by JAKE NUTTING
- Saturday, May 28, 8 p.m. ET at NSC Stadium
- TV/Streaming: ESPN3
- Referee: Nima Saghafi
The Tampa Bay Rowdies are not out of the Spring Season title race yet, though their chances are growing slimmer every week. The team has some justified grievances after putting in a solid shift against the New York Cosmos last week only to have a hard-fought point wiped away by a wrong offside call in the final 10 minutes, but they’ll need to bring their best again if they hope to upset Minnesota United.
The Loons are coming off their worst loss of the year, a shocking 4-2 result at the hands of Indy Eleven. Despite that poor showing, Minnesota has lived up to the hype of the talent on their stacked roster, establishing themselves as one of the top teams in the league. With three matches left on their docket, the Loons are one of the few teams that control their Spring Season destiny. Winning out would clinch the title for them, regardless of what the first-place Cosmos or second-place Eddies do in their last two matches. Indy also controls its fate but would need to overcome Minnesota’s advantage in goal differential to leapfrog them in the standings if both were to win out.
With all that in mind, the Rowdies have an excellent opportunity to play spoiler to the Loons and keep their own faint spring hopes alive.
Scouting the Loons
It’s hard to go to bat for a defense that recently conceded four goals to one of the less than prolific NASL sides, but the Loons have been surprisingly stout at the back. Not typically known for their defensive prowess in recent years, they’d kept opponents to only four goals in their six matches prior to the loss in Indy. They’ve been particularly stingy at home, where they have yet to concede a single goal in three outings.
Center back and former Seattle Sounder Damion Lowe has been a vital addition to the improved back line. The Loons will be without one key piece of the defense against the weekend, though. Left back Justin Davis will miss his first match of the year after receiving two yellow cards at Indy last week.
To literally nobody’s surprise the Loons are tied with the Cosmos for most goals (13), though they have played one less game than New York. Forward Christian Ramirez has picked up right where he let off and has notched four goals so far, but the Loons will once again be without dynamic playmaker Ben Speas, who is second in goals. Fortunately for Minnesota, they’re able to pull last year’s NASL Golden Boot winner Stefano Pinho off the bench. Pinho has cracked the starting lineup in back-to-back weeks and showcased his stellar finishing skills with a Goal of the week candidate against Indy. Minnesota with a confident Pinho is an attack that any team in the NASL should be wary of.
Right back Kevin Venegas also continues to be a consistent set up man for the Loons and leads the team with four assists this year. The Rowdies will need to be sure to disrupt Venegas when moves forward to spark the attack.
What to Watch For
Possible Changes: The Rowdies could finally be set for some significant changes to the lineup this week thanks to the upcoming US Open Cup match on June 1. Stuart Campbell admitted this week that some players that have yet to factor in could be in line for consideration given the challenge posed by playing three matches in the span of eight days. Basically, players like Darwin Espinal, Walter Ramirez and possibly Freddy Adu should be ready to answer the call after failing to crack into the first team so far. It’s still unclear, though, which upcoming match will see the most changes. The Rowdies are down but not out in the Spring Season, but they also won’t want to squander their first home Open Cup match in three years on Wednesday.
Heinemann Questionable: There has been no update from the Rowdies on the availability of Tommy Heinemann following the injury that forced him to exit in the first half last week. If he’s out for Saturday, Danny Mwanga is the likely replacement. After Mwanga, Georgi Hristov is the only forward listed on the roster. Playing up top is where Hristov had his most success with the Rowdies during his MVP year in 2013, but it’s been quite a while since he slotted in as a forward.
Stay Persistent: Joe Cole’s name hasn’t appeared on the scoresheet yet, though it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The English veteran is slowly but surely integrating himself into the system and building up chemistry with his new teammates. He’s set up Heinemann and Mwanaga with goals from superb service but both ended up being waived off. As long as he keeps providing quality distribution (on set pieces especially), the breakthrough has to come eventually. PRO Referees can’t keep denying him every week, can they? (Please don’t read that as a challenge, PRO.)
Who is the number 10?: There are a few positions where continuity is paramount, and the central playmaker role in midfield would seem to be one of those. The Rowdies have just not quite had anyone click in the role yet, though Kalif Alhassan had an impressive debut playing the position for the first time this year. As long as there is uncertainty and turnover at this position, the Rowdies scoring struggles will continue.