A controversial call to wave off a clear goal at the end of the first 45 could have spoiled the mood at the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ home opener at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night. The home side, though, persisted to bag two tallies in the second half and give 7,368 in attendance a satisfying ending.
The visiting Bethlehem Steel earned a couple quick chances in the opening minutes. University of South Florida alum Marcus Epps turned to the center of the box from the left edge and blasted a shot on frame that Cody Mizell did well to deny. Mizell then came up huge on the ensuing corner kick as he tipped a threatening heading from forward Corey Burke over the bar.
Those opening moments were the last serious chances Bethlehem saw for a while. Tampa Bay maintained its composure as the visitors implemented a high press early on hoping to force error.
“I thought it was a real good performance,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “I thought we defended really well as a team and attacked really, really well as a team. We created multiple chances and I thought their keeper was exceptional.”
Joe Cole forced the first of nine saves from keeper John McCarthy in the 20th minute. After a nifty run down the right side, David Najem found an unmarked Cole in the box. The English veteran turned and fired, but McCarthy stymied him with a kick-save.
Georgi Hristov tried his luck two minutes later with a volley from just outside the box, but McCarthy stretched out to deny him. Attacker Leo Fernandes was similarly denied in the 36th minute when he rifled a shot from inside the box for the right post that McCarthy deftly handled.
Fernandes was at the center of the chaotic moment that should have given the Rowdies a lead in stoppage time before the break. The winger swiped an errant pass in the final third, shot for the near post, and headed the rebound off McCarthy back toward goal only to have the keeper block it back into his path. His third shot looked guaranteed to go in as McCarthy was out of position, but referee Rubiel Vazquez and the linesman judged that defender AJ Paterson cleared it off the line at the last second.
The replay, though, told a different story. Paterson whiffed with his initial left-footed clearance attempt and the ball crossed the line before deflecting off his right a few feet inside the goal. Several Rowdies and Campbell gave Vazquez an earful once the whistle for the break came, but there was nothing to be done at that point. They had to get the job done in the second half.
“They were extremely frustrated, disappointed, call it what you like, but we had a chat and nobody was feeling sorry for themselves,” Campbell said. “What happened happened. We couldn’t affect the decision, but what we could affect was the next 45 minutes and the guys went out there and did really well. It would’ve been easy for us to us that as an excuse, but we didn’t.”
Jack Blake set up the go-ahead goal with an expertly delivered free kick in to the box for Hristov. The Bulgarian made the most of the chance and finally bested McCarthy with a header back across goal. Hristov needs just two more goals to tie Derek Smethurst’s all-time Rowdies scoring record.
Six minutes later, Fernandes would not be denied his goal as he shook a defender off on the left edge of the box before depositing the ball into the bottom right corner.
“I thought we responded really well in the second half,” Fernandes said. “I thought it was a clear goal, but it happens. Everyone makes mistakes. We came out firing and Georgi scored a really nice goal. It was a relief that we finally got one because we had pressed so hard in the first half.”
Bethlehem attempted to claw its way back into the match in the final match, but the Rowdies clinically closed things out to earn their first clean sheet of the season.
The Rowdies have a big test next Saturday with a trip to defending USL Cup champions Louisville City SC.