For a 20-minute stretch on Saturday night the result looked far from certain. In the end, though, the Rowdies came out on top at the end of the 90 minutes to defeat Birmingham Legion FC and move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinal round next weekend.
I’ll admit my optimism was dwindling quickly after Birmingham’s equalizer in the 63rd minute. The Rowdies had gotten off to such a fantastic start only to lose all momentum after the halftime break. A few Rowdies players that hadn’t started as much in recent weeks started to looked gassed while Birmingham showed no signs of slowing down with plenty of time for them to find a go-ahead goal.
Enter Leo Fernandes, Lucky Mkosana, and Malik Johnson.
It’s hard to come away from Saturday night and not be in total of the Rowdies’ bench. One of Johnson’s first touches was a brilliant cross in for Mkosana, who put his header where not a single defender or Matt Van Oekel could touch it. Mkosana then craftily stripped the ball off a defender on the sideline before passing it off to Guenzatti, who eventually passed it forward for Fernandes to finish in the box.
There may have only been a little over 1,000 in attendance at Al Lang due to COVID restrictions, but when those two goals were scored in the span of two minutes that place felt as electric as when the Rowdies have a full house of 7,000. It was especially cool to see Sebastian Guenzatti and the rest of the Rowdies leap over the ad boards and celeberate the second goal in front of the new safe standing sections for Ralph’s Mob and the Skyway Casuals. Hopefully that kind of thing that becomes a frequent occurence now that the supporters are closer to the action behind the goal.
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Birmingham Legion FC (Quarterfinal) (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-10-11 11-09-15
Watch “Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Birmingham Legion FC (Quarterfinal) (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-10-11 11-09-15” on Streamable.
It’s possible you were a little suprised by some of the Rowdies lineup decisions on Saturday night. None of those decisions were easy for Neill Collins, who noted that after last week’s loss to Charleston in the regular season finale that every spot on the field was u for grabs.
“It’s been a tough week away from the training ground thinking about all these decisions,” the Rowdies head coach said.
The biggest surpise of the night has to be Max Lachowecki getting the start over Leo Fernandes out of the left side of the midfield. Fernandes finished the regular season with four goals and two assists, while Lachowecki had yet to even start a match. Lachowecki didn’t end up on the scoresheet. It sounds like that lack of opportunity was part of the reason why Collins was willing to give Lachowecki a shot in such a crucial moment.
“You could look at it like why not start Leo, or you could look at it like why did Max Lachowecki start,” Collins said. “You see Max come on late last week, he gets a goal at the back post (waived off for offside) and no one inside our staff is surprised because he’s been threatening that all season. He’s been doing that in training. He’s trained like a beast. He’s probably the one player on the squad that I would say could knock on my door and say ‘I’ve trained really well, I’ve played well when I’ve come on and I’ve not had an opportunity. Everyone else has had an opportunity.’ I just felt that this guy was ready to play. He was eager to play. Everyone will look at it as a negative on Leo. Leo’s been a great servant, a great player and he showed that when he came off the bench. Max won the opportunity and did fantastic.”
With Fernandes coming on to ice the match with the fourth goal, it’d be easy to say he should’ve been on the field from the start. Perhaps that would’ve worked out well for the Rowdies. However, don’t discount Lachowecki entirely. Guenzatti’s 38th minute goal was set up largely in part by a Lachwecki expertly switcing the field of play to break open Birmingham’s defense. The things that don’t end up on the scoresheet can matter just as much.
A lot of coaches will tell you how hard it is for them to pick an XI every week. Collins does seems genuine when he says this year. This week he had to leave out Adam Naem, Kevin Mendoza and Mustapha Dumbuya. He even shared Dumbuya’s reaction and how it shows the unity of the squad.
“Mustapha Dumbuya has been here from England since January or February. His daughters and his wife have not been able to come since Covid. He has been a consummate professional,” Collins said. “I’m sure he won’t mind me telling you this. I told him prior to the game he wouldn’t be on the bench and his response says everything about the man and everything about the team. He said ‘I think you’re making the right decision having Malik on the bench. I understand it. I’ll be behind the boys.’ It’s easy when teams say they’re together and they’ve got a good mentality. Or we’re doing this and that. Actually doing it is another thing.”
The same can be said for Zach Steinberger, who was picked start in the center of the field while Lewis Hilton started on the bench. Hilton leads the team in chances created due to his accurate set piece deliveries, but Steinberger proved he’s also capable of settng his teammates up. The Rowdies executed a designed set piece play in the 8th minute that was only possible because of Steinberger’s excellent corner-kick delivery to Jordan Doherty at the top of the box.
Speaking of Jordan Doherty, what confidence the young player showed last night in getting the Rowdies the opening goal.
Doherty’s strike may have gotten a friendly deflection from Mikey Lopez, but he hit that ball with total conviction and controlled the delivery from the corner so well. His first touch needed to be perfect and it was. At 19 years old, it feels like Doherty still has so much room to grow as a player and we’re only seeing the first stages of it.
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Birmingham Legion FC (Quarterfinal) (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-10-11 12-54-34
Watch “Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Birmingham Legion FC (Quarterfinal) (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-10-11 12-54-34” on Streamable.
Tweet of the Night
With aplogies to Doctor Robotnik, we present the best tweet of the night from Ralph’s Mob.
we seem to have upset the bad guy from sonic pic.twitter.com/SlxzJokU9g
We all knew it was gonna come down this. If the Rowdies want to claim the USL Cup, they are going to have to get past the Charleston Battery. The Charlotte Independence kept things interesting by pushing the Battery into extra time on Saturday, but ultimately it was the Battery that came away as the 2-1 victors.
So, for the fifth time in 2020, the Rowdies and the Battery will square off. This time it will be in a win-or-go-home scenario. Charleston have been the victors the last three times out, but we can’t forget about the 2-0 victory the Rowdies posted over them back in July. Charleston is not invincible. Charlotte just forced them into extra time this week and Miami dropped four goals on them just a few weeks ago. Nothing is certain, especially this year.