFC at the USL Academy Eastern Conference Event. Photo by Cameron Koubek
Two prominent Tampa-area youth clubs in Tampa Bay United Rowdies and Chargers SC have long competed for the region’s best players, but increased cooperation between the two is leading to expanded opportunities at the next level for players on both teams.
On February 26, the Tampa Bay Rowdies signed four top local prospects to USL Academy contracts with the USL Championship side, which will allow the young players to gain experience playing against professionals during the 2020 season.
“I’m delighted to put four new players on USL Academy contracts,” Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach and Technical Director Neill Collins said. “Each of them has their own strengths and it’s important that we show the elite youth players here in Tampa Bay that we’ll provide an opportunity for them.”
Obafemi Awodesu and Landon Ameres of Chargers SC, and Hayden Morgan and Julio Plata of TBU, were all given the opportunity to impress Collins during the USL Championship preseason. On top of that, both Morgan and Plata helped the Tampa Bay United Rowdies Academy to a perfect three wins in three games earlier this month at the USL Academy Eastern Conference Event.
“Having the ability to evaluate [Hayden and Julio] in a tough competition like the USL Academy Cup was a tremendous opportunity for our staff,” said Tampa Bay United Rowdies Boys Technical Director Brian Johnson. “They exceeded our expectations and were very influential in helping the team to be as successful as they were in the competition.”
Hayden Morgan (right) is a promising midfield prospect for the Rowdies. Photo by Cameron Koubek
“Both Obafemi and Landon have shown that they are more than capable of being in a professional environment simply by how they carry themselves both on and off the pitch,” added Andres Arango, a former Rowdies player who is currently Head Coach of both the Chargers U19 team and the new Rowdies U23 side in USL League Two. “Their maturity and knowledge of the game is at a different level. Their dedication to becoming the best that they can be has been evident in the extra work they put in.”
The four starlets are evidence of the expanding pro pathway created by the USL Academy structure in communities across the country. This pathway allows players to access a higher level of competition and development while still in their teenage years, without losing collegiate eligibility or requiring that they leave home.
Ameres (right) playing for the Rowdies in preseason action against Orlando City. Photo from Tampa Bay Rowdies
“The professionalism and habits that Julio and Hayden carry on a daily basis were an early indicator for us that they were ready for the next step in their development,” said Johnson.
“We knew that the talent level on the field was there, but as they mature into young men, they have proven that they have the right mentality for this step to begin competing with professional players.”
“Both Landon and Femi have already benefited greatly in a very short time with the Rowdies,” said Chargers Academy Director Roberto Lopez.
“The locker room culture that they’re exposed to and the opportunity to train day in and day out with seasoned pros have enhanced their natural qualities so that both are learning how to be professionals on a daily basis.”
The creation of the Rowdies U23 team, which will compete in League Two beginning this summer, adds another layer of partnership between Chargers and TBU and provides additional development opportunities for young players at both clubs. It’s likely that this group of Academy signings will see significant minutes with the League Two side this season, as well as last year’s Academy signings Robbie Soronellas and Dan Wintermeier.
“The Rowdies U23 team will have a huge influence on the path players take to play professional soccer,” said Arango. “Local young talent will have the opportunity to stay in Tampa to train and play in a competitive environment while being identified and evaluated. Our vision is to use as many local ties to the area as possible.”
The Rowdies open the 2020 USL Championship campaign against New York Red Bulls II on Saturday, March 7. Awodesu, Ameres, Morgan, and Plata are all eligible to appear for the club and make their debuts competing against professionals. To stay up to date with their progress in both the USL Championship and USL League Two, follow @TampaBayRowdies on Twitter.