by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies took the first step toward erasing last week’s loss at the hands of New York Red Bulls II with a more assured performance back at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night. Needing a positive result against one of the Western Conference’s best, the Rowdies rebounded well by knocking off the previously undefeated Real Monarchs 2-0.
“(The Monarchs) are far and away the best team we’ve played so far,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “That’s no disrespect to any of the other teams we’ve come up against so far, but they’re an excellent team. It was a very good performance by us and we had to be at our very, very best to get these three points.”
Scoring chances were few and far between for both sides throughout most of the first half. The visitors had the first good look at goal when forward Chandler Hoffman was momentarily left unchecked in the center of the box, but the defense recovered quickly to block both of his efforts.
On the whole, Tampa Bay’s defense had a much improved showing in comparison to last week. Clearwater native Kyle Curinga performed well in his first start at right back following the loss of David Najem to a torn ACL. Curinga didn’t cede any scoring opportunities to the Monarchs in his Rowdies debut, recording five clearances and three interceptions in his shift.
Tampa Bay was locked in on defense for most of the night, holding the Monarchs to just two shots on goals. A strike from Maikel Chang outside the box in the 30th minute and another effort from distance by Sebastian Velasquez in the 66th minute were both easily handled by keeper Cody Mizell.
Just as it looked as if the match would remain scoreless at the break, Joe Cole busted through to create and finish
Tampa Bay’s first scoring chance of the night. The 36-year-old veteran pulled off a sequence reminiscent of his days at Chelsea as he surged forward to strip the ball from center back Michael Gallagher, rounded keeper David Ochoa and buried the ball into the back of the net to give the Rowdies a lead five minutes before halftime.
The Monarchs held possession more in the early stages of the second half, but the Rowdies maintained their shape and did not permit them to create anything meaningful inside the final third. The Rowdies have now blanked the opposition in all three of the home matches this year. Saturday’s clean sheet was more than welcome for Campbell for his time after conceding five goals last week.
“I know keepers and defenders are a different breed, and rightly so. They pride themselves on clean sheets, so I was really happy for the whole team,” Campbell said. “I’m sure the defense will be the first to point to and credit the guys that are in front of them. When we were under pressure for the 10-15 minute spell in the first half, the players stood firm and limited their opportunities.”
Cole again was the spark to double the lead in the 70th minute. Receiving a pass on the right wing, the Englishman turned inside and accelerated forward before threading a beautiful ball into space for Georgi Hristov. The Bulgarian did not waste the chance, firing his first touch past Ochoa for his 57th career goal for the Rowdies.
Hristov needs just one more tally to surpass Derek Smethurst as Tampa Bay’s all-time leading scorer.
The Rowdies were the only Eastern Conference side to record a win on Saturday night, thus moving them to second in the standings. New York sits one point back and could still leapfrog the Rowdies on Sunday depending on their result against LA Galaxy II.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes