By JAKE NUTTING
Matt Pickens’ teammates gave him the best gifts any keeper celebrating his 100th appearance at a club ask for — another three points, his seventh shutout of the year, and a relatively worry-free night in net.
The Rowdies never looked back following Neill Collins’ opening goal against the Harrisburg City Islanders on Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium in the 15th minute and cruised to their third consecutive win with two more goals in the second half.
“It was a great day, an easy day,” Pickens said. “The guys made it easy for us and we’re turning in the right direction. We don’t want to count our chickens until they hatch, but we’re doing all the things right. We’re playing clean games right now and we’re just trying to keep it going. It’s working. We don’t need to switch anything up, just keep going.”
Tampa Bay’s night started on an unfortunate note as midfielder Joe Cole exited just a few minutes into the match due to a back injury. Michael Nanchoff stepped in for the English attacker to get his first significant stretch of minutes since last month’s rib injury.
Nanchoff’s contribution’s paid off with a go-ahead goal. In the 15th minute, Nanchoff swung in a corner kick toward the near post that Justin Chavez deftly headed along to the opposite post, where Collins was waiting. Left unchecked inside Harrisburg’s six-yard box, the Scotsman smashed in his second goal of the year.
“Tonight’s was one of my easiest goals. It’s not the closest distance I’ve scored from, but it was close, so I couldn’t miss. It was a good start to the game for us.”
Collins was also equally impactful on the back line, recording five interceptions and winning all nine of his duels. He and the rest of the defense gave Pickens a comfortable night in net for his milestone match. Pickens was only called on to make one save in each half, both of which were easy asks for the veteran.
“It was on my mind,” Collins said of Picken’s milestone. “When you’re playing in a landmark appearance, you just want the night to go well so you can remember it for the right reasons. It was great to give him hardly anything to do tonight. Everything that he had to do he did very well. People see the saves, and that’s the most important part of the job, but tonight he passed it out well, kicked it well, fielded well. It was good for him to get a nice night to mark the landmark. I’m very pleased for him.”
The defensive effort of his teammates hasn’t gone unnoticed by Pickens, who believes this year’s team may be the best collective defensive unit he’s seen since he joined the Rowdies in 2014.
“It’s definitely the most confident [defense], for sure,” he said. “We just had to figure things out a little bit. We hit a little road bump with a lot of games in our schedule. We were feeling a little fatigued and started playing a little sloppy. Now we’ve strung together some wins, some clean games, complete games. It’s looking good. This is definitely one of the best, for sure.”
After having two headers denied by keeper Brandon Miller, Martin Paterson put a little extra oomph in his third attempt give the Rowdies more breathing room in the 73rd minute. The quick sequence leading to the goal started with Paterson feeding the ball out to Marcel Schäfer of the left wing. Paterson then charged 20 yards ahead to ensure the German had a target inside the box. Schäfer lifted a perfect cross into the center of the box for Paterson to power past Miller with a diving header.
The goal is Paterson’s fifth of the United Soccer League. Only Cole and Georgi Hristov have more, but they’re now just one ahead of Paterson.
“Paterson’s a natural goal scorer, he’s a goal scoring machine,” Rowdies Coach Stuart Campbell said. “The ball seems to land for him in the penalty box and I’m delighted for him. He’s on a good run. He was unlucky not to get a goal. It was a perfectly scored goal I thought should have stood.”
Newcomer Walter Restrepo got in on the action with a third tally off the bench in the dying moments of the match. From 10 yards within Tampa Bay’s defensive end, the former New York Cosmos attacker passed ahead to Schäfer and went full throttle toward Harrisburg’s box. As Schäfer pushed the ball down the field, Restrepo accelerated past Harrisburg’s back line to get into a scoring position. Schäfer spotted the run and slipped a pass into the box for Restrepo to chip it past Miller.
“[Restrepo] promised me that yesterday actually,” Campbell said. “He’s getting better and better. Obviously coming down from New York isn’t easy. I can see him looking fitter and stronger. He came close last week when he came on. He said to me yesterday he was going to score, so I reminded him of that before he went on and he duly obliged.”
The result moves the Rowdies a point closer to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Charlotte Independence usurped the Charleston Battery for first place this weekend after beating Louisville City, but the Rowdies sit just two points back in third, only trailing Charleston by tiebreaker.
Next week the Rowdies face their first trip outside Florida for the first time in a month. They travel to take on 13th-place St. Louis FC on Sunday.
- Home Again: Clearwater’s Curinga Returns to Play for Rowdies - January 12, 2018
- Rowdies Open Postseason with Dominant Win Over Cincinnati - October 21, 2017
- Rowdies Take Care of Business in Orlando, Secure Home Playoff Match - October 12, 2017
- Schäfer, Cole Lock Rowdies into Postseason - October 4, 2017
- Rowdies Closing in on Postseason After Second Draw with Bethlehem - October 1, 2017
- Rowdies Settle for Draw in Bethlehem - September 27, 2017
- Rowdies Knock Off Charlotte, Move into Fourth - September 24, 2017
- Rowdies Notch Crucial Road Win Heading Into Extended Break - September 7, 2017
- Rowdies Open Road Trip with 4-2 Loss to New York - September 3, 2017
- Kriseman Expands on Tropicana Field Speculation - August 18, 2017