Tampa Bay Rowdies veteran Yann Ekra has become one of the USL Championship's legends over 12 seasons thanks to his on-field quality and genial personality. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
If there’s one thing you should know about the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Yann Ekra, it’s this.
The man knows how to cut through any tense situation with a smile.
“He’s a very funny person,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “He can always break any tension with a joke or a wry comment. I like his humor, but I also think he’s a good person. You can talk a lot about how he’s a family man, and when you both have young families and can feel the same things, I have a lot in common with him in that respect.”
Maybe it’s that, allied with his qualities on the field that took him from the Academy at French Ligue 1 club Olympique Lyonnais to a storied career in the USL Championship, which has kept him young at heart and still thriving more than a decade after he made his debut in the United States.
This Sunday could provide the next landmark for the 32-year-old as the Rowdies visit San Diego Loyal SC at Torero Stadium (6 p.m. ET | ESPN+). Having recently become only the second player to reach 250 regular season appearances in the league, Ekra is poised to become the all-time leader in regular season appearances in the USL Championship with his 252nd game, surpassing fellow league legend Dane Kelly in that category.
It’s a moment Ekra himself never envisioned when he joined the Harrisburg City Islanders for the 2012 season, coming to the United States for the first time after competing professionally in France, England and Greece.
“You’d never really think about the future, I never thought about 10 years after,” said Ekra. “I was just living in the moment and enjoying it.”
Yann Ekra made more than 100 appearances for the Harrisburg City Islanders, including squaring off with future United States Men's National Team captain Tyler Adams. | Photo courtesy Alex Goodlett / New York Red Bulls
Ekra made more than 100 appearances for the City Islanders across the regular season and playoffs over four seasons. He helped the side make a Cinderella run as the No. 8 seed to the 2014 USL Championship Final that included one of the biggest upsets of in the league’s playoff history, a 1-0 defeat of an No. 1-seed Orlando City SC side that had been undefeated at home all year and was headed to Major League Soccer the following year.
He then went on for three seasons with the Charlotte Independence before landing with the Rowdies prior to the 2019 campaign. Now in his fifth season at the club, the club’s home on the bayfront in St. Petersburg has proven an ideal fit for Ekra and his young family, with trips to the pier and local restaurants among his favorite activities when he’s away from the field.
“You can just go in St. Pete, walk around, you’re for sure finding some good places for food and drink,” said Ekra. “It’s pretty good there.”
He also has a connection to his early days in the league with him at the Rowdies in Lucky Mkosana. The two were new arrivals at the City Islanders in 2012 before each built their own legends in the league. Wherever their paths took them after Harrisburg, they remained in touch before being reunited in Tampa Bay upon Mkosana’s midseason arrival in 2019, and Ekra considers the Zimbabwean forward his favorite teammate.
Ask Ekra if he can pick out a Starting 11 from the players he’s played alongside over the years, though, and it’s an impossible task.
“I would have teammates calling me saying, ‘why am I not on the team?’” he said with a laugh. “I’ve played with such a lot of great players, so I don’t want to leave someone out.”
Tampa Bay Rowdies teammates Yann Ekra (left) and Lucky Mkosana have been close friends since first playing together in Harrisburg 11 years ago. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
That giving personality combined with Ekra’s knowledge of the game is why Collins believes in his potential for future success in the coaching ranks. Ekra is currently close to completing his USSF “B” License and has been working with youth teams in Tampa Bay to start gaining experience in what he expects to be his future path.
Ekra believes going through the coaching courses has also changed some ways he looks at the game as a player. His experiences, light manner and day-in and day-out professionalism have also made him a role model for the young prospects within the Rowdies’ squad still early on in their professional pathway.
“The big thing for me about a player like Yann is they lead by example,” said Collins. “The way that they carry themselves, how they behave in all different situations, how they are when they’re having success, when things are not going so well. Players like that, the senior guys that we’ve got, it’s just how they react in the moments of adversity. He’s always stood up to be counted, always handles himself very well, and equally he’s the same when things have been going well.”
Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Yann Ekra instructs a young player at the unveiling of a mini-pitch at the club's training facility last offseason. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
No-one should be expecting Ekra to be hanging up his boots any time soon, however.
Still an essential part of the Rowdies on the field – he’s started in four of his five league appearances this season – both he and Collins believe he has plenty more to offer the Rowdies as the club pursues more success and the league title that has so far been out of reach.
After being on the wrong side as a starter in the 2014 and 2021 Championship Finals, earning an elusive winner’s medal and lifting the trophy after the final game of the season in Tampa Bay would add another accolade to an already-remarkable career.
“I’ve been in two finals, and you work all year all those years to be in those moments,” said Ekra. “They don’t happen often. So, when you’re there, you want to win, you want to fight every day in training, every time, to go back to those moments.
“For the fans, I know they want it too, so that would be amazing. That’s what we’re working every day for. Hopefully it will happen.”