by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies appeared on a path to a second straight victory on Saturday night at Al Lang after jumping out to an early 2-1 lead over New York Red Bulls II.
A suspect red card decision, though, put them a man down for the entirety of the second half and ultimately aided the visitor’s search for an equalizer. Tampa Bay managed to limit New York’s chances enough and hold on for a point in front of an announced crowd of 5,784.
“Credit to our boys, they played well in the second half,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “We lost a goal, but overall we made it tough for them to bring us down and we ended up fairly comfortable. I’ll just go away with disappointment this week for my players because they trained so hard this week. They prepared to try and have a really good game against a really good Red Bulls team and it just descends into a bit of a farce.”
The night got off to rocky start for the Rowdies when New York found the back of the net before the second minute had expired. Center back Tamika Mkandawire couldn’t control a bouncing ball into Tampa Bay’s defensive third, which then fell for Jared Stroud at the top right corner of the box. With no defender stepping up to close him down, Stroud curled a gorgeous shot past a helpless Cody Mizell.
Tampa Bay immediately leveled things back up five minutes later, though. Junior Flemmings made a penetrative run into New York’s box that drew a foul from defender Hassan Ndam and earned a penalty that Stefano Bonomo converted with confidence.
Flemmings and Bonomo, two former Red Bulls II players, didn’t stop there. 14 seconds after New York restarted play, Flemmings intercepted an errant pass and slipped a pass to the center of the box for the Bonomo to deposit between the legs of keeper Evan Louro.
Louro then came up with an outstanding denial of Flemmings in the 20th minute. Kwadwo Poku initiated the counter attack with a run down the middle of the field before sending the ball out wide for Bonomo, who centered for Flemmings. The Jamaican’s strike was on target, but Louro’s kick save prevented what would’ve been a crucial third goal.
As the half came to a close, New York started to threaten more and even rattled the cross bar with a powerful strike from inside the box.
While they didn’t find their equalizer in the moment, Red Bulls II did find what they were looking for in the 9th minute of stoppage time when referee Elvis Osmanovic flashed Flemmings a straight red card for a strong shoulder to shoulder challenge with Cristian Cásseres. It was the third time the Rowdies have been reduced to ten men in the first half since Collins took over in May.
Collins, who was thrown out by Osmanovic for arguing the call, noted that those previous two red card suspensions to Marcel Schafer and Leon Taylor were reduced to one-match. The reductions, Collins believes, were tacit admissions that the ejections were incorrect.
“All we ask for is a modicum of consistency,” he said. “I respect how hard the referees’ job is and I respect that they’re not going to get every decision right, but when you look at 11 games (since I became coach) and three red cards in the first half for nothing more than, at most, a yellow card, that’s where it makes my job, as if it’s not difficult enough, even more difficult. It’s very, very frustrating to say the least.”
The harshest criticism from Collins’ was reserved for Red Bulls II for their histrionics to draw a red card when a yellow card wasn’t even warranted. Cásseres, who had only entered as s substitute in the 40th minute, launched himself in the air, clutching his face in pain as he writhed on the ground in front of New York’s bench. Red Bulls II coach John Wolyniec jumped up and gestured that Flemmings had thrown an elbow. Replays showed Flemmings went in for a strong shoulder challenge to win the ball but did not elbow Cásseres or make contact with his face.
“When someone tries to get my player sent off by… play acting. And the coach of their team saying there was an elbow, when we can watch the film and it wasn’t an elbow. I always want to protect my players, especially when they’re in the right, and Junior Flemmings was 100 percent in the right,” Collins said.
“Red Bulls is a very good team, a very good side with a lot of good young players. They’re playing in a man’s league, alright. They’re playing in a man’s league, with some big, strong, professional soccer players. I expect them to play like men. I always played hard but fair. No quarter given or asked. You go in for some tough challenges, sometimes you win them, sometimes you lose them. At the end of the day you shake hands. But rolling around holding your face when you’ve been shoulder to shoulder with them, for me, is just not soccer.”
Even with the man advantage, New York was unable to create many true chances as the Rowdies bunkered in and hoped to ride out the 2-1 result in the second half. Brian White came through with the ultimate second goal in the 62nd minute, brilliantly heading home a dangerous cross from Chris Lema.
The Rowdies finished the night 11th in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference standings, but they will drop to 12th after Bethlehem Steel and Penn FC play their match on Sunday. Had they captured a win, the Rowdies would be sitting 8th in the final postseason spot.
On Friday, the Rowdies travel to face Ottawa Fury FC, who are 9th in the conference but only one point ahead for the Rowdies.
IMAGE, PATRICK PATTERSON/UNUSED SUBSTITUTES