by JAKE NUTTING
It was only appropriate that Georgi Hristov was the one to ignite the attack for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their 2-0 revenge win over Louisville City on Saturday night. The stands at Al Lang were already in a celebratory mood as the forward came off the bench to take the field for the Rowdies for the 121st time and become the team’s appearances leader in the modern era.
The Rowdies needed Hristov’s second half boost after the visitors had an encouraging start. They successfully choked the midfield and shut down the wings with constant pressure, preventing the Rowdies from creating scoring opportunities. Winger Darwin Jones was the only Rowdies player to come close to breaking through in the first 45, driving a low strike into the arms of keeper Tim Dobrowolski and sending a free kick less than a foot over the cross bar a few minutes later.
Louisville nearly jumped ahead on a set piece sequence in the 37th minute. Rowdies keeper Matt Pickens dove forward in a crowd of players to punch a dangerous free kick that was dropping into the center of the box and the clearance fell to Mark-Anthony Kaye. The midfielder delivered a cross back into the box and Luke Spencer flicked a header that sailed just inches wide of the post.
Coach Stuart Campbell left his squad unchanged out of the break, but that quickly changed when it was apparent the Rowdies still weren’t clicking. He quickly turned to his bench and inserted Hristov for Leo Fernandes in the 52nd minute.
The Rowdies sprung to life with a pair of chances three minutes after the change. Jones rocketed a long-range shot that Dobrowolski knocked to the feet of Joe Cole, who scuffed a bouncing shot toward the top corner that the keeper managed to swat away.
“The first half was a tight, cagey affair,” Campbell said. “You could see these were two top teams of the league. We were almost cancelling each other out. We felt opportunities would arise. We didn’t feel they’d be able to sustain pressing us as high up the field as they did.”
One of those opportunities finally made their way into the back of the net thanks to an individual effort by Hristov. The Bulgarian cut past his defender at the left edge of the box and launched a gorgeous, curling shot around the keeper that tucked inside the far post.
“I knew I was going to make an impact,” Hristov said. “I know it sounds a little bit cocky, but I just felt this way. I wasn’t sure if I was going to score a goal, but I believed I had to make an impact because we needed it… It was a great victory against, for me personally, one of the very best teams in the league.”
Lousiville responded to the concession well and caused some scary moments for Tampa Bay’s defense. In the 62nd minute, Pickens kept the lead intact with a critical save on a powerful header into the bottom corner by Kyle Smith.
As Louisville committed numbers forward to find an equalizer, the Rowdies pounced with a lethal counter attack ten minutes after Pickens’ big stop. Cole received the ball with yards of space at midfield and sent a perfectly weighted ball over the back line for Deshorn Brown to raced toward. Dobrowolski got his hands on Brown’s shot from the edge of the box, but it wasn’t enough to stop the attempt from crossing the line.
The win avenges the 2-1 loss the Rowdies suffered in Louisville nearly a month ago and ends Louisville’s unbeaten start to the year.
“It nice to get one against them,” Campbell said. “They took three points off us so we spoke before about wanting to get three points back. We felt we were unfortunate to lose, but we did. We dusted ourselves off and we bounced back.”
Saturday’s match was the first of five contests the Rowdies will play over the next two weeks. Campbell admitted he’s already started thinking about managing minutes for certain players as the team heads into a U.S. Open Cup match against Jacksonville Armada U23s on Tuesday at Al Lang before a trip to Toronto on Friday.
“It’s early in the season,” he said. “I’ve got one eye on the bigger picture. We’ve got a lot of games coming up thick and fast and I’m trying to get the most out of the players.”
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