by JAKE NUTTING
A season full of inconsistency caught up with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Saturday’s home finale at Al Lang Stadium. An underwhelming start by the Rowdies allowed the visiting Charlotte Independence to jump out to a two-goal lead. A late rally in the dying moments was full of opportunity and chances, but none of it was enough to achieve the ultimate goals as the Rowdies fell 2-1.
With the defeat knocking the Rowdies out of the race for one of the last postseason spots, head coach Neill Collins was already looking to the future in his post-match comments.
“It’s our own deficiencies that cost us tonight,” Collins said. “I know what they are and I will rectify them. I’ve rectified some of them in a short period of time and I promise our loyal fans, that we will have a team that will fight the way we did the last 30 minutes. We’ll have that fight. I can promise them that things will be a lot better next year.”
The performance in the first half was not what any of the 7.709 in attendance at Al Lang would have hoped to see from the Rowdies with so much on the line. Sloppy passing and careless possession prevented the Rowdies from breaking through Charlotte’s defensive lines to produce scoring chances, while a few lapses on the defensive end put them in a deep hole at the break.
26 minutes into the match, Tampa Bay was let down by its marking inside the box when Kay Voser was given ample time and space to line up a curling left-footed strike past Daniel Vega. After a lengthy stoppage in play to treat an injury to Rowdies midfielder Michael Oduro, Charlotte struck again in the 32nd minute with an excellent counter attack capped off by a sliding finish by Derek Gebhard.
Oduro’s could not continue with his injury and was replaced with Lance Rozeboom following Gebhard’s tally.
The Rowdies finally managed to threaten in the attack moments before the break, initiated by nice combination play between Afrim Taku and Sebastian Guenzatti on the right edge of the box. Guenzatti flicked his shot toward net, but keeper Brandon Miller did well to stop that effort on the line and then swipe it away from Joe Cole, who was waiting to pounce on the rebound.
Collins made the decision to swap out Kwadwo Poku for Alex Morrell at the break in hopes of sparking some sort of rally. The urgency eventually picked up for the Rowdies as they begin to feel the door shutting on the postseason, but the final finish was missing until the 80th minute.
Making his first appearance in over a month due to an injury, Leon Taylor gave the Rowdies a glimmer of hope when he guided a header just inside the left post off a pass from Guenzatti.
Immediately after the restart, the Rowdies were knocking on the door again. Leo Fernandes whipped in a dangerous cross that Morrell was aching to blast into the net if not for a last-second clearance by Samuel Vines. Guenzatti would have leveled the match in the 86th minute with his own header if not for an outstanding reaction save from Miller. Taylor then tried for another header four minutes later only to see the ball hit the post and remain in play.
Two minutes into stoppage time, Guenzatti drew a foul after Charlotte captain Bilal Duckett threw his body into the air without making an effort to play the ball and came through the back of Guenzatti. Guenzatti and Duckett were both in the box when the foul occurred, but referee Luis Guardia awarded a free kick instead of a penalty.
The Rowdies thought they had found their equalizer deep into stoppage time as defender Hunter Gorskie volleyed a delivery to the far post into the back of the net. However, the assistant referee raised his flag for offside, waiving the goal off. Replay showed Gorskie was in an onside position when the cross was sent in, but Jaime Chavez was leaning in an offside position and made an effort toward the ball before Gorskie’s finish.
In the end, Gorskie’s goal wouldn’t have been enough anyway. Only three points would’ve given the Rowdies an honest shot in the postseason race, and even that would have been a long shot. Collins and his staff have done a lot of work remaking the Rowdies on the go since taking over in May. September showed signs of encouragement as the Rowdies won four of six, but the progress was too little too late after claiming just three total wins in the previous four months.
“Must do better. That’s what my report card would read,” Collins admitted. “I know what’s working. I know what needs to change. Like any coach, we all ask for time. We’re in a business where time’s a short commodity. I believe that the Rowdies, with the things that have happened this week, we’ve got a club that’s heading in the right direction. I know, and my coaching staff and people inside the club know we are going to make things better because we’ve got a plan in place to do that. That hinges around young, hungry players with desire. People like Afrim Taku, Dominic Oduro, Leon Taylor. Players that play with heart. We get 18 or 19 players like that, this club will do absolutely fine.”
The Rowdies still have one more match left on their schedule. Next Sunday they’ll travel to face Bethlehem Steel FC, who are on the verge of securing a postseason berth.
“The goal (next week) is obviously to have players wear the Tampa Bay Rowdies jersey with pride, like some of them have done fantastically well. That’s the aim, to go out next week and win a game of football. You’ve got three or four months away and you want to go away with a bit of good feeling when that final whistle blows that you’ve won a game of football. The pain of not getting into the playoffs will last a long time. That will be my driving force and anyone that’s here next year’s driving force. But next week is about pride in yourself and pride in more importantly the club.”