After spending most of the USL Championship season as an Eastern Conference favorite to contend for the league’s title, the Tampa Bay Rowdies start the postseason with much to prove.
A string of disappointing results in recent months — including a 2-1 defeat to Hartford Athletic in the regular season finale — dropped the Rowdies out of the top four in the conference and allowed two-time USL Cup winner Louisville City to take their place. Now the Rowdies must knock off Louisville on the road this Saturday in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal if they hope to lift the cup themselves next month.
Unused Substitutes spoke with Rowdies head coach Neill Collins about the match-up with Louisville and how he’s feeling about his team’s chances after the underwhelming end to the regular season.
Unused Substitutes: What’s the mood and atmosphere been like in training this week? Can you sense a change now that things have shifted into a do-or-die scenario in the playoffs?
Neill Collins: We’d love to be heading into the playoffs on a slightly better run of form. There’s no question that there was disappointment on Monday morning about the result (in Hartford). But I think now we’re just desperate to go and have a challenge in front of us. A playoff game, it’s what everyone wants. We love it. We’d have loved to have been at home, but it’s going to be a little bit more difficult on the road. On the form we’ve had throughout the season we’ve shown that we can win this game. The mood, as you can imagine, has been very competitive as players have been playing for their places. There’s a real anticipation for the playoffs coming, so it’s been good.
US: We’ve seen a lot of upsets in the postseason in the past. At this point it’s just about beating whatever team is in front of you and hoping other results go your way. You never know what can happen at this point.
Collins: Exactly. I think anyone that’s watched the league knows there’s not much difference between the teams in the top six of the conference. It’s very, very tight. Any team on their given day can win. I don’t think it’d be a huge upset. Louisville have a great record at home, particularly in the postseason. But I think there’s something with this team that I expect us to go and win. I expect us to go and give ourselves an opportunity to win. I think our record away from home, especially against the top teams, has been excellent. So my expectations are that these lads are going to win.
US: I wanted to ask about the recent string of results and get your thoughts on why you struggled down the stretch in the last few months, especially after such a great start in the first half of the season. What do you think was missing in the last few months?
Collins: I don’t think it was for half of the season. I think for two thirds of the seasons we the best team in the league. For the last third, particularly in September and October, even though we had a couple good results, I think it’s just inconsistency. Inconsistency for a number of reasons. We’ve had issues with some players’ availability. On top of that we’ve had a couple players whose form hasn’t been what it was. That’s been a challenge. But I also think, look, there has been a couple poor performances. I thought we were very poor at Loudoun, possibly the worst performance of the season. That was a disappointment. I do however think the circumstances were totally different from what we’ve been used to. We were playing on a very poor field in difficult conditions. But we needed to cope with that. I look at the home performances with Nashville and Indy and we picked up 1 point out of 6, and the performances deserved more than that. We performed very well in both of those games. When you’re performing well and you’re not winning, I’ll always believe you’ll come through that. I really think they’ll come back around for us. With Indy it wasn’t like we grabbed a point. We had our chances and we were just poor putting them in the goal. I’d much rather have a time playing like that. We’ve been lacking a bit of competition in certain positions and that’s hindered us as well. That’s something that we’ll improve for the future, but I believe we’ve got a team more than capable of beating anyone on the day.
US: In some games it seems as if the team starts positively but then loses momentum when they don’t finish those early chances and end up putting themselves in a hole with mistakes. Do you think this has hurt you in some games?
Collins: I think that’s a fact that when we score the first goal we’re a very, very good team. I think it has more to do with the tactical element than I do the psychological element. When we score first teams have to come out against us and that suits us better. I think we need to get better in the psychological element. If we don’t score early, don’t panic. I do think we came back very well in Louisville. I thought we came back to deservedly take a point. Definitely the Hartford game I thought we responded excellently with 10 men. I thought we were gonna go on and win but we didn’t. There’s no question there’s an aspect of the team that needs to improve, and that’s just not panicking when we go behind. It’s not that the players give up, it’s far from that. It’s that they want it so much that they just don’t have patience. Those are things that we’re well aware of and things that we need to improve.
US: So Louisville has won the last two league championships, is on a lengthy unbeaten streak, and has never lost a postseason match at their home. What makes them so tough to take down at Slugger Field?
Collins: It’s quite simple. It’s the field. There’s no getting away from that. It’s the only field in the world that I suspect is like that. But that will not be an excuse. Because we’ve played on it. We know what to expect. It’s the same for them, and fair play to (John Hackworth), his team plays really good football. Point is there’s an advantage for them there and they know it because they play on it every single week. I think it’s a fantastic challenge for us. You go into any stadium with 10,000 people in it and it’s a challenging atmosphere. And by the way, they’ve got a great side of players that have played together for a long time. I would say they’re about three years on from where we’re at now in terms of experience. But they had to start somewhere, and we’re at that point now. They’re unbeaten in the playoffs at this point. Let’s see if they’re still unbeaten on Saturday night. That’s a great challenge for us. Records are meant to be broken and we’re looking to beat this one. I don’t think you can get a better challenge than that.
US: Louisville seems to excel on set pieces. They burned for a goal on one this year in Louisville and likely would have scored from set pieces at Al Lang if not for some great saves from McCarthy. Is defending on set pieces something your weary of and want to be vigilant of?
Collins: Yeah, they scored against us on a set piece and they gave us trouble at Al Lang on set pieces. But we’re always vigilant about that, we always take care of that. But one thing about our team is that for all the great players we’ve got, and all the technical players we’ve got, we don’t don’t have quite as much height. We’re as well organized and well prepared as we can be, but we don’t have the height some of these other teams have got. That’s something that maybe we need to remedy, but I think by and large we’ve handled set pieces really well. Again these are big factors in important games. You don’t want to play very well and be weak on a set piece. Oscar Jimenez is very good on his deliveries of the ball. We’ll be prepared. We’re well aware of all the strengths that Louisville have got.
US: Can you give an injury update on Leo Fernandes and Dominic Oduro’s status for the weekend?
Collins: They’re both not looking good for the weekend, so we’ll need to wait to wait and see before we make the call late. We’ll essentially be without our three main players in midfield in Leo, Dom and Malik Johnson (suspended). That’s part and parcel to it and we will be prepared regardless of who plays.
US: What did you learn from your match-ups with Louisville this year? Anything you’ll take into this weekend’s game?
Collins: Honestly, in the last game I thought we played very, very well. I thought we controlled the match. There were a few moments in the first half where their players were maybe a threat. I know for a fact we spent most of the game in their half. They scored on a set piece and then we got stung late while pushing for a goal. These were tight games. Both the games were very, very tight. Two good teams with good players. We learned a lot from those games, but this is just a different game. It’s a different mentality and we’ll see how our players respond. This will very much be a one-off.