by JAKE NUTTING
It was by no means the most comfortable of matches, but the Tampa Bay Rowdies will be more than happy with their 2-0 victory over the visiting Charleston Battery on Friday night. Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti provided the opening goal near the end of the first half and then Malik Johnson notched a showstopper near second half stoppage time after Charleston had been reduced to ten men.
Rowdies head coach Neill Collins called it the “biggest” of the year so far by virtue of the fact that it solidifed their lead in the Group H standings, but didn’t refrained from deeming it their best performance of the year.
“The performance probably didn’t deserve a clean sheet. I think we could’ve easily scored more goals,” Collins said. “I thought our three center backs stood up to aerial balls well, defended set pieces well. As a collective I think we need to keep being that hard to beat. I like to restrict teams to fewer opportunities, so that’s something we need to improve. But I believe we will.”
It was tough going for the Rowdies throughout most of the first half. Frequent stoppages in play due to fouls prevented any sort of rhythm from developing.
That changed in the 40th minute as Guenzatti found a way to break through. Collecting a terrific ball played into open space by midfielder Jordan Doherty, Guenzatti turned inside to push past a defender on the right edge of the box and fired a shot that deflected off another defender and beat Phil Breno at the near post.
The tally was Guenzatti’s third goal in as many matches. It was a fitting moment as the striker was celebrating the anniversary of his Rowdies signing on this day three years ago.
“Three goals in three games quite quietly again” Collins said of Guenzatti’s showing. “Always pleased to see your striker score. It’s always good when strikers are getting chances and scoring goals. Pleased for Seba tonight.”
Guenzatti could’ve doubled the lead with a free run into the box in the 55th minute had Breno not done well to close down the angle by rushing off his line. The Rowdies might have regretted that moment if Charleston had been able to capitalize on the amount of pressure it was able to apply put on the Rowdies for sustained periods. Fortunately all but one of the visitors’ 11 shots on the night were off the mark and keeper Evan Louro handled the long accurate shot well.
Charleston’s comeback effort was severely hampered in the 81st when captain Jordan Van Schaik picked up a second yellow card and was forced out of the match.
With a man advantage the Rowdies were able to gain control of what was left of the match, with Johnson delivering the final blow in the 88th minute.
After seeing an earlier cross of his across goal skied into the stands by a teammate, Johnson put the onus of sealing the match on himself. The winger shook off a defender as he charged into the box, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd at Al Lang, before depositing a low strike into the bottom left corner of the goal.
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It was quite a moment from Johnson, who had only played a handful of minutes of stoppage time in the draw with North Carolina two weeks ago. He’d been left out of other matches as he worked his way back to full match fitness after missing training for a few weeks.
“That’s what you come to watch soccer for,” Collins said. “Players like that, they get you off your seat. You feel a buzz when he gets the ball… Really pleased to see Malik out there and get his goal. We’re gonna challenge him to get more opportunities.”
The win keeps the Rowdies atop the Group H standings, now 5 points ahead of the second-pace Battery. Miami FC and Atlanta United 2 are inactive this weekend, though Atlanta did dispatch Miami 4-2 earlier in the week.
Next Friday the Rowdies travel to face Miami. The Rowdies’ instate rival has yet to record a point this year but has only played two matches total.