October 21, 2017 By Jake Nutting
The Tampa Bay Rowdies opened up their United Soccer League playoff run in convincing fashion on Saturday, knocking off Cincinnati 3-0 at Al Lang Stadium.
With New York Red Bulls II pulling off the upset over the second seeded Charleston Battery with a 4-0 result, the Rowdies are set to host New York in the Eastern Conference Semifinals next Saturday in downtown St. Petersburg.
It was a professional shift from the Rowdies from beginning to end against Cincinnati. Although the Rowdies didn’t overwhelm the visitors with a ton of scoring chances, they did make the most of the opportunities they had as 8 of their 12 shots were put on frame.
“At home, we’ve been very good and a lot of it is down to how we start game,” Rowdies Coach Stuart Campbell said. “We know they’re a really dangerous team. They had four really high quality attacking players on the field, so we didn’t want to give them any encouragement early on. I think from start to finish, we were excellent.”
Any early nerves on the part of the Rowdies in the high-stakes match were calmed in the 8th minute as Georgi Hristov and Marcel Schäfer combined deep inside Cincinnati’s defensive end. Hristov raced after a long ball played by Neill Collins, forcing Harrison Delbridge into a poor touch on the left edge of the box that the Bulgarian pounced on. Noticing Schäfer making a run into the area, Hristov laid a pass into his path and the German caught Mitch Hildebrandt unaware with a quick shot under the keeper to the opposite post for the first tally of the night.
“It’s always good when you start really early with a goal like that,” Schäfer said. “We had a great game today in front of our amazing supporters. This is like a home fortress for us and they’re our 12th man. … It was a special day for us. That’s what you work for.”
If the opening goal wasn’t enough to give Hildebrandt flashbacks to Schäfer’s bomb into the top corner earlier in the year, he got another reminder of what Schäfer is capable of with another laser strike in the 25th minute.
Hunter Gorskie was an eyeing a shot from distance, but a defender poked the ball away before he could make contact. The clearance rolled toward Schafer, who had time to line up a curling, left-footed strike into the bottom left corner past Hildebrandt’s outstretched hands.
Schäfer tired to go for a third a minute out of the halftime break, but Hildebrandt managed to thwart the German’s shot from the edge of the box this time around.
Ultimately, Hristov was the player to seal the night with the third goal in the 68th minute. With Cincinnati’s back line offering him space a yard outside the box, Hristov delivered a gorgeous shot that caught the underside of the crossbar and bounced a foot behind the goal line.
While Schäfer and Hristov were getting things done in the offensive end, the Collins and the rest of the team were pulling their weight defensively. Cincinnati was left frustrated trying to find a way behind Tampa Bay’s back line. True scoring chances were few and far between for the visitors as they had to wait until the 78th minute to find their only shot on goal of the night. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Matt Pickens shined in that moment.
Zac Portillos’ headed clearance on a corner kick failed to get out of the box, allowing substitute Kadeem Dacres to redirect the rebound onto frame. Pickens was out of position as Dacres got his head on the ball, but the keeper dove back into goal at the last second to swat the attempt away.
“The guys played one of the most professional games I’ve seen since I’ve been here with the Rowdies,” Pickens said. “I mean these guys played amazing. Great first half. Marcel took over, as he’s shown before. The guys in front of me — Neill Collins played absolutely amazingly tonight. I’m really proud to see him get this opportunity and do well with it.”
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