by JAKE NUTTING
With the official start of fall approaching next week, summer was showing no signs of relenting in its final weekend at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night, as the Tampa Bay Rowdies battled Atlanta United 2 in oppressive humidity to remain in the postseason hunt.
With a heat index of 95 degrees in downtown St. Petersburg, both sides enjoyed stretches of possession in the early stages until Sebastian Guenzatti buried a shot into the back of the net at the half hour mark. The tally proved to be the lone goal of the night.
Popping a bouncing pass into the box from Kwadwo Poku in the air, Guenzatti swiftly turned and powered a low shot through the legs of the defender at his back that zipped past the hands of keeper Mitch Hildebrandt. Guenzatti’s deft finish was redemption from a miss only two minutes prior, when he skied a sitter from six yards out well over the crossbar.
“Sometimes the easiest ones are the hardest,” Guenzatti said of the initial misfire. “I was too open. For me, I need to feel some people in the box, but I got up and on the next play and I got the ball, so it was really good.”
A hydration break immediately followed Guenzatti’s strike, and the Rowdies comfortably took hold for the rest of the half, but the second goal eluded them. While dominating in most aspects of the match, the Rowdies only managed to fire four shots on target all night.
Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins stressed after the match that achieving consistency in the attack is going to take effort from everyone that takes the field, not just those up top.
“I think we got into good positions. I thought our football up until the final third was excellent,” he said. “It’s not just the attackers. Can a center back score from a set piece? Can we have a midfielder drive through and score from the edge of the box? That’s a team thing. If we start doing that, we’re gonna have even better results.”
Atlanta’s attack had an even harder time finding the back of the net due to a sturdy defensive effort by the Rowdies. Keeper Daniel Vega was only called on for one save, easily handling a shot in the 73rd minute.
Even though the Rowdies remain 13th (34 pts) in the Eastern Conference, the win was vital for them in the standings. Ottawa Fury FC climbed all the way to 7th in the conference with a 2-0 win over the Richmond Kickers on Saturday. New York Red Bulls II (8th, 41 pts), Nashville SC (9th, 39 pts), North Carolina FC (10th, 35 pts), Penn FC (11th, 35 pts), Charlotte Independence (12th, 35 pts) all sit directly above the Rowdies. North Carolina or Penn FC could pull ahead even more as they square off against each on Sunday.
There isn’t much runway left for the Rowdies to make a postseason push. Starting with Tuesday’s massively important trip to Nashville, they only have five matches left to gain ground on the competition and secure one of the conference’s eight postseason slots. Following Nashville, the Rowdies return to Al Lang to face Richmond and then will close out the regular season with three away matches and one more home match.
“I’m not even thinking about (the postseason.) Let’s go and try and beat Nashville on Tuesday night,” Collins said. “(Tonight) is one win. A win, with all due respect to Atlanta who’re having a good run, a win that I expect to get at home. Atlanta’s a good side in good form, but we expect to get that at home. Now Nashville, a very tough game, but one where we want to try and get three points.”