With under 30 seconds left in stoppage time in Wednesday’s battle with Atlanta United 2 (2W-9L-3D, 9 pts), it looked as if the Tampa Bay Rowdies (9W-2L-3D, 30 pts) were going to have to settle for a point. Fortunately, Sebastian Guenzatti had other plans and bagged a last-gasp winner in the final seconds to give the Rowdies a 2-1 win.
A point is all the Rowdies needed to clinch a postseason berth, but taking all three points on the bus back home was much more desirable. After Wednesday’s result, the Charelston Battery (7W-2L-3D, 24 pts) sit six points behind the Rowdies in Group H with two games in hand. Dropping points in Atlanta would not have been ideal, to say the least.
“I think tonight will give the boys another string to their bow, another bit of confidence that we’re never out of it and we can keep going,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “It’s definitely a good moment to get these three points and then look to trying to secure that home playoff game, which everyone in the conference wants. That’s our next aim.”
The Rowdies opened the scoring fives minutes in the second half through the head of Forrest Lasso, who also buried a header during the club’s last trip to Atlanta. On the eighth corner of the night, midfielder Leo Fernandes’ delivery found Lasso and the defender flicked the ball toward keeper Vicente Reyes. A steady rain throughout the match meant both keepers had to deal with a slippery ball all night. This time the slick ball got the better of Atlanta’s keeper as it slipped out of his hands and across the line.
Just as the momentum looked to be fully in Tampa Bay’s corner, a fluke on the back line let the hosts right back in the match. Charging in from the right edge of the box in the 55th minute, Phillip Goodrum crossed the ball hopping to connect with one of his teammates streaing into the area. Instead it went straight to defender Jordan Scarlett, who uncharacteristally redirected the ball into the Rowdies’ goal while attempting to clear.
“Trust me I have been there,” Collins said. “It’s a part of learning as a young defender. Jordan’s been excellent, almost flawless. It’s something we’ll look back on and say it was a bit unfortunate but also how do you try to guard against that in these conditions… That’s a part of being a team. Someone might make a mistake. It happens. Hopefully you recover from it and tonight we managed to do that.”
Atlanta’s goal seemed to be a gut punch to the Rowdies, who up until then appeared poised to add one or two more goals. After the equalizer, though, the scoring opportunies dried up and the match became much tighter.
Keeper Evan Louro was required to come up with a few crucial stops to keep the Rowdies even in the second half. Atlanta tested Louro with some long-range efforts that took deflections on their way toward the goal, but he was up to the task each time.
“I think psychologically, losing a goal against the complete run of play definitely gave them impetus and rocked us a little bit,” Collins said. “We stopped creating as many chances and they started getting a couple more opportunities in transition. That’s the game. There’s always peaks and lulls. We had a little lull, but the boys kept going. It was just a tough hard-fought win. We said before the gae we didn’t expect anything else. Atlanta’s a young team and they’ll be disappointed, but I think anyone that’s played against them this year will say their points don’t reflect their performances.”
Atlanat did nearly found their own late winner when Louro was caught out of position as stoppage time began. A cross fell for Goodrum, who powered a shot on target only to be thwarted by a clutch block from Fernandes.
With hope dwindling in the fifth minute of stoppage time, substitute Lewis Hilton launched a long ball from inside Tampa Bay’s end toward the right wing. It appeared that Atlanta’s Coleman Gannon had the ball covered, but Sebastin Dalgaard chased the midfielder down and swiped the ball off him. He then quickly looked up to find Guenzatti in the middle of the field. In the box, the Rowdies captain cut to his right foot looking for a window between the defenders and eventually fired a shot that took a helpful deflection and hit the back of the net.
“Those are the feelings you need to have during a season, because you’re never gonna have textbook victories all the time,” Collins said. “Sometimes you have to score late to win… I’m so pleased for the players, because if we had drawn here I’d have been very disappointed with the result but it would be hard to fault too many aspects of the performance. It might not have always been pretty, but there’s a lot of positives to take.”
The Rowdies are off until next Saturday when they travel to face Miami FC for the final time this year.