Summer may have officially ended a few days before the scheduled Coastal Cup finale but Mother Nature refused to let the Rowdies and their fans off the hook without at least one huge rain delay in the 2014 season. Unfortunately that rain delay was more of a monsoon delay and ultimately resulted in the big match being postponed until October 8th. So the good news is that if you find the normal week long wait between games unbearably long, congratulations because you are about to get all the Rowdies soccer you can handle in the next few weeks. Just cross your fingers that the players’ legs can handle it as well.
This weekend’s October 4th home match against Edmonton will be the first of five games over 14 days. And sadly, with so few games left to go, any draws in that stretch simply won’t be good enough if the Rowdies hope to clinch a spot in the playoffs. After this past weekend’s action Tampa Bay now sits in seventh place in the combined points table, 7 points out of the final playoff spot. Carolina currently holds that final spot in fourth place, while Fort Lauderdale and Edmonton occupy fifth and sixth place respectively. The Rowdies have two games in hand on both Carolina and Edmonton, and one game on Fort Lauderdale.
A big question going into this tough span of games is how well the midfield will hold up. Darel Russell and Shane Hill have been constants for the Rowdies in central midfield all year long. Hill has played every minute in 2014 and Russell has only missed one match due to yellow card accumulation. Can they provide the necessary pace and energy required to control the midfield on short rest? Will worn out legs lead to more unnecessary turnovers and a continuation of inconsistent service to the forwards? Simply being injury free and ready to suit up is one thing. Possessing the stamina required to fight for every ball and play both sides of the ball with tenacity are another. The latter is what the team will need from every player if the Rowdies are going to come out of the next two weeks with their heads above water.
Forward Georgi Hristov has also started every game so far this year. Ricky Hill may be forced to rest or sub Hristov off early in at least one game. Recent signee, Corey Hertzog will likely need to come in and start contributing right away. Luciano Olguín finally made his NASL debut in the recent 1-0 loss to the Eddies as a late substitution. Hopefully he is fit enough to start some games as it’s very likely he may be asked to do so sooner rather than later. Neither player will be afforded a grace period. Either one of them, or one of the plethora of forwards on the roster need to step up and put some balls in the net many times over the next two weeks and beyond. The Rowdies desperately need to start scoring anyway they can to even have a shot at winning some games.
This next batch of games was always going to be tough, and this schedule congestion only compounds that difficulty. Truthfully, there is no such thing as a guaranteed win in the NASL. However, the next five games against Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio, Minnesota and Atlanta are especially tough hurdles to clear consecutively in such a short amount of time. The first four opponents specifically will take terrific all-around performances in every area of the team to result in victories. The task is seemingly insurmountable, but there is one clear benefit. There will be no questions raised about this team’s playoff worthiness if they can pull it off. The Rowdies will have earned their spot outright. And oh how glorious it will feel to be a Rowdies fan on that day.