The frustration from several defeats the Tampa Bay Rowdies suffered at the hands of the Charleston Battery in recent months were completely wiped away on Saturday night. When it mattered most, the Rowdies met the moment and posted a 1-0 win over the Battery in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. For the second week in a row, it was Lucky Mkosana who provided the winning goal from off the bench.

The victory sends the Rowdies into the first conference final since joining the league in 2017.

Tampa Bay was the higher seed in Saturday’s matchup, but in many ways it felt as if they were the ones with something to prove after dropping three straight to the Battery in the regular season. They showed no signs of intimidation, though. Instead the Rowdies came out with a high intensity at the oustet and rarely let up.

“Ultimately you’ve got to put the ball in the goal and we did that eventually, but I mean that was a very, very dominant performance against a really good side,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “We’ve had to go through our fair share of heartaches this year with Charleston. But you know what they say, if you learn from failure it’s only good experience. The players just had such a confidence in them the last few days. They went out and they did it.”

After the Battery whithstood some early pressure from the Rowdies, the match evened out. Mauro Cichero had the first close chance of the match for Charleston in the 28th minute when he took a shot from the center of the Rowdies box that trickled wide right of the post. Shortly before the halftime break, Zach Steinberger finally had the first shot on target of the night. Receiving a pass from Juan Tejada, Steinberger fired from 25 yards out but sent his effort straight at keeper Joe Kuzminsky.

Charleston’s Zeiko Lewis looked to be a threat in the 50th minute, bodying defender Aaron Guillen off the ball at the endline and penetrating from the right edge of the box. His effort to near post was comfortable handled by Evan Louro, though.

Lewis’ attempt was the essentially the closest Charleston came to finding the back of the net all night. Logan Gdula had the only other shot on target, a hopeful long-range shot that was also easily saved by Louro. The counter attack that the Battery had burned the Rowdies with several times throughout the season was completely nullified by a sturdy showing from Tampa Bay’s back three and really every other Rowdies player in front of them.

“(Our center backs) are the first to say in those Charleston games they’ve had a couple of small mistakes which have been punished pretty emphatically. Whereas tonight they just stepped it up a level with their focus and concentration. That comes down to their willingness to learn, to take it on board. Forrest, Aaron and Jordan are really honest guys that don’t sugar coat it for themselves. They know if they’ve made a mistake and they work to learn from it. Tonight they all played very well and the guys in front of them certainly did a great job keeping pressure up the field, which is important.”

To break the deadlock, Collins called on the same trio of substitutes that lifted the Rowdies to victory last week. Lucky Mkosana, Leo Fernandes, and Malik Johnson all entered in the 70th minute. Fernandes and Mkosana were orginally going to be the only substitutes in that moment, but wingback Sebastian Dalgaard couldn’t continue right as the changes were about to be made so the Rowdies elected to bring on Johnson as well.

“It had a great impact because it just raised the energy levels,” Collins said. “I’ve been on that field when guys like that come on and it’s energizing for you and it’s demoralizing for the other team if they’re starting to feel tired. But it’s only good if they come on and perform and they did that.”

Johnson had some positive play on the right wing, pressuring Charleston’s back line and tracking back to put in valuable defensive work. Fernandes did his part as well, drawing a foul in a dangerous area that ended up deciding the match. From just a few yards oustide Charleston’s box, Steinberger took advantage of the opportunity to deliver a teasing ball into the area. Mkosana then got the perfect header on the service, catching Kuzminsky flat-footed as the ball toward the near post dipped under the crossbar.

As Charleston pushed unsuccessfuly for a late equalizer, the Rowdies capitalized by threatening to strike on the counter attack a few times. Mkosana was the closest to scoring when he fired a low strike after a great individual run up the right side that Kuzminsky managed to tip wide of the goal.

“We looked like the ones to score a second goal as well,” Collins said. “It was very pleasing to put in a performance like that. Credit to Charleston. Such a tight game. They’ve given us a lot to think about and they’ve given me some sleepless nights over the last couple of months.”

The victory earns the Rowdies a date with the top seed in the Eastern Conference next week. Louisville City FC dispatched Saint Louis FC 2-0 on Saturday, so they will host the Rowdies in next week’s conference final. The Rowdies have yet to face Louisville in 2020. It’s been another incredible year for Louisville, who will be trying to earn their fourth straight trip to the USL Cup final. John Hackworth’s side has not been on the losing end of a result since July 29.

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