by JAKE NUTTING
- Tampa Bay Rowdies at Carolina RailHawks
- Saturday, July 9. Kickoff at 7:30 p.m. ET
- TV/Streaming: ESPN3
- Referee: Nima Saghafi
The Tampa Bay Rowdies are making their first road trip of the Fall Season this weekend, matching up with a Carolina side that is reeling after being outscored 9-2 in their last two league matches. The RailHawks came into Al Lang and dismissed the Rowdies 3-1 back in April, but since then they’ve only been able to post two draws and five losses.
Carolina’s current form would suggest the Rowdies are in line for a positive result. However, if anything has proven true this year in the NASL, it’s that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. Taking history into account, the Rowdies have always struggled to get the better of Carolina on the road.
Scouting the RailHawks
Despite experiencing a total meltdown over the last two months, the RailHawks have not been overly active in the player market. The only acquisition the team made during the break was buying forward Matt Fondy from Jacksonville. Carolina’s attack started the spring red hot but has now had a precipitous drop off. Former Rowdies player Brian Shriver hasn’t gotten the job done up top and as a result was moved out onto the wing for Billy Schuler last week.
The odd thing about making a move for Fondy is that the attacker had an abysmal stint with Jacksonville in the spring. After winning USL MVP honors last year, Fondy failed to notch a single goal in eight appearances for Jacksonville. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, though, considering Colin Clarke’s history of bringing in underachievers to see if he can milk anything more out of them.
Carolina’s offensive production has gotten so bad that Clarke even felt the need to bench winger Tiyi Shipalane for the team’s fall opener. Shipalane has been one of the most potent attackers over the last few years, but so far he’s only recorded two goals. His lack of assists is particularly surprising given that he’s tallied 17 since joining Carolina in 2012.
What to Watch For
Center Back Shuffle: The center of the Rowdies back line remained unchanged throughout the entire Spring Season and then through the first half of the draw with Jacksonville last week. As of Thursday the team provided no update on the status of Tam or Neil Collins when asked about their injuries from last week. Losing both center backs is a potentially massive shakeup for any back line. Stefan Antonijevic and Justin Chavez did well filling in during the second half last week, but that was in the face of a punchless Jacksonville side. While Carolina’s attack has been down lately, they still have too many talented players to dismiss. Apart from Chavez and Antonijevic, Stuart Campbell has Frankie Sanfilippo and Jeremy Hall to choose from as replacements.
Cole Factor: Joe Cole was a major factor in the team’s uptick in offensive production in the back half of the spring. With that said, the Rowdies came through with one of their best showings of the year in the fall opener despite Cole being absent with a family emergency. It took the best performance for a keeper in terms of statistics this year to keep the Rowdies from pulling ahead of Jacksonville. Cole’s superior vision and killer instinct inside the final third could have proven the difference. If Cole’s back in the mix this week and the Rowdies can match last week’s performance, any team in the NASL will have a tough time stopping them.
Take Care of Business: Yes, anyone can beat anyone in the NASL. But that doesn’t mean we should just accept it if the Rowdies can’t come away with a good result this weekend. Championship teams make sure to handle their business and take advantage of vulnerable teams. The RailHawks are the very definition of vulnerable right now. This match has the potential to be a turning point for the Rowdies, who are still trying to prove they belong in the top tier of the league.