The Tampa Bay Rowdies playoff hopes officially died in Atlanta after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Silverbacks.
The Rowdies were fortunate to escape Atlanta with at least one point as the Silverpacks looked the much more offensively potent side. After the match Ricky Hill gave credit for the defensive effort from all the players and keeper Matt Pickens’ performance. Pickens was solid in some instances, but was nonetheless saved by the woodwork twice. Also a free kick that appeared to have him beat in the 80th minute missed by a few inches.
The defense showed great resilience not to concede when Atlanta was playing really well. (Pickens) was called upon on more than a few occasions and came up trump for us. Kyle Clinton, Frankie Sanfilippo, Jordan Gafa and Blake Wagner, as well as Darel Russell and Keith Savage, put their bodies on the line to ensure that there were people there contesting things. When crosses came in, they put their heads where boots were flying, which is all that I can ask for. When they step on the field, they try the best they can and they play with their heart and soul for 90 minutes.- Ricky Hill
Defender Frankie Sanfilippo finally returned from his groin injury that caused him to miss almost two months of league action. Sanfillipo started at center back alongside Kyle Clinton, who was making his second straight appearance in central defense. Normal left back Anthony Wallace was replaced with Blake Wagner, presumably to give Wallace some rest after racking up so many minutes during the congested schedule. This game against Atlanta was the final in a stretch of 5 games in 14 days. Tampa Bay didn’t get nearly what they were hoping for in that stretch, drawing twice and losing the other three matches.
This new back line was the latest in a string of defensive combinations the Rowdies have started this year. For a while a during the Fall season it appeared that the team may have figured out its magic formula of Wallace on the left, Tam and JP Rodrigues in the center, and Sanfilippo on the right. Rodrigues seems to have quickly fallen out of favor with Ricky Hill. Then of course there was Sanfilippo’s injury, followed by his replacement Willie Hunt’s recent hamstring injury. It’s difficult to be consistently in good form with so many constant rotations at the back.
The attack for the Rowdies put another typical performance, with decent spells of possession, some promising counter attacks, and the unfortunate lack of quality in the opponents box. The midfielders, with Savage making another start in the center, did well creating space for themselves and played some good balls through to forwards Luciano “Lucho” Olguín and Gegir Hristov. This style doesn’t seem best suited to Olguin, who struggles occassionally struggles with the ball at his feet and doesn’t possess the same footspeed as other forwards on the roster. Olguin would likely do better as a target man on set pieces or receiving the ball directly in the box.
The lack of quality shots in the box for the Rowdies, in general, has been far too low this season. They settle for shots outside the box too often, or run out ideas once they get the ball into the box and end up shooting into defenders. The team is likely frustrated with how easily they Atlanta’s keeper, Thomas Hunter coast through the match. Hunter was making his professional debut after spending four years with semi-pro side Chattanooga FC. The Rowdies must be frustrated to know they didn’t put such a relatively inexperienced keeper under more pressure.
Luckily, Hristov got off at least one terrific shot inside the box that Hunter couldn’t deal with. In the 38th minute took a desperate shot that was deflected directly to Hristov, who buried it into the net with a confident one-time left footed strike. Hristov now has 21 goals for the Rowdies in league play, which means he has surpassed Mike Ambersley to become the leading scorer for the modern era Rowdies. With only 46 appearances for the club, Hristov has overtaken Ambersley in 14 fewer appearances. That was the good news. The bad news is that Hristov picked up his fifth yellow card of the Fall season in the 29th minute and will therefore miss next week’s match against New York.
For the second time in the past three matches, the Rowdies failed to protect the lead. The fatal blow to the Rowdies playoff race came in the 54th minute. Atlanta played a ball over the top towards the byline for Shaka Bangura. Clinton couldn’t keep up with Bangura, and Sanfilippo couldn’t arrive in time to bail him out so Bangura was able to send a cross to the wide open Jamie Chavez on top of the six yard box. The goal had a lamentable similarity to Minnesota’s second goal in Wednesday’s defeat.
So the playoff fight is over and now the club finds itself in another fight that no one in the league predicted them to be in at the start of the year. There is now a possibility of the Rowdies finishing dead last in the combined points table. With two games left, only 5 points separate the Rowdies in seventh place and last place Atlanta in tenth. The Silverbacks winning their final two games isn’t likely, but Ottawa in eighth, and Indy in ninth appeared to have drastically improved their form recently. The Rowdies finishing in the bottom two or three is absolutely inexcusable considering the talent on the roster.
The struggle to avoid being a bottom dweller won’t be an easy one. The Rowdies go on the road to play the Cosmos first, a team that is still hoping to play their way into the second seed in the playoffs. After that Tampa Bay host Indy in the season finale. Both matches against Indy this year have been close affairs and they will likely be fighting just as hard to avoid the bottom of the table. The Rowdies have plenty to play for and give the fans to close out this season. First here’s an opportunity to play a spoiler to the historic rival Cosmos. And then there’s the opportunity to finish the season by ending the long winless streak at home and send the fans into the offseason with something to smile about.