by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies made their long-awaited return to the field on Saturday, mounting a comeback effort to knock off Atlanta United 2 2-1. You can ready Matt Cox’s full recap of the match here.
As grateful as they were to be back out on the field after a four-month suspension in play due to the global pandemic, it didn’t take long at all for head coach Neill Collins to be reminded of the stresses that come with the job.
“I can’t believe after four months, two minutes into the game, straight away you’re thinking ‘why did I ever miss this?’ Straight away all the stresses come back,” Collins joked.
Despite Atlanta being reduced to ten men after Amar Bashti’s red card in the 7th minute, the visitors pounced on a chance a few minutes later to score first.
It took until the hour mark, but the Rowdies equalized when Juan Tejada set up halftime substitute Lucky Mkosana for a chance at the near post. As the match neared 90 minutes, midfielder Leo Fernandes cleaned up a rebound opportunity in front of net for the winner. The Long Island native also recorded the winning goal at New York Red Bulls II back in March when he had his own cheering section of loved ones.
If the Rowdies want to maintain Fernandes’ hot streak, the solution seems simple.
“Every time my parents watch a game I score. The last game they were at in New York I scored, so hopefully they keep coming to every game.”
Get the Result, Worry About Performance Later
Some rust had to be expect after such an extended break in play. That was certainly the case for the Rowdies in the first half. They gave up exactly one chance to Atlanta that resulted in a goal and then failed to threaten in the attack despite the man advantage.
“It’s a reminder of just how tough it is to win in the USL,” Collins said. “I think it’s important people understand, especially with our squad, having four months off is very tough. Even against 10 men. Just getting back to the playing, the nervous energy. I genuinely believe we’ll benefit from that and improve from that. I think watching from around the world, the first couple of games back is a huge leveler. No matter whether you’re a team at the top or a team at the bottom. It’s about who adjusts better, and I don’t think we adjusted great in the first half.”
In these first few matches of the restart as every team shakes off the cobwebs, having the mentality to fight for the result becomes even more valuable. The Rowdies succeeded in this regard on Saturday, giving themselves an early leg up in the standings while they work to improve.
Set Pieces, Set Pieces, Set Pieces
The Rowdies earned 10 corner kicks on the night while Atlanta had none. That’s an impressive stat, but none of those opportunities were converted into shots on goal. With so much height brought into the squad this year, you’d hope to see the Rowdies threaten more in these scenarios. Collins noted after the match that he’d like to see the team be more dangerous on set pieces. The late winner was initiated by a quality free kick delivery from Hilton to the head of Forrest Lasso, so that’s an encouraging sign of what’s possible.
Al Lang’s Acoustics
Al Lang definitely looked different than any past Rowdies gamedays, with just a little over 100 spectators being permitted into the bulidling. The presence of those select few was definitely felt, though.
Spread throughout the lower level of the stadium, supporters from Ralph’s Mob and Skyway Casuals made the best of their numbers and backed the players.
“They were so loud,” Fernandes said. “We could feel them all game. Just chanting, singing the whole time. It was a great feeling. They helped us, they pushed us to the last second. We were happy we were able to get a win and not a tie for them.”
Without larger crowd noise to contend with, the sounds from the field, sidelines and even the stands were also easier to pick up. Collins was at full volume seven minutes into the match when the Rowdies were not given a penalty for the foul on Hilton that drew a red card for Bashti. Since the match had no fourth official, center referee Elvis Osmanovic got quite an earful from Collins for that one.
Everyone in the building apart from Atlanta’s defenders could hear Forrest Lasso calling for the ball on the free kick that he headed toward goal before Fernandes ended up finishing the opportunity.
Depth Already Being Tested
Collins made full use of the league’s new rule allowing teams to make five substitutions. The first two were unfortunately due to injury, as Yann Ekra and Dom Oduro both picked up knocks in the first half and were swapped out at halftime.
No update was given on their status, but if they’re unavailable next week it would leave the Rowdies with just 19 senior players to choose from. This shows just how difficult managing a roster for the rest of the year will be.
“Unlucky to have two injuries with Ekra and Dom but obviously the five sub rule guards us against that, “Collins said. “Moving forward it’ll give us the ability to make changes earlier, but we want to try and get players match fit as well and the only way they’re going to get match fit is by playing extended minutes. It’s a fine balance. You don’t want to make too many changes and end up with guys only 45 minutes fit. I really didn’t think we needed the fifth sub but I made it to see out the game.”
A Cautious Return
We’re all happy to see the Rowdies back. It’s an incredible privilige that any fans at all were allowed to attend, and that player’s families were there to support after such a tough few months.
The Rowdies say they are hopeful about being able to allow more fans next month. It’s tough to say how likely this is given how the situation is constantly evolving.
By all accounts, the return on Saturday went well and the protocols in place gave those in attendance some level of comfort. Hopefully the team maintains its committment to saftey and will use sound judgement in determining whether to open Al Lang up to more fans.
“Ralph’s Mob and Skyway Casuals and everyone involved tonight behind the goal did a great job of one making noise and two making the stadium look great with all the tifos, the banners and the flags,” Collins said. “For the players, people forget, the families go through all the trials and tribulations with players. So it’s great that they’re there to share and watch them. That’s huge. Again, we’re not gonna get carried away with ourselves. We’re gonna take it one step at a time and hopefully in the future we’ve got more fans here. But first and foremost is safety and I hope everything went off without a hitch tonight.