by JAKE NUTTING
After months filled with frustrations and stumbles, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are in the unusual but welcome position of having three straight wins in the bank for the first time this year following Saturday’s dispatch of the Richmond Kickers at Al Lang.
With a nice confidence boost from Tuesday’s victory at Nashville, the Rowdies kept the Kickers pinned down in their end early and often but could not open the scoring until the second half. Their persistence quickly paid off, though, as the Rowdies notched their first of three goals on the night in the 49th minute.
“It was one of the best first-half performances I’ve seen in my time with the Rowdies, apart from the final finish,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “I thought Poku looked like the best player of the league in the first half, apart from the finish. (The halftime message) was give me more of the same, and they gave me that and probably a little bit more.”
Kwadwo Poku loomed large in the midfield and all over the field for the Rowdies throughout the first half. The Ghanaian was off to the races in the 30th minute, shaking off a defender inside Tampa Bay’s defensive end before blazing over 50 yards down the field into the final third. He looked to dish a pass out to Rowdies newcomer Jaime Chavez on the right, but his touch was a tad too heavy and keeper Brandon Barnes did well to slide in and cut off the pass at the top of the box.
Poku blew past Richmond’s defense again five minutes later, this time charging down the right side of the box before firing a shot that rolled left of the far post by a few inches.
Defender Hunter Gorskie, wearing the captain’s armband for the first time, was finally the one to find the back of the net for Tampa Bay. Leo Fernandes initiated the opening scoring sequence, whipping in a cross that grazed a defender and was guided across goal with a back heel from Georgi Hristov. In a heads up moment, Gorskie lunged for the ball in front of goal, knocking it across the line before his mark could reach it.
“It’s a pleasure to lead the guys,” Gorskie said. “They’re a committed group, so it’s easy to lead them. It couldn’t have gone any better to be honest — a shutout, 3-0 win and a goal. It was a perfect night for me.”
Chavez kept the momentum going in the 57th minute with a smooth finish after an excellent turnover earned by midfielder Martin Vingaard created a scoring chance for him just inside box. Chavez calmly deposited his effort past Barnes. Seeing Chavez get on the scoresheet in his Rowdies debut was comforting to Collins, who has had to negotiate short rest and knocks to attackers Stefano Bonomo and Leon Taylor as the postseason race has intensified.
“Sebastian Guenzatti came out tonight, and he’s run himself to ground the last few games. He’s been a star,” Collins said. “Do you put him out tonight or do you get someone else with fresh legs and maybe lose what he brings? Thankfully Jaime showed why we brought him to the club tonight. He scored a goal and caused problems. That’s what we needed. We’re gonna need 20 men to keep this push going forward.”
Tampa Bay’s defensive organization started to welter around the 70th minute, shortly after an injured Hristov made way for Junior Flemmings. Fortunately Gorskie and Papé Diakite both recorded clutch goal line clearances to keep the clean sheet intact and Flemmings put the match away with a nifty run and finish deep into stoppage time.
Results around the conference were kind to the Rowdies, who suddenly find themselves 10th in the standings with 40 points, just one point behind North Carolina and Ottawa Fury FC. Wednesday’s opponent Indy Eleven currently sits 6th in the conference on 45 points, meaning the Rowdies can aid their campaign for a postseason slot even more if they can keep their newfound momentum going on the road.
“As I said to the boys yesterday, right now we’re doing well because we’ve got 20 men all pushing to play a part in it. When you’ve got that as a coach, that helps,” Collins said. “It’s a great week, but it’s only one great week. We’ve got a lot more to do.”
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes