TAMPA, Fla. – Conner Antley is focused on the present but optimistic about the future.
Antley, a defender for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, became emotional about what it would mean to bring a championship to a city that has seen its team get so close to success.
“I don’t know if I can put into words what it would actually mean for us as a club, us as players, or as fans in the city,” Antley said in an interview. “I do know what it feels like to lose an Eastern Conference Final.
“I know more than anything the guys that were here last year do not want to feel that again…that’s who we want to be.”
The Rowdies have been close to capturing the USL Championship for three years straight. After the title game was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, Tampa Bay lost in the finals in 2021 before bowing out in the semi-finals last year.
Antley’s journey to the USL Championship was not an easy one. He was days away from leaving the sport behind to manage a fast-food restaurant that he was working at while playing for his previous club, Tormenda in 2019.
“It was tough mentally. I wasn’t playing, my wife was back home in Newnan, Georgia, and I was three and a half hours away … I was this close,” he said. “I was like, ‘If I’m not going to play I’m going to go home. I’m going to go home and be with my wife, to be a general manager at Chick-fil-A’.”
After an injury to one of his teammates, Antley got the call that he would be starting the next game, and made an immediate impact, registering two assists.
Antley played the rest of the season.
“I was probably four or five days away from not being here right now. That’s crazy to think about, because now this is my third year here,” he said. “And I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be in a better spot in my mind.
“I’m blessed. I’m happy I made the decision.”
Now, Antley is hoping the Rowdies make the shift into Major League Soccer. With rumours of MLS wanting to expand to 30 teams, even as early as next season, Tampa Bay have reportedly been linked as a possibility.
“I think it’s something that we’re really not far off from,” said Antley. “I think a lot of guys had or have aspirations to play in the MLS.
“It’s always been a goal of mine since I was a kid. I think for Tampa moving into a league like that is huge, not just for us as players, but for the city and our fanbase. I think they deserve something like that.”
Even with the rumours, Antley reiterated his intentions to stay focused in the moment.
“It’s not something we have spoken about very much as a club, but it’s exciting to think about. Maybe at the end of the year, we’ll start discussing different things but I think right now, It’s important that we not only focus on winning the USL championship, but on Charleston Saturday night.
“As long as we stay focused one week at a time, one opponent at a time, one game at a time, I think we put ourselves in the best situations to get a win on the weekend.”
Rowdies manager Neill Collins believes his team is unphased by the losses, and the goal remains unchanged.
“I don’t think there’s anything we need to do to get over a hump,” he said. “I think we’ve shown that we can win a lot of games. We’re always focusing on performance. Right now, the performances haven’t been great.
“But we know that if we get that right, the results will come, and you get to the big game and use hope that you can use the experiences that you’ve gained.”