As they did last week in San Antonio, the Tampa Bay Rowdies struck first with a go-ahead goal midway through the second half of Thursday’s regular season finale at Orlando City B. What they didn’t do this time out, though, is allow the opposition to steal an equalizer in the dying moments. Instead, the Rowdies nabbed a late second tally themselves to lock up a 2-0 victory and move back into second place in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference standings.
“I thought it was a really, really good performance,” Rowdies Coach Stuart Campbell said. “I thought we dominated the game from start to finish. We knew if we kept playing in that manner, the goals would come and I’m really, really happy for the guys that they did come.”
The win axed Orlando from the postseason race, which confirmed Bethlehem Steel FC, New York Red Bulls II and Cincinnati as the final Eastern Conference teams to clinch a spot in the postseason. Tampa Bay will host one of those three teams at Al Lang Stadium on October 21. Final seeding will be determined by this weekend’s results.
Orlando produced the first probe on net of the night when Hadji Barry created enough space at the top of the box to fire a low strike toward the far post in the 11th minute. The effort was weak but it was well placed, forcing Matt Pickens to punch the ball out back into danger. Orlando failed to put the rebound on goal, though.
Barry’s early scare was one the few times Orlando earned a scoring chance. While the Rowdies held just a slight edge in possession (54-46), they controlled the midfield for most of the night with crisper passing and more urgency.
Marcel Schäfer was the first to test Jake Fenlason in net in the 23rd minute. Joe Cole touched a free kick forward at the right edge of the box and the German took one touch to dissolve the wall before rifling a low strike that was ultimately too close to the keeper and was pushed aside.
Schäfer was at it again just 11 minutes later with a powerful effort. Spearheading a counter attack, Schäfer played the ball out to the left for Georgi Hristov, who held it up before laying it back for the unmarked German in the center of the box. Schäfer cracked a booming left-footer that rattled the crossbar.
The Rowdies spent the rest of the match slowly breaking down Orlando with passing. Apart from one counter in the 70th minute that fizzled out with a wild shot from Austin Martz, Orlando had no luck finding a way into Tampa Bay’s box.
Only four minutes after Martz squandered his look at goal, Hristov put the Rowdies out in front. Once again, Schäfer played setup man, lifting a corner kick on a dime for Hristov to flick toward goal. Lewis Neal was waiting on the line at the far post, but Hristov’s header squeaked over him.
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The Rowdies also held a late lead in July’s trip to Orlando only to concede a needles penalty in the last minute. On Thursday there were no such mental mistakes as they shut Orlando out of the offensive third entirely.
Sebastian Guenzatti helped secure the three points with a terrific individual effort in stoppage time. The attacker pressured Zach Ellis-Hayden into a poor pass back for Fenalson, who was let in no man’s land trying to thwart the one-on-one attack. Guenzatti wisely waited for the keeper to lean left in the center of the box before pushing the ball in the opposite direction and depositing it into the net.
“It feels amazing,” Guenzatti said. “Everyone was 100 percent working for each other and it pays off late in the game. We got the second goal to put the game away in front of the fans that came to watch us play.”
The win guarantees the Rowdies at least one home match in the postseason and that they will finish no worse than fourth in the Eastern Conference. If the Charlotte Independence records a win or a draw against the Charleston Battery and Rochester fails to win by nine goals, then the Rowdies will finish the year in second place.
“I’m really happy that I scored, but I’m way happier to get a home playoff game,” Hristov said. “It wasn’t an easy game because they have so much energy, but I think we played so well and showed so much character that we were in control the whole game.”
- 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