by JAKE NUTTING
You’d be hard-pressed to script a better match to represent all the struggles the Tampa Bay Rowdies have endured this year than Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Ottawa Fury FC that officially brought their playoff hopes to an end.
Red cards, an inexplicable defensive error capitalized on by the opponent, sure-fire scoring chances left unconverted, a resilient effort to stay in the match and constant shouting matches with the referee all told the story for the Rowdies in the home finale.
“It was an eventful night and it’ll take a while to digest,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “We were hoping that we were going to sneak a goal and we nearly did late.”
The first moment of consequence of the night was a devastating blow for the Rowdies. Darnell King raced across the field to disrupt a certain one-on-one chance for Ottawa’s Ryan Williams after a long pass sprung him in the 25th minute, but the play ended with King being shown a straight red card for making contact with the forward.
Ottawa seized the ensuing free kick from 20 yards out to their advantage. Carl Haworth sent the free kick directly into the wall and it fell straight back for Maxim Tissot to take a hopeful strike off the bounce. Tissot’s effort wasn’t world class, but a deflection from the wall was enough to redirect it toward the far post. Pickens looked to have it covered at first only to see the ball slip through his fingers and trickle across the line.
Tommy Heinemann had a golden opportunity to level the match for his side only five minutes after going down. Romuald Peiser left his line for an unsuccessful diving punch on a dangerous cross from PC, leaving Heinemann with a chance aching to be put into the back of the net. His touch, though, wasn’t clean and the ball bounded wide of the post.
Things got worse for the Rowdies just a few minutes later when they lost Eric Avila to serious leg injury. Onua Obasi pulled Avila from behind and the midfielder’s left leg got caught in the turf as a result. If King’s red card wasn’t the jumping off point for serious animosity toward referee Mark Kadlecik, then the sequence that ended Avila’s night definitely was. The Rowdies pleaded for Kadlecik to show Obasi red, but they remained down a man when he only flashed a yellow card.
Georgi Hristov reinvigorated the Rowdies less than three minutes into the second half with his team-leading 10th goal of the year. Justin Chavez picked Hristov out on the right flank with a brilliant pass to split the defense, freeing the Bulgarian to take the ball in stride and slip a shot under an oncoming Peiser.
Hristov had another promising breakaway four minutes later, but his run was thwarted this time when tried to cut inside and was dispossessed by a defender making a recovery run.
A third breakaway for Hristov was stopped before it even began and left the Rowdies soliciting a red card again in the 70th minute. Hristov swooped in on a pass back for Rafael Alves just inside Ottawa’s defensive end and flicked the ball forward to run onto down the right wing. Sensing Hristov was likely to get a free run on goal, Alves took him out with an obvious clip. Despite vehement protests from the Rowdies, a yellow card was all Alves received.
Neil Collins nearly put the Rowdies ahead in the match with his noggin in the 79th minute. The towering Scotsman rose to connect with a long-range free kick delivery from Michael Nanchoff and guided a dipping header that required a crucial punch over the crossbar from Peiser.
The Rowdies finally got the red card they wanted just before the start of stoppage time. Eddie Edward refused to allow Joe Cole to quickly restart the play after a foul at the halfway line and was awarded his second yellow of the match.
Ironically, the Rowdies still managed to finish the match down a man. After giving Kadlecik a piece of his mind all night, Hristov was finally sent off with a second yellow card for dissent one minute before the final whistle.
Knowing only a win left them alive in the postseason race, the Rowdies pushed everyone forward for a corner kick deep into stoppage time. Overloading the box earned them the look they were hoping for, but Peiser made a tremendous kick save to deny a low strike from Juan Guerra and Thomas Stewart was in position to block the rebound shot by Carlos Preciado.
The Rowdies went down swinging, but any chance of them sneaking into the final playoff spot died with those final failed attempts on goal.
“[Our attitude] has not been the problem,” said Campbell. “The spirit in there, the togetherness, the attitude of the players day in and day out, it’s been great… Our problem has been, and you see it with virtually the last bloody kick of the game, not scoring goals. Right in front of goal, six yards out, just score. And we don’t do that. That’s been our problem. The amount of opportunities we create in a game, and we don’t capitalize on it. It’s been like a broken record.”
Tampa Bay will close out their NASL season on the road against Jacksonville Armada FC next Sunday.
IMAGE, PATRICK PATTERSON