I was fortunate enough to see the Tampa Bay Rowdies open 2020 with a win at New York Red Bulls II in person. I was also unfortunately there to witness them get drubbed 5-0 by the same Red Bulls in April of 2018.

Neill Collins was the player that came out of the locker room to answer questions that day. No one was happy about the result obviously, but you got the sense Collins was really bothered by the outcome. Despite a positive start in the first few weeks of the season, the veteran center back knew the Rowdies were lagging behind other team in certain aspects. One month later Collins retired from playing and was coaching his first game for the Rowides.

Louisville was one of the teams in the USL Championship that Collins knew the Rowdies had to catch up with on the field. And now after this weekend Collins has led the Rowdies to their first championship game since 2012 by besting 2-1 Louisville in their home stadium.

“This is the best feeling I’ve had as a coach. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had of my career,” Collins said. “I almost feel tonight has not just been two and a half years in the making. I feel as if it’s been four years in the making ever since we joined the USL… I think a big reason for giving up my playing career was trying to get us to where I felt our club deserved to be. The team behind the scenes were the best in the league, unfortunately the team on the field was just a little bit behind. It doesn’t happen over night and we need to sustain it now and build on it.”

You could see how much it meant to all the Rowdies after the final whistle. The players and coaching staff made stops around the stadium to make sure the savored the celebration with all the travelling Rowdies supporters and staff members who made it up for the match.

“It’s emotional because it’s a 24/7 job,” Collins said. “You see the 90 minutes, but it’s everything that you put in, everything that affects your life. My coaching staff, the president Lee Cohen, the athletic trainers, the players all make sacrifices that are worth it when you have moments like that. Trust me there’s much more downs than there are ups. When a moment like that happens it’s a feeling that you can’t describe. So I’m not surprised that there’s some emotion. Especially this year more than any other year, but there’s been a lot of challenges.”

Rowdies supporters won’t have travel as far for next week’s championship final. The Rowdies are set to host the final at Al Lang next Sunday against Phoenix Rising FC, who knocked off El Paso Locomotive FC in penalties late on Saturday night.

The Rowdies will be the third professional team in Tampa Bay in 2020 to reach the championship final of their respective league. However, if they beat Phoenix they can be the first to claim a championship on home turf. Due to the pandemic, the Lightning were forced to play in the NHL bubble in Canada and the Rays are battling the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in Texas.

“These moments don’t come around often. We want to make them more often,” Collins said. “But we’ve got to enjoy the moment. That’s one thing I learned as a player. I was very fortunate and I won two or three trophies my first two or three years as a full-time professional and I thought it would always be that way for a long time and I quickly found out it wasn’t. I hope to win more trophies as a coach, but I’m still gonna enjoy this one and get ready for next week.”

Steinberger Straight Out of the Gate

As much faith as supporters have in these Rowdies, you couldn’t help but have some nerves creep in as the match neared. Part of that is the factor of going up against a new opponent for the first time in months. A bigger fact was Louisville’s form over the last three months. Not only had Louisville not lost since July, they’d also no trailed once during that stretch.

Thankfully Zach Steinberger helped put everyone at ease four minutes into the match. In their first meaningul drive up the field, the Rowdies capitalized as Leo Fernandes whipped in a cross from the left wing that Steinberger latched onto at the near post with a clinical one-timed finish.

The goal was Steinberger’s first goal of the year. He’d failed to convert on a few good chances over the llast week, but Collins had a feeling that Saturday would be the midfeilder’s night.

“I felt tonight we took our chances,” Collins said. “We created some great opportunities. We’ve been threatening to do that. I think we’ve created some great moments. Zach’s been threatening for a while. I really felt that he would get a goal tonight and he did.”

Guenzatti’s tally right before the halftime break was more about persistence. Sebastian Dalgaard helped initiate things by charging at a defender on the right edge of the box, creating space to rifle a shot right at Ben Lundt at the near post. Louisville was slow to clear the rebound off Lundt’s box, while the Rowdies had both Guenzatti and Juan Tejada rush into the area. Guenzatti just ended up being the one to get to it first.

Shutting Louisville Out

The Rowdies and Louisville both only had three shots on target, but the Rowdies didn’t need much more to come out on top. While Louisville held a massive advantage in possession and took more shots overall, not very much of it felt very threatening. As many loved to point, technically the Rowdies scored all three goals on Saturday because of the own goal.

Louisville’s leading scorer Cameron Lancaster in particular was neutralized by a stifling defensive performance by the Rowidies, who recorded 31 clearances and held Lancaster to just four touches in the box.

“I trust our center backs,” Collins noted. “We give them a couple bits of information on these guys and then you’ve got to let them go out and do their job and they did that tonight. These guys are not daft. They know that with someone like Cameron you need to be tight. You need to not give him time and space to not get shots off. They did that well tonight. They’ve done that quite well all season to be quite frank a couple moments apart, which any center back has through a season.”

Tampa Bay’s midfield can also take credit for how ineffective Louisville’s attack was. Yann Ekra and Jordan Doherty did a lot of dirty work cutting off lanes up the field. Ekra especially had a big impact, winning 10 of 12 duels and making half a dozen key recovery runs.

“I don’t think Yann’s first half performance was necessarily his best ever performance in a Rowdies shirt, but I think the second half was up there,” Collins said. “Honestly some of the guys, I could name a lot, have put in some of the great performances in a Rowdies shirt tonight. We’re a much better team when Yann is in it and that was just epitomized tonight. Being able to do carry us up the field, but then also being able to plug the gaps. Yann’s a fantastic guy that deserves moments like this. He’s been through a tough time with injuries that have been very innocuous. The fact that he’s been able to stay fit and help this team in the most important time of the season has been great.”

Davey’s Debut

The Rowdies were dealt a big blow a half hour into the match when center back Jordan Scarlett was forced to exit due to an injury. It was the first time all year the Rowdies did not have Scarlett on the field.

Collins had another natural right-sided center back to call on from the bench in Alex Davey. However, he elected to go with Max Lachowecki in the 33rd minute to replace Scarlett. Davey had yet to appear for the Rowdies since signing in September and had not appeared in any competitive match since July.

Lachowecki wound up committing a costly error a couple minutes into the second half that led to an own goal. Apart from that he had a solid shift filling in as he did a few times this season. Lachowecki — who had a large contigent of family and friends at the match — also came up with a crucial sliding tackle from behind to halt a Louisville counter attack late in the match.

Eventually Davey did enter and played well on the back line, recording a few important headers and cearances as Louisville threw more attackers forward in hopes of finding an equalizer.

“When Alex came to the club, he came for that very situation we found tonight. I was very upfront with him when we signed him — if we don’t have any injuries, he might not even make the bench. Alex has trained fantastically well. The (defenders) have played so well. Playing away to Louisville and you know they’re bringing on Luke Spencer, Jason Johnson. They’ve got big boys. It was perfect. What a performance by Alex. It was as if the ball was glued to his head at the end and he was heading everything out.”

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