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Bench Takes: Let’s Hear it for the Lads

For weeks, Neill Collins has been saying that if the Rowdies showed up and played their game at the level they’ve set for themseleves, the result would come against the Charleston Battery.

Saturday night was the last chance the players had to prove him right. There wasn’t going to be a sixth matchup with the Battery after this one. It was win or go home, and the Rowdies responded to those stakes with one of their best showings of the year.

“I would have been devastated for the players to lose in any circumstances, but tonight especially,” Collins said. “To go and play the way they did, dominate the way they did, have the bravery to press the way they did and probe in possession. Ultimately you’ve got to put the ball in the goal and we did that eventually, but I mean that was a very, very dominant performance against a really good side.”

On paper, the offensive productivity wasn’t much better than what the Rowdies did in their last three battles with the Battery. They only posted three shots on target in the match. Saturday’s performance was a bit more about the things that don’t show up on the scoresheet.

The broadcast crew highlighted this well on a late sequence as the Rowdies held a 1-0 lead. In the 87th minute, center back Forrest Lasso was caught up the field after a Rowdies corner kick. Charleston quickly looked to counter and take advantage, with Robbie Crawford playing a long ball forward from the halfway line for Zeiko Lewis. However, midfielder Jordan Doherty had dropped back to cover for Lasso on the back line and was able to head the ball away. Johnson also came back to ensure Charleston wasn’t able to get anything off of Doherty’s header. Even if the ball had gotten past Doherty, Scarlett looked as if he might’ve had it covered after a mad dash back down the field.

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Charleston Battery (Conference Semifinals) (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-10-18 12-00-36

Watch “Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Charleston Battery (Conference Semifinals) (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-10-18 12-00-36” on Streamable.

Little moments like that sequnce happened throughout the match. Starting strikers Sebastian Guenzatti and Juan Tejada brought non-stop pressure to Charleston, limiting the visitors in their attempts to work the ball up the field. Yann Ekra had a handful of important drives in the center of the field to keep possession from stagnating. Wingbacks Sebastian Dalgaard and Max Lachowecki came up with vital turnovers and recovery runs. All three center backs were held a high defensive line and cut out many of the small mistakes that cost them against the Battery in the last couple months.

Keeping Continuity

For the first time all year, the Rowdies went with the exact same starting XI and bench as they had in the previous week. It makes sense given how well things worked out last week. Why shake up the formula when you absolutley need to put in a good performance for the full 90 minutes against the Battery.

“It’s the first time that I had the opportunity to do that,” Collins said on his decision to everything the same. “That’s something that we’ve not had as well against Charleston particularly, or any game. We’ve had injuries, we’ve had knocks, we’ve had two games and then three games in quick succession. So for the first time we were able to do that. Honestly I felt last week’s performance was everything we want to be as a football club, everything we want to see.”

Saturday’s starters once again laid a solid foundation for the bench players to come in and carry the team over the finish line. Collins ended up only using one of his substition windows in the match, but went with three changes all at once. Watching Malik Johnson, Lucky Mkosana, and Leo Fernandes all enter at the same time in the 70th minute felt a bit like a line change you might see in hockey.

Collins noted how demoralizing it can be as opposing team to see so many lethal players come in all at once when you’re legs are tiring. But it only matters if the substitutes perform well, and all three of the Rowdies subs did that. Mkosana has been a proven bench player when healthy all year, shown by the fact that last night’s tally was his fourth from the bench this year. Fernandes, though, has been a regular starter through 2020 but has made the most of his time as a sub in two playoff matches so far.

“I think Lucky and Leo epitomize everything we want to be about,” Collins said. “Lucky takes the headlines for his goal, but yet he played 25 minutes. That’s what people have got to understand, is that youre role is not defined by how long you play. It’s defined by how well you do it. Leo has played a lot of minutes and has seen the bench the last couple of weeks but has come on and performed fantastically well.”

Executed to Perfection

Lucky Mkosana will rightfully get much of the attention after scoring his second straight game-winner. However, Zach Steinbergre also deserves some plaudits for his second set-piece assist in as many as many games. While Charleston was anticipating the Rowdies to play the free kick from the left side to Lasso or Scarlett on the far post, Steinberger instead chipped in between two defenders for Mkosana to head home. The delivery really could not have been any better.

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For the Lads

Collins opened last night’s media call with a hat-tip to the Irn-Bru craze that has consumed Rowdies fandom. To toast the victory, the Scotsman cracked open a can of his country’s national soft drink.

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Watch “GMT20201018-020018_Post-Game_640x360” on Streamable.

If you’ve missed it, over the last two weeks Rowdies supporters have embraced Irn-Bru as their drink of choice during the playoffs and “Irn-Bru for the Lads” has become their mantra on social media. The international sections of Publix stores across Tampa Bay have been picked clean by Rowdies fans who jumping of Irn-Bru train.

The immensley creative Mike Pendleton even made a “Super Neill” banner for last night’s match utilizing Irn-Bru’s logo and branding. Pendleton has promised to make some sticker versions of the banner. (We’re gonna hold you to that, Mike!)

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NEILL COLLINS CAME TO THE MOB BEFORE THE GAME…DROPPED OFF A 4-PACK OF IRN-BRU AND SAID,”IRN-BRU FOR THE LADS” pic.twitter.com/RjQJdbSGAM

Collins did want to stress one thing to all the recent newcomers to Irn-Bru.

“I need to just touch on this slightly,” he said. “They’re doing Irn-Bru a little bit of  disservice. That stuff in Publix doesn’t have some of the ingredients you get in Scotland. They’re banned in America. The true taste is in a can. I got that specially shipped in this week so I could celebrate with the fans.”

If this movement keeps growing, who do we talk to about getting Collins an endorsement deal with Irn-Bru? Really, “For the Lads” and “The true taste is in a can” are already two excellent taglines. If Rodney Marsh could do a Miller Lite commercial back in the day of the original Rowdies, then Collins can certainly become the face of Irn-Bru in the states.

Scouting Louisville

As expected, Louisville City FC prevailed in its semifinal matchup with Saint Louis FC. After Saint Louis failed to convert on a penalty in the 12th minute, Louisville pounced with a go-ahead goal from Cameron Lancaster six minutes later. The home side then added another in the second half through an own goal and rode that to victory.

The Rowdies have yet to face Louisville in 2020 due to the reformatted USL season during the pandemic. The last time the Rowdies met Louisville on the field was the in first round of the postseason last year. Louisville came away as the victors that day 2-1. This year the club has moved into a beautiful new venue of their own after playing in a basebal stadium the last few years. After dropping three of their first four in their new home, Louisville has gone on a tear through the rest of their schedule. John Hackworth’s side has not lost a match since July 29 and, includingthe postseason, have now won 8 straight matches.

Out West

Out in the west, both semifinal matches went all the way to penalties. Phoenix Rising FC took down the top-seeded Reno 1868 FC by making all five of their penalties after the match finished 2-2 through 120 minutes. El Paso Locomotive FC was also perfect in penalties in order to take out New Mexico United. If you’re hoping the see the Rowdies back at Al Lang for a potential USL Cup final, then you need to root for El Paso to knock off Phoenix in the conference final.

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