by JAKE NUTTING
This year’s Independence Day celebration at Al Lang Stadium lacked the traditional fireworks, but Tampa Bay Rowdies supporters were happy to settle for witnessing one of the most important goals in club history.
Following months of waiting to see the longtime forward Georgi Hristov score his 58th goal for the Green and Gold, surpassing Derek Smethurst’s scoring record from the original NASL, the Bulgarian delivered with style.
“It means a lot to me,” Hristov said. “The Rowdies are such an old club with a lot of history, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the three points. Let’s not take away the effort that the guys put in tonight. We deserved the win, so I’m even more happy that we won the game and I’m looking forward to the next game now.”
Coincidentally, Hristov’s historic goal to open the scoring in Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Toronto FC II is Tampa Bay’s first win at Al Lang since the April 21 victory against Real Monarchs, which is also the last time Hristov notched a goal.
“Delighted for Georgi. We knew it was only a matter of time, because a goal scorer’s always a goal scorer,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “He’s been in the right places and not put it in the net, and that’s a big sign that it’s going to come. I’m pleased for him. It’s huge for the club to have a modern day goal scorer in our ranks. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
After making everyone wait for 73 days, Hristov cut right to the chase against Toronto in the 8th minute.
The Bulgarian pounced on a seemingly innocuous long ball out of the back from Akira Fitzgerald, sprinting to collect the ball as it flew over everyone at midfielder and landed in between the last defender and keeper Borja Angoitia. With a perfect finish, Hristov lobbed the ball over Angoitia and into the back of the net.
“My first coach used to say no matter how small the chance is, go for it. Make the impossible possible, basically,” Hristov said. “I had to go a long way to follow the ball and knew Leon’s probably gonna miss it and the defender thinks it’s gonna go to the goalkeeper. So I was definitely ready. It was a good goal and I think all the goals we scored were very good tonight.”
Tampa Bay looked comfortable against winless Toronto but could not double its lead until the 54th minute, with Leon Taylor nabbing his third goal in as many appearances. Leo Fernandes did a lot of the work, drawing in defenders with a dangerous run down the right side of the box before slipping a cross to the near post for the unmarked Taylor to slot between Angoitia’s legs.
Just as it looked as if the Rowdies were ready to hit the next gear, Fitzgerald gifted Toronto’s toothless attack a goal four minutes following Taylor’s strike. Rather than punch a free kick from Luca Uccello over the bar, Fitzgerald tried to catch the attempted cross into the box while off balance and ended up dragging it across the line instead.
Even with the own goal, Toronto failed to gain any momentum. After a lightning strike in the area delayed the match for an hour in the 70th minute, the Rowdies continued to dominate. Joe Cole sealed the result with a long-range goal in the 79th minute, while Toronto finally attempted its first shot of the night — an errant left-footed effort by Shaan Hundal — deep into stoppage time.
“Without being disrespectful to Toronto because they’re a very young side with some really good players, but I think the score flattered them to be perfectly honest,” Collins said. “I think on another night, we take our chances and we win handily. Goals change games, we gave up a goal and it made it a tense evening for us, especially with the rain delay.”
If the Rowdies have proven anything during Collins’ short era as head coach, it’s that they know how to beat Toronto. The club’s only two wins since Collins took over seven matches ago have both been against last place Toronto. Saturday’s home match against fourth place Louisville City SC offers a good chance for the Rowdies to show they’re capable of beating other teams. A win against Louisville would plant the Rowdies firmly back into the postseason race.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes