On a night rife with playoff significance, the Tampa Bay Rowdies came within 20 minutes of securing the Coastal Cup and moving into sole possession of the fourth and final playoff spot to start off the final month of the season. However, they were forced to settle for a point and a three-way tie with Miami FC and Minnesota for the spot after they allowed the former to notch a second-half equalizer at Al Lang Stadium.
“It’s a tough point against Miami FC, a very good team,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “I felt we did enough to win the game. We knew how big this was. You could sense the importance of the game because the atmosphere and intensity in the building. You could sense the anticipation and the excitement coming into the game.”
Martin Vingaard spurred the break for the opening goal in the 31st minute when he stepped up to disrupt a play near the halfway line to allow Joe Cole to collect and feed Carlos Preciado down the center of the field. Preciado looked to the left side for Georgi Hristov, but his pass was slightly behind the Bulgarian, forcing him to hold up and switch the field for an onrushing Eric Avila. Catching Miami’s defense off guard with his run, Avila was free to take his time and lined up a beautiful left-footed strike to the near post.
The Rowdies were forced to go to their bench a few moments later when center back Stefan Antonijevic pulled up with a hamstring injury. Scotsman Neil Collins entered the Antonijevic and kept the Rowdies on point to maintain the lead at the halftime break.
Miami quickly found a way to test the Rowdies early on the second half, though. The visitors produced their first shot on net and just their second of the night in the 49th minute when Vincenzo Rennella snuck by Darnell King in the penalty area and was only denied by a sliding kick-save from Matt Pickens.
Center back Hunter Freeman then came within inches of finding an equalizer in the 56th minute with a dead ball opportunity. The Rowdies gifted Miami with a dangerous free kick 28 yards from goal and Freeman blasted a shot over the wall that Pickens had no chance of reaching but skimmed just over the crossbar.
Miami continued to grow in confidence as the second half wore on and the Rowdies stopped pressing with a high defensive line.
The dip in energy finally bit the Rowdies in the 74th minute when Miami capitalized on one of the eight corner kicks they earned on the night. Tampa Bay handled the initial corner into the box, but they failed to clear the ball from the final third and Rennella reset the attack on the left flank. He crossed for Jaime Chavez, who headed the ball down in front of goal. Vingaard got a weak touch on the ball as he fell to the ground and Rhett Bernstein swooped in to the six-yard box to rifle a shot past Pickens.
Preciado had the best and only chance for the Rowdies to regain the lead in the 81st minute. Substitute Keith Savage played a teasing chip over a couple defenders for the forward to run onto, but a high bounce and a heads up play from keeper Daniel Vega forced him to loft the ball rather than strike it with force. Miami’s defenders were able to recover in time and clear the ball before it came close to the goal line.
The sequence was also Preciado’s final one of the match as he cramped up and could not continue. Walter Ramirez came on to replace him and shifted into the midfield, but the Rowdies struggled to threaten the goal after losing Preciado.
Tampa Bay will undoubtedly look back at the match as a lost opportunity. With Minnesota dropping their fourth straight match in a 1-0 result against Jacksonville, the Rowdies could have ended the night in sole possession of the fourth spot in the combined standings. They have another chance to grab the spot outright on Wednesday, though, when the Loons come to town.
“We’re back in training tomorrow, so after that, this match is gone,” said Campbell. “We can’t change this result tonight, but we’re disappointed because we wanted to win.”
IMAGE, TAMPA BAY ROWDIES