By Norb Ecksl
The Florida Derby. It’s a rivalry that has endured 36 years, through several leagues and incarnations of the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies. In its latest iteration, the rivalry is as strong as ever.
The first match between the two teams took place on May 7, 1977 in front of 24,753 fans at Tampa Stadium who saw the Rowdies win 1-0.
"Strikers versus Rowdies, historically, is THE game," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Ricky Hill. Hill was a player-coach for the Rowdies in 1992, when both teams were members of the APSL. "There's no other game that will capture the imaginations, in my mind anyway."
The Rowdies joined the original NASL in 1975, and first played the Miami Toros on June 6, 1975 at the Orange Bowl in front of 14,259 fans. The Rowdies won, 1-0. The two teams played six times over the next two seasons and that included one playoff match. The Toros were moved to Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale by Joe and Elizabeth Robbie and renamed the Strikers in 1977.
In the original NASL, the Rowdies and Strikers faced each other 38 times. That included 20 regular season games, two playoff games, four friendlies and 12 indoormatches. But when the Strikers moved to Minnesota for the 1984 NASL season, the rivalry appeared to be over.
“We had great rivalries with the Rowdies and the Cosmos,” said Ray Hudson, who played for the Strikers and later coached Major League Soccer’s Miami Fusion. “It was a wonderful time for us all, and I am so glad to see them revived again not just for the players, but for the fans.”
The original NASL folded after the 1984 season. The Rowdies franchise and a new incarnation of the Strikers joined the American Soccer League, later known as the American Professional Soccer League, in 1988. Through the 1993 season, the two clubs met 21 times then the original Rowdies folded. The Strikers of that era lasted only one more year.
Both clubs were reborn in 2011 as part of the North American Soccer League. At that time, Miami FC re-branded themselves as the Strikers and moved to Lockhart Stadium.
At the end of the 2013 NASL season, the current versions of the Rowdies and Strikers will have played 18 times. This includes one friendly and one match in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup.
It was only recently that the media dubbed the rivalry between the organizations as the Florida Derby.
In the old NASL, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, led by Rodney Marsh, played in three Soccer Bowls (1975, 1978, 1979), and won one NASL Championship in 1975 when they beat the Portland Timbers, 2-0. The Rowdies’ runs to the NASL Championship, in back-to-back years, were stopped by the New York Cosmos in’ 78 and Vancouver Whitecaps in ‘79.
The Strikers reached only one Soccer Bowl, in 1980 against the New York Cosmos, which they lost, 3-0. The Strikers had their own "Big Three" in 1980. Gerd Müller, Teófilo Cubillas and Hudson led the way. From 1978 to 1979 the Strikers also had the services of the mercurial Georgie Best.
“All the players had a little extra energy and spring in their step when it came time to play the Rowdies,” said Hudson.
The Strikers defeated the Rowdies, 3-2, in an NASL playoff match on August 20th, 1978. The Rowdies came back to win the second match of the series and the mini-game tiebreaker to earn a trip to Soccer Bowl '78 against the Cosmos.
The fans have always been a huge part of this rivalry on both sides of the Florida coast.
"We have supporters here that can go back and reflect and recite games from past years from the mid- 70s and so on," said Hill.
Norb Ecksl is Editor of Sunshine Soccer News