by JAKE NUTTING
For the first time in the Neill Collins era, the Tampa Bay Rowdies have beaten a team not named Toronto FC II.
Saturday’s encounter at Al Lang against Indy Eleven got off to a fast and furious start, as the Rowdies and the visitors combined for three goals in the first 20 minutes. Fortunately for the Rowdies, they were the ones to come out with an edge after those frenetic opening moments and were able to eventually secure a 3-1 result.
Junior Flemmings made an unequivocal case for Rowdies Man of the Match and possible USL Player of the Week honors, bagging two assists and a late goal to put the match to bed.
“I’ve spoken before, including the first night I took the job, that I think Junior is a fantastic player,” Collins said. “He’s young and he’s got a lot of potential in him, but I think it’s important that we just keep working with him, keep giving him the freedom to play and keep putting good players around him to help him. He’ll score goals, he’ll create goals and he works extremely hard as well. That’s all you want in an attacking player.”
The Jamaican attacker made his first impact on the night in the 12th minute, orchestrating a lethal counter attack with piercing run through Indy’s defense before slipping a through ball into space for his former New York Red Bulls II teammate Stefano Bonomo to deftly finish with his first touch. The early tally was Bonomo’s first goal for the Green and Gold in since signing a few weeks ago.
“The main emphasis tonight was just to make runs,” Flemmings said. “The coach just emphasized that all week, even without the ball, just open up the space and give your teammates more time on the ball. I think that’s exactly what I did tonight and it really paid off.”
Flemmings was the impetus for Tampa Bay doubling the lead just seven minutes later. Right back Kyle Porter played a ball from the right flank into space to the right edge of the box that Flemmings collected and fired across the face of goal. Flemmings’ delivery took a bounce that made it difficult to clear for Indy’s back line and Georgi Hristov was in position to benefit as the ball deflected off his face and into the back of the net.
Immediately on the restart, though, Indy’s attack took advantage of some lackadaisical defending by the Rowdies to pull one back. Tyler Pasher drove down the left side of the box and was given too much space by Porter to send in a cross. Eugene Starikov wisely followed the play with a near post run and, drifting unmarked between center backs Papé Diakite and Tamika Mkandawire, perfectly redirected the ball into the net.
The rest of the half was scoreless as the Rowdies continued to dominate possession and move the ball through the midfield well. However, Indy came out of the break with a burst that nearly led to an equalizer in the 50th minute. Forward Jack McInerney found a window of space near the top of the box to rifle a left-footed shot onto frame, but it was close enough for keeper Cody Mizell to handle without giving up a dangerous rebound for a second chance opportunity.
After McInerney’s effort, Tampa Bay’s defense did well to limit Indy’s chances. Diakite partnered well with Mkandawire in his first appearance for the Rowdies, but was forced to exit in the final minutes with cramps. Considering it was his first competitive minutes of the year, Diakite will likely be working to full fitness over the coming weeks.
Flemmings finally iced the match in the 89th minute with a terrific header down into the bottom right corner off a cross from Hristov.
With seven minutes of stoppage time, Indy tried to claw back into the match only to be denied by an outstanding stop from Mizell. Following a scramble in Tampa Bay’s defensive third, Starikov blasted a shot down the center of the goal that Mizell leapt to push over the bar.
Coming into the match, Indy had only allowed 20 goals through 18 matches.
“Tonight, to get the result when we’re still not really at full throttle, I’m really delighted,” Collins said. “We’ll get another week’s training and we’ll be better next week. Hopefully we’ll keep getting better to the point where we get into the playoffs and have momentum.”
The win gives the Rowdies 25 points on the season, leaving them 10th in the Eastern Conference standings and 2 points back of a postseason spot. Next week, they host Red Bulls II, who lost 2-1 to the league-leading Cincinnati but knocked off the Rowdies 5-0 earlier in the season.
Photo, Jesse Novoa