The Tampa Bay Rowdies can still claim the only unbeaten record in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference after a 1-1 draw with Miami FC at Al Lang on Sunday night. Lucky Mkosana provided the heroic equalizer at the hour mark after Miami had jumped out to an early lead seven minutes into the match.
Though they’ll be dissapointed to only take a point off last-place Miami, the Rowdies still maintain a decent lead in the Group H standings. The Charleston Battery remain in second with 11 points, having just knocked off third-place Atlanta United 2 the night before.
A 7-point lead at the halfway point of your season is a decent spot to occupy. However, with 3 of your final 8 games against the team directly below you in the table, this is hardly the time to rest easy.
“That’s half the season complete now,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “It would have been nice to get a win tonight. We need to improve. If we do improve on the next 8 games, we’ll be in a good spot.”
Miami certainly looked like the team that had been waiting 9 days for a rematch. The visitors, with newly installed head coach Paul Dalglish, came out full charge to capture the early lead. As rain started to come down in the opening minutes, Miami executed a lethal counter attack that ended with Sebastian Velazquez slipping a low strike in the box past Evan Louro.
It was the first goal the Rowdies have allowed since they played in Birmingham back on July 25. Some of the Rowdies appeared to take longer than usual to gain their legs in the matchs as they were playing their third match in 9 days, giving Miami a chance to control much of the opening half.
“Losing the first goal’s always difficult,” Collins said. “When you lose the first goal, you always give yourself a little bit of an uphill climb… Tonight we conceded, and it’s going to happen from time to time. Our response was good but I would have preferred it to have been that from the start. I think the first half, we let it pass us by in some regards.”
Giving captain Sebastian Guenzatti his first night off of the year, Collins awarded Kevin Mendoza with his first start of the year up top with Juan Tejada. The duo struggled to threaten Miami in the final third, though Tejada did have a close header within the first five minutes and one-on-one chance later on that was well handled by keeper Bryant Martin Gammiero.
At the half, Collins swapped in Mkosna for Mendoza and Yann Ekra for Jordan Doherty. The Rowdies began to gain a foothold in the match as it opened up, which allowed Malik Johnson to create more on the right wing. Johnson was making his first start of the year and ended up playingt the entire match as he proved the most potent creative force for the Rowdies.
As the match neared 60 minutes, Johnson had two dangerous cross from the right edge of the box that went unconverted. But his third effort in the 59th minute was the only one that mattered as the delivery found the head of Mkosana, who expertly placed it out of Gammiero’s reach.
Earlier in the week, Collins had called Mkosana the best striker off the bench in league. Mkosana made the Rowdies boos look prophetic with that finish.
“What a goal. What a header that was,” Collins said. “That’s a dying art that goal you seen tonight. He’s been unlucky not being in the last two or three games, but the team’s been doing well and we make every decision by the case in hand. I saw him yesterday in training and I knew if he got the opportunity in training he’d come on and be ready — as he always is. He’s just got a great knack, as all great strikers do, of knowing when to get across the front, when to peel off the back. I wouldn’t say it’s an innate sense, but it’s definitely something he’s done over and over in his career.”
The Rowdies continued to surge after the leveler. Ekra had a golden opportunity to put his side up in the 86th minute when a well-struck corner kick from Lewis Hilton fell to him, but he could not corral his attempt under the bar.
Lucky also continued to lurk inside th box for the Rowdies, making great run after great run the rest of the night. Gammiero ended up having to deny the striker in the second and third minutes of stoppage time. The first time Gammiero stretched to tip a blast from Mkosana out for a corner. The second time the keeper swarmed Mkosana in the box and blocked his attempt out for another corner.
That final corner found the head of Forrest Lasso, but his attempt bounced off the shoulder of a Miami defender and rolled back to the top of the box for Adam Najem. The Rowdies newcomer hit the ball with conviction through the crowd of players only to see it sail wide of the left post.
Collins attempted to remain even-keeled following the draw.
“Say we’d taken one of our chances at the end, I’d be here beaming a smile, so happy. But I’d also understand there’s lots to improve,” he explained. “The fact that one of those shots didn’t go the right side of the post, I’m not gonna get down in the dumps. I’m gonna stay level-headed. We need to improve certain aspects, but there’s lots of aspects of the performance to be pleased with.”
The Rowdies return to Al Lang on Saturday to host Atlanta.