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Graf Makes Smooth Transition with Rowdies

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/01/18, 5:32PM EST


Camaraderie within squad has helped newcomers acclimate to new surroundings

Photo courtesy Carmen Mandato / Tampa Bay Rowdies

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – While there are exceptions dotted around numerous USL clubs, the life of a player in the league can be an itinerant existence, with offseason movement taking players to new teams on a regular basis as new opportunities arise.

That’s been the case for Texas native Jochen Graf, whose arrival with the Tampa Bay Rowdies this offseason marked the latest stop in his professional path. The 28-year-old is quickly fitting into new surroundings, though, and has already put in some eye-catching displays this preseason after an impressive debut in the league with the Rochester Rhinos in 2017.

“It’s something I’ve done a lot in my career,” said Graf. “It’s been a challenge, you move to new teams, you want to fit in as quickly as possible and hit the ground running, but it gets easier the better the players are around you, the better the environment and coaching staff. This is an incredible place, so it feels seamless. We’ve been here four weeks and it feels like four months to me.”

Graf found the net this past Saturday – his second in as many games over the Rowdies’ past two preseason outings – as Tampa Bay claimed its first win of the preseason, a 2-1 victory against the Philadelphia Union that could have seen him strike more than once. Graf’s work-rate and knack for finding space in the final third has given the Rowdies a strong focal point to replace the departed Martin Paterson, who headed to play in the India Super League over the winter.

That work-rate has mirrored the energy Graf brought leading the line for the Rhinos and has matched the expectations set out by the Rowdies’ coaching staff and returning players. The Rowdies have plenty of talent, but the drive the side has on the practice field is key to maximizing it when gameday arrives.

“This is a hard-working group, you can see it even today [against the Union] it doesn’t matter, anyone that crosses the white line and goes on is going to put in a shift, and that’s been the standard,” said Graf. “There’s thing we want to build on, it’s not perfect, but that’s the bare minimum for us. Everyone’s going to put in a shift, we’re going to be a tough team to compete with at a physical rate, and that’s the way we want it. We’ve got so much talent, so much depth, we’re not going to take anything lightly.”

Graf hasn’t been the only newcomer to catch the eye so far this preseason, with former New York Red Bulls II forward Junior Flemmings and defender David Najem putting in solid displays. Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell believes the fact the club was able to retain a majority of its players from a season ago has helped the newcomers find their feet quickly.

“I think all the new players are fitting in pretty well, and that’s because – in my opinion – we brought back a lot of players from last year,” said Campbell. “There’s a lot of players who’ve been here for a few years and there’s a bit of continuity here now rather than turning over 20, 25 players every year we were able to retain 13 and add to it. If you ask the new guys that’s helped them a lot, helped them settle in. We’ve got a really good dressing room in there.”

“Absolutely,” Graf agreed. “We’ve known the standard from the coaching staff, but the players that were here, they know how it goes and if you’re smart and want to blend in quickly you look to those guys. Those are great guys to look to, guys with experience, talent, ability, leadership and everything, so it’s not hard. You look to those guys and it was clear what the culture was, and like I said it feels like much more of us were here already.”

The chemistry the side has shown on the field has been added to be the camaraderie in the locker room and away from the field. Graf’s Twitter feed, along with other members of the Rowdies like Neill Collins and newcomer Jack Blake, has provided some solid entertainment so far this season.

“We like to have a laugh, we’re playing football for a living, so you’ve got to enjoy yourself,” said Graf. “When we get on the field it’s hard work, but off the field it’s a close-knit group and we’ve got some decent personalities, some guys who have banter, some guys who wish they did, but they’re catching up. It’s preseason, I think that’ll get better as it goes, but it’s a great time.”

While the players are having fun away from the field, they also know the serious business of the season is almost at hand. After coming up just short in the USL Cup Playoffs a season ago, the expectations are to be one of the frontrunners for silverware this fall.

“Guys are pushing, and that’s important at this time of year,” said Graf. “We just have to keep building. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves, we’ve only played three preseason games, but we have targets and it’s a determined group, so we’re going to go for it.”

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