Tampa Bay’s Rowdies & the Magical Madness of the Cup

We caught up with some Tampa Bay Rowdies to chat about the maniacal and magical elements of their 6-4 win in the Open Cup Round of 32 over USL Championship league mates Birmingham Legion.
By: Jonah Fontela
Six players in Tampa Bay Rowdies jerseys huddle up at a soccer match
Six players in Tampa Bay Rowdies jerseys huddle up at a soccer match

There’s the Magic of the Cup and then there’s the Madness of the Cup.

You often get both at the same time – and that’s what happened on May 8th 2024, a warm Wednesday night at Al Lang Stadium, yards from the Bay in St. Petersburg. The hometown Rowdies were on Easy Street and cruising: up 4-0 in the 81st minute, the game was O-V-E-R.

Right? Right?!

“And then Enzo gets free and a little fluky shot gets by,” said Jordan Farr, Tampa Bay’s No1 and the 2022 USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year during his time at San Antonio FC. The Enzo he mentions is Enzo Martinez, one of the Division II league’s outstanding players, and a hero of Birmingham Legion’s run to our 2023 Open Cup Quarterfinal. And that moment he scored to make it 4-1 was the planted seed that would find purchase and bring forth Cup Magic (and overflowing madness).

Seven minutes later, in the 89th, another Legion goal. It’s 4-2 now. “There was a crowd in the area and a shot from an off-angle and it goes in – and that didn’t make a lot of sense either; it’s starting to feel a little weird,” Farr remembered of those moments before the true psychosis descended and Tyler Pasher, his former teammate at Indy Eleven, scored a third in stoppage time.

What Just Happened?

The crowd fell silent and, as if scripted by chaos agents, a penalty was called in the literal last second of the game for Pasher to score again. The last goal came via the literal last kick of the game.

It went from 4-0 to 4-4 in the space of 14 minutes. “It was a nightmare,” added Farr, a cheery sort by nature whose fury at the reversal of fortune for his team said all there was to say about it. “It was really difficult to swallow what just happened as a goalkeeper. It’s not normal.”

So, that’s the Madness. Then came the Magic.

A Tampa Bay Rowdies player attempting a bicycle kick
A Tampa Bay Rowdies player attempting a bicycle kick
Tampa Bay’s Manuel Arteaga in full flight against the Legion

“I just had this numb feeling,” Farr said about the short break before 30 minutes of extra-time caused by the single most nutso collapse in modern Open Cup history. “It's getting late on a Wednesday night, you know, the stadium's half full. We're looking around at the Birmingham players. It kind of looks like they're exhausted.

“The whole thing was odd and horrifying,” Farr added about having to be boosted for the extra period by the coaching staff and the guys on the bench.

It was amid that psychological minefield of having just given the game away that the second phase of the Magic/Madness cycle unfolded. It came in the form of a perfect ball from the right side from Eddie Munjoma and a cinematic overhead bicycle kick worthy of the biggest and brightest stages of the beautiful game by Manuel Arteaga, the Venezuelan attacker with a flare for the dramatic.

It was a miracle of a goal. Plain and simple.

“It’s definitely in my personal top three,” Arteaga told usopencup.com, citing a similar overhead volley last season and one from deeper in his career with club side Deportivo La Guaira in his native Venezuela. “This crazy thing, we dug a hole for ourselves and we had to dig out somehow – I always say it’s not the mistake that matters, but how you react. That’s where the mentality shows.”

If Arteaga was matter-of-fact about his otherworldly goal that made the game 5-4, Farr, 80 some-odd yards back and watching on agog, was not. “Sometimes those bicycle kicks can kind of loop in, catch the keeper off-guard, but this one was just, like, perfect,” said Farr. “I was thinking, now I’ve seen it all. But that’s what makes the game beautiful, you know, you have to have this painful event happen in order to get the beauty of a bicycle kick winner in the 102nd minute.”

Arteaga got another goal late in the OT session and it finally ended the contest – 6-4 was the final score after 120 minutes of soccer. Cal Jennings went home with the match ball for his hat-trick and no one who saw that game will ever forget it.

It had everything – from the sublime to the ridiculous – and it epitomized, in all the ways big and small, the very essence of our Open Cup. “Someone said it in the locker room after the game: This is the Cup,” said Farr. “Nothing matters as long as you survive and move on.”

Five Tampa Bay Rowdies players huddled up during a match
Five Tampa Bay Rowdies players huddled up during a match
The Rowdies will host an MLS side for the fourth time in the Round of 16

And move on they do. Up next, another game at the venue of that Round of 32 fever dream. Al Lang Stadium is the place and FC Dallas the opponent. The visit from the 2016 Open Cup champions will be the fourth by a team from the top division for an Open Cup game. The Rowdies, on the verge of celebrating their 50th anniversary, famously beat the Seattle Sounders at Al Lang in 2013.

The Rowdies trace their roots all the way back to the old NASL and old-timey hero Rodney Marsh. “You can feel the pride in the club and the history of it – it all feels organic around town here,” said Farr of his club, which predates FC Dallas and MLS by a good two decades.

FC Dallas’ MLS Challenge

“Against an MLS team it’s a good chance for us to demonstrate our quality,” Arteaga added. “We’ll have to stay calm and work hard to keep sight of the things we do. It’s on us, the older players, to show the way to the younger ones in big moments like this.”

Farr, with recent memories of being the hero for San Antonio FC in the Cup against MLS side Austin FC, is thrilled for another opportunity against a side from the pointy part of this country’s so-called soccer pyramid. “You want to show you can do it against the top opponents, that’s how it is in our game,” he said about the visit from the two-time Open Cup champions. “It’s a measuring stick.”

Aside from the on-field concerns – always top among players and coaches – the upcoming game will be a chance to represent the top-to-bottom ethos and unique environs of life in the American second-division. “I think they’re [FC Dallas] going to be impressed with the type of game they get from us,” said Farr, surely hoping for a less-eventful contest than the 6-4 mayhem that played out last time.

“This is a beautiful place,” said Arteaga who, like his goalkeeper, is in his first year at the club. Farr couldn’t agree more about Al Lang and Tampa Bay in a larger sense: “I think they’re also going to be impressed with our venue, with the playing surface and the special views that open up to the Bay.

“It’s no secret that I’m in love with Al Lang Stadium,” Farr added, always smiling, a vector for the possibilities of Cup Magic and Madness both. “It’s a special place and special things happen here.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.