Last night’s 2-1 win in Atlanta officially guaranteed that for the second straight year the Tampa Bay Rowdies will be playing playoff soccer.
Consecutive playoff berths are a rare feat for the Rowdies in the modern era. The only other time they’ve done it was under head coach Ricky Hill during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. That 2012 team also finished with the NASL title.
This is the type of foundation Rowdies head coach and technical director Neill Collins has been hoping to establish over the last two years. Simply reaching the playoffs isn’t the ultimate goal, but you can’t be a top club in your league like the Rowdies aspire to be unless you’re doing so with consistency.
“I think as a club over the last two years we’ve improved in many aspects,” Collins said. “We’re in a good, strong position. Let’s hope we go and capitalize on it. Back-to-back playoffs now. We have bigger ambitions to become a bigger team, challenging for honors…That’s the way it’s got to be and what we’ve got to keep building on. I feel with this group of players compared to last year, they’re a little more resilient and have a lot of competition in the right areas.”
The Value of Seba’s Winner
The importance of Sebastian Guenzatti’s last-second winner cannot be overstated.
Dropping two points to Atlanta would’ve ceded valuable ground to the Charleston Battery, who appear poised to challenge the Rowdies for Group H’s top spot until the last day of the season. Charelston has two games in hand to make up the six-point gap with the Rowdies before they meet again in the regular season finale on October 3. Considering Charleston’s other three remaining matches are with Miami FC (who just lost 4-0 to Birmingham) and Loudoun United FC (who lost 4-0 to Philadelphia Union II last night), you can’t really count on the Battery dropping any points before the finale.
But beyond the immediate concerns in Group H, last night’s win could also be pivotal in potential later rounds of the postseason. At the moment the Rowdies’ 30-point total is the highest in the Eastern Conference. San Antonio FC out in the Western Conference is even with the Rowdies having played one fewer game.
“My point to the players prior to tonight’s game was do you realize the position you’ve put yourselves in,” Collins said. “You’re sitting second out of 35 teams in the USL right now because you’ve done fantastically well. Our expectations are high and we want to keep getting better, but look at what you’ve achieved up to this point. Let’s capitalize on that. I think as a club over the last two years we’ve improved in many aspects. We’re in a good, strong position.”
The Rowdies advantage in the standings over most of the league could change in these last few weeks as teams play a bunch of matches in a short span. Still, it’s better to be in the position of being the ones with a lead to protect.
As they seem to do every season, Louisville City is surging at the right time and are unbeaten in their last 8. With three games left, Louisville sits on 26 points. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds also have a game in hand on the Rowdies but are even closer at 28 points and look every bit the title contender people predicted them to be at the start of the year. In seven trips to Pittsburgh and Louisville since 2017, the Rowdies have never come away with a win. So as improved as the Rowdies have been on the road in the last two seasons, those are trips you’d like to avoid if possible. That would’ve been tougher for the Rowdies had they finished even with Atlanta last night.
Rowdies Defense Does’t Give UP Much
As dissapointing as it was to see the Rowdies give up the clean sheet with an own goal, it shouldn’t distract from how strong this defensive unit has looked week in and week out. Even in the two losses to Charleston, they only gave up a single goal in each match. Had the attack shown up at all in those matches the concessions might not have mattered as much. The 2-2 draw with North Carolina FC is the only time this year the Rowdies have allowed multiple goals in a single game. Last year’s squad conceded multiple goals in seven matches during the regular season. Again, I point that out while keeping mind the huge caveat that the Rowdies played two times as many games last year.
Cooler Temps Give the Rowdies a Boost
The effects of Hurricane Sally were apparent during Wednesday’s game as the storm made its way into southwestern Georgia. Besides the fact that the entire broadcast was slighlty obscured by the water drops on the main camera lens (seriously, did no one have a cloth to wipe the lens?), the persistent rain and wind also played a role in the first two goals. Atlanta’s keeper Vicente Reyes could not handle the wet ball that came his way from Forrest Lasso’s header in the 50th minute, giving the Rowdies the lead. Five minutes later, defender Jordan Scarlett had an unfortunate own goal as an attempted clearance went the wrong direction.
But Collins thinks the conditions helped the Rowdies in an important way. Playing their 5 match in 17 days, you’d understand if the players looked a little sluggish in the late stages. That didn’t seem to be the case, though. Even in the 95th minute, starter Sebastian Dalgaard was able to accelerate on the right wing to chase down a ball and strip it off an Atlanta player before playing a pass to Guenzatti for the winner.
“What I would say is the temperature was excellent,” Collins said. “You could see it in the effort the boys were able to put in knowing that they could keep going, keep going, keep going because they weren’t getting drained by the humidity. But the constant rain and the wind definitely become a little bit of an issue. It can be just a little bit of a leveller. You see the goal we gave up, that’s the type of goal that happens when we have conditions like that.
“I’m gonna suggest that tonight was our highest output from a physical running point of view. One because the effort and conditions, but two because of the environmental conditions.”
The Rowdies arrived back home at 6 am this morning and will now take a well-deserved four-day break from training.
“There’s a lot going on the world right now on and off the field and the players have been doing really well, but it’s great for them to get away and recharge and refocus as well so that we come back strong They deserve it”
Sebastian Guenzatti is a clutch goal scorer, no doubt. His celebratory slides might need a little work, though.
Honestly, with how much rain came down during the match you’d think it’d be like a slip n’ slide out there.
Atlanta United FC 2 vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-09-17 15-13-27
Watch “Atlanta United FC 2 vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL Championship) _ Watch ESPN – Google Chrome 2020-09-17 15-13-27” on Streamable.