By JAKE NUTTING

The Tampa Bay Rowdies opened up their three-match road swing with an unfortunate loss to New York Red Bulls II. Tampa Bay was chasing the defending USL champions through the match and ultimately fell 4-2 to set the stage for a hectic final stretch of the season.

It took 17 minutes for the home side to pull ahead. With a crowd of Rowdies defenders around him at the top of the box, Florian Valot wisely laid the ball of for Andrew Tinari, who ripped his shot from 25 yards out into the top left corner as no one stepped to close him down.

The Rowdies produced an immediate answer three minutes later as Gerogi Hristov redirected a corner kick from Marcel Schafer onto the back post for Martin Paterson to head across the line, but Red Bulls II managed to grab the lead again a few minutes before the break. After a stretch of sustained pressure, Joe Cole conceded an foul 30 yards out from goal. Noah Powder made something out of noting with the long range set piece, slipping his low strike to the left post through the wall. Keeper Matt Pickens tried to recover but slipped adjusting to his right and the ball zipped past him.

Martin Paterson bagged his eight goal of the year in New York. He and Georgi Hristov are even as the team’s leading scorers. Image, Steve Hamlin

Allowing New York to tally twice from distance was frustrating for Rowdies Coach Stuart Campbell as the Rowdies went into the match expecting the hosts to take their chances from outside the area. The assumption proved correct as 14 of New York’s 21 shots were fired from long range, forcing the back line and Pickens into uncomfortable positions.

“We know they like to shoot from distance. We spoke about it before, so I just feel we should’ve stepped more (on the first goal),” Campbell said. “That second goal was a real blow for us because we obviously had gotten our way back into the game. I think it was an even game at that point. Both teams had a couple opportunities. For the free kick it looked to me as though it went straight through the wall and that obviously gives our goalkeeper very little chance of getting it, although he may have gotten it if he hadn’t sort of slipped on the turf. That’s life.”

New York worked its way into the box on its next goal nine minutes into the second half as Tampa Bay’s back line was caught sleeping. No one picked up Valot as he made a run to the six-yard-box and connected with a pass from Valot from the left.

Looking for a spark, Campbell made use of all three substitutions by the 66th minute, bringing on Sebastian Guenzatti, Michael Nanchoff and Alex Morrell. Nanchoff’s insertion paid off in the 77th minute as he lifted a free kick over the back line to find newcomer Hunter Gorskie, who cut the lead in half with a header.

The second goal gave the Rowdies a burst of momentum that nearly saw them level the match. Morrell combined with Guenzatti to open a window in the center of the box, but keeper Ryan Meara stretched to his right to push the shot into the post.

Morrell came close to finding a late equalizer only to be denied by Ryan Meara. Image, Steve Hamlin

A few minutes later, New York put the match away when Kyle Porter kept Flemmings onside to give the attacker a one-on-one with Pickens that ended with New York’s fourth.

“When they got the third goal I just felt if we could get one with 10, 15 minutes to go it’d make the game interesting, Campbell said. “At 3-2 there was a big turning point and their goalie’s pulled off a fantastic save on Alex at the post. We had another chance on the resulting corner and didn’t take it and then I felt like a minute later they went and got the fourth goal… It’s just frustrating, the goals we conceded.”

The loss places the Rowdies in a tough spot. With just seven matches left on their schedule and not much space in the Eastern Conference standings, the Rowdies have just enough time left to either fight their way into the top four or fall out of the postseason picture entirely. They sit in fifth at the moment, but only three points separate them from the seventh and eighth place teams, New York and Cincinnati.

They have an opportunity to pick up six points this week with trips to Harrisburg City and Bethlehem. While the upcoming opposition has struggled in recent weeks, it’s still hard to imagine the Rowdies picking up two wins given their road woes. Saturday’s results was Tampa Bay’s sixth loss away from home. May’s comeback win over Toronto FC II stands as the team’s lone road victory.

Following these next two road matches, the Rowdies return to Al Lang for a three-match homestand. With four of their final seven matches taking place on the road, though, their postseason fate will likely be decided by their road form. This a scary prospect when looking at the numbers. Only 14 of Tampa Bay’s 37 goals scored this year were recorded on the road. Perhaps even more discouraging is the fact that 21 of the 27 goals the Rowdies have allowed were away from Al Lang.

“We’ve spoken about (the road struggles) at great length. Great length. We’ve analyzed video for hours and hours and hours,” Campbell said. “We’ve tried to get our point across. I always engage the players for their feedback, whether young guys or older guys. No matter what, I always engage them. We’ve had hours spent on it — days, weeks and months. We just can’t seem to get that break away from home, which is absolutely crucial. We’ve got seven games left and we’re going to have to pick up some points on the road. That’s our intention, because we can’t just be relying on our home form. We can’t be so good at home, the best in the league, and then just so disappointing away from home. It’s not good enough. We have to improve.”