For the first time since the they lifted the NASL’s Soccer Bowl trophy in 2012, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are playoff bound.
Midfielder Marcel Schäfer engineered the winning result to secure Tampa Bay’s position in the USL postseason on Wednesday night at Al Lang, posting an assist and two goals on New York Red Bulls II to carry the Rowdies to a 3-2 victory. Another European veteran, Joe Cole also helped out with a goal and an assist.
“It’s a great achievement making it into the playoffs,” said Rowdies Coach Stuart Campbell. “It’s the first time since 2012 and the players deserve an enormous amount of praise for that. To book your place in the playoffs with two games to go, they’ve done great. It’s been too long for a team like the Rowdies to be without the playoffs for that length of time.”
New York pounced on a turnover in the 16th minute to put the Rowdies behind for the second straight home match. Vincent Bezecourt disrupted an attempted clearance by Hunter Gorskie and the deflection falling kindly for the attacker. Bezecourt pushed the ball forward into the box before slipping a pass across goal for Stefano Bonomo to slot home.
Only nine minutes after going down, though, Schäfer and Cole had the Rowdies out in front.
Before New York could take advantage of any possible momentum from the go-ahead goal, Schäfer produced an immediate response two minutes after Bonomo’s strike. The German stepped in front of an errant pass and launched a quick counter attack, drawing in defenders and then dishing the ball out to the right edge of the box for Cole. Keeper Rafael Diaz failed to corral Cole’s near-post shot, allowing the Rowdies back into the match.
“The veterans especially were frustrated (after Saturday’s draw),” said Campbell. “I saw the way they went around and talked to the younger players. There was a lot of talk pregame Saturday about if we win we seal x, y or z. It didn’t happen, so that’s when we needed the experienced players to go around and say, ‘relax, we’ve got three games left. Just continue to do what you’re doing and thing’ll come good,’ and it did tonight.”
Tampa Bay’s next goal in the 25th minute was a brilliant sequence from Schäfer and another veteran, Georgi Hristov. Alex Morrell initiaed the play with a pass into the center of the field for Schäfer. A defender swiftly cut Schäfer off from the ball after he took one touch, but Hristov dropped back to collect the loose ball. Instead of rifling a shot from 20 yards out, Hristov waited for Schäfer to sprint forward between the defenders. Hristov’s pass through traffic found Schäfer, who fired a shot past Diaz’s left shoulder.
Two goals appeared to be all the Rowdies would find in the first half until the final minute before the break. This time it was Cole sparking an attack, muscling a defender at the halfway line to get the ball to Schäfer. The midfielder brought the ball down the field but didn’t like any of the passing options he saw so decided to blast an incredible 25-yard into the back of the net with his left foot.
“Normally I enjoy assisting my teammates, but I didn’t see anyone. So, in Germany we say ‘I take my heart in my hand’ and I shot,” said Schäfer. When you score like that it’s always a little bit of luck. I did it in Cincinnati too, so I’m really happy about that.”
Schäfer’s highlight reel goal proved critical as Red Bulls II pulled one back only nine minutes into the second half. A hopeful long ball played by Arun Basiljevic dropped in no man’s land between Neill Collins and keeper Matt Pickens. Junior Flemmings timed his run perfectly to stay onside, take a few touches and slip a shot by Pickens.
Cole had a promising chance to extend the led and put Red Bulls II away only four minutes later when he earned a breakaway towards goal, but he denied by an outsanding one-handed save from Diaz.
New York’s rally took a serious blow in the 64th minute as Jordan Scarlett was flashed his second yellow card for a late challenge on Hristov. In need of as many points as possible to separate themselves from the rest of the pack trying to secure one of the remaining postseason spots, Red Bulls II threw as much forward as they could but failed to get another shot on target after going down to ten men. They pleaded for a penalty call on substitute Walter Restrepo for a take-down on Bezecourt at the edge of the box in the final minute of stoppage time, but referee Jonathan Weiner did not comply.
Taking all three points on the night lifts the Rowdies into second place in the Eastern Conference standings. Now even on matches played with the Charlotte Independence and Charleston Battery, the Rowdies have a one-point lead over both teams. They will close out the regular season with a trip to San Antonio on Saturday followed by a bus trip to Orlando City B next Thursday.