By JEFF HERNDEN
Over the past few seasons, two words hav struck terror in to the hearts of Rowdies fans like no other: Away Match.
Previous seasons have seen the Rowdies play tentative, ultra-defensive styles away from home, resulting in poor performances, and most often, coming home empty-handed. Coming in to this season the Rowdies knew that if they want to compete for a title this season, their away form must improve.
For the season opener at North Carolina FC, Head Coach Stuart Campbell went with the same lineup as he did in the last preseason match against USF, lining his men up in an attacking-focused 4-3-3. The most interesting part of this 4-3-3 is the central midfield trio of Jack Blake, Marcel Schäfer and Joe Cole – three players that are all looking to get forward and join in the attack. Blake, shouldered most of the holding responsibilities, allowing Schäfer and Cole to push forward. On the plus side, when the Rowdies win possession, they are able to counter-attack quickly and create chances with a much greater efficiency than last season.
In fact, this is where all three of our goals came from. Cole dropped deep in the 23rd minute, making a well-anticipated interception, leading to quick interplay between Schäfer and Georgi Hristov, who fed Leo Fernandes through for a great finish. Goal two came similarly, this time with Michael Nanchoff winning the ball and finding Georgi, who played a nice ball in to an overlapping David Najem. The right back was then fouled for a (controversial) penalty, which Georgi coolly finished. The introduction of Lance Rozeboom in the 75th minute provided some cover for the back four and allowed Blake to push forward. As NCFC pushed for a late equalizer, Najem intercepted a hopeful long ball forward, connecting with Blake, who flicked on to Sebastian Guenzatti,. After driving down the field, Geunzatti returned the ball to Blake, who then closed the match with an excellent strike from distance.
On the down side of this attacking focus, the Rowdies lacking a defined holding midfielder left the back four isolated, especially with both Zac Portillos and Najem pushing forward. Center backs Neill Collins and Hunter Gorskie were often left isolated and forced in to covering runs. The first of these instances came in the 4th minute, forcing Collins to commit a foul, resulting in a dangerous free kick, which NCFC nearly took advantage of. Two minutes later, Najem going forward left Gorskie defending one-on-one and a facing a shot that bent just wide of Goalkeeper Cody Mizell‘s far post. A third attempt came only minutes later, with Mizell making one of many big saves. The Rowdies defense faced a similar onslaught from the 60th-70th minutes, but Mizell came up huge on several occasions to protect the lead until the introduction of Rozeboom.
If not for poor finishing from NCFC and some excellent saves from Mizell, this story could have ended much differently. Campbell’s substitutions were the correct ones, although arguably Cole should have been the first one off considering the pressure the back line was under at that stage. The introduction of Rozeboom helped steady the ship for the final minutes of play, while adding Guenzatti and Jochen Graf brought fresh legs to the front line.
Overall, after starting the season off with three goals and three points away from home, Rowdies fans should be happy and encouraged. The Rowdies looked good going forward and, aside from two big misses from Georgi and Graf, we were clinical in front of goal. The back line looked shaky at times and lacked cover, but we know veterans Collins and Gorskie can be better. Great start, but still still room to improve.
Manager rating: 7/10 — Overall team rating: 7/10
Cody Mizell (GK): I’ll admit I was worried after Pickens left in the off-season, but Mizell had an excellent second debut for the club, making seven saves and earning the opening Man of the Match award for the 2018 season. Player rating: 9/10
Zac Portillos (LB): Portillos was one of the more quiet players on the pitch, especially as most of the NCFC attack came down our right side. Performed well overall. Two clearances, four interceptions and no major miscues. Player rating: 7/10
Neill Collins (CB): Collins and his back line went through several instances of sustained pressure in both halves and was bailed out by Mizell on a few occasions. Committed the foul which nearly resulted in a 4th-minute goal for NCFC, but was bailed out by the post. This wasn’t Collins’ strongest performance, but I have no doubt his experience and partnership with Gorskie will be strong again this season. Player rating: 6/10
Hunter Gorskie (CB): Like Collins, he was often isolated at the back due to Najem’s runs forward. He and Collins were often dragged too far apart and wide to be able to effectively cover for one another. That said, Gorskie still had a decent performance and will be an important player for us this season. Player rating: 6/10
David Najem (RB): Going forward, Najem was excellent. His overlapping runs provided width as Nanchoff pinched in centrally, and he won the foul that led to Georgi’s penalty goal. Defensively, Najem often left his center backs isolated and covering for him and a missed tackle in the 62nd minute led to a tough 1-v-1 situation for Mizell. Player rating: 6/10
Jack Blake (CM): Blake had a good performance in his Rowdies debut. He spent most of his time working to hold the center of midfield behind Cole and Schäfer. Holding the midfield isn’t Blake’s strongest suit, so he often struggled to protect the back four. When Rozeboom came on in the 75th minute, Blake showcased his attacking instincts and quality with an excellent move forward and quality finish from distance. Would have been a 6, but he gets a bonus point for that finish. Player rating: 7/10
Marcel Schäfer (CM): Marcel had a fairly average performance for a player of his quality. While he combined well with Fernandes, he spent too much time in wide positions, leaving the center of the park not as well attended as it should have been. We all know his quality, and I have no doubt that the midfield partnership between he, Blake and Cole will develop nicely. Player rating: 6/10
© Joe Cole (CM, Subbed off 75′ – Rozeboom): Cole’s best contribution in this one came in the 23rd minute as he anticipated a NCFC pass, intercepted, and began the counter that led to Fernandes’ goal. Cole worked hard to contribute and keep his team organized, but the midfield partnership still needs time to develop. It’s likely that he will be a 70-minute player most of this season. Player rating: 7/10
Leo Fernandes (LW, Subbed off 88′ – Graf): Fernandes was our most lively offensive threat and seemed to put NCFC on their heels every time he got on the ball. Excellent run and finish to open up the season for us and also won several free-kicks in dangerous places. Player rating: 8/10
Michael Nanchoff (RW, Subbed off 71′ – Guenzatti): For me, Nanchoff’s best position is centrally, rather than on the wing. He showed that tendency as he often played more centrally, which allowed Najem to provide width on the right side. Nano combined well with Georgi and Najem and played a major role in the lead up to the penalty decision. Player rating: 6/10
Georgi Hristov(F): Good game from Georgi. He provided both of the through balls in the lead up to our first and second goals, dispatched his penalty with confidence and combined well with Fernandes and Nanchoff up front. He should have scored in the 54th minute to put the team up 3-1, but overall he performed well. Player rating: 8/10
Sebastian Guenzatti (RW, Subbed on 71′ – Nanchoff): Provided pace and an attacking threat in his 20 minutes, with two shots on target that would have put the game away if not for quality saves by the keeper. Player rating 7/10
Lance Rozeboom (DM, subbed on 75′ – Cole): Necessary substitute to provide defensive cover for the final 15 minutes. His inclusion allowed Blake to push for ward for his goal. Player rating: 7/10
Jochen Graf (F, subbed on 88′ – Fernandes): Wasted some time as late sub and provided an attacking outlet for final minutes. If not for a slight deflection putting him off balance, he surely finishes Blake’s cross in the 89th minute. With his energy, intensity and goal scoring record from this preseason, look to see his minutes increase as the season progresses. Player rating: NA/10