This Saturday, Neill Collins and his Tampa Bay Rowdies will host Phoenix Rising FC in a game being billed as UNFINISHED BUSINESS by the USL and lots of others in both markets. The two clubs were on track to meet in the 2020 USL Cup Final at Al Lang Stadium after each side won their respective conference championship games, but that match was ultimately cancelled following a COVID-19 outbreak among Rowdies players and staff.

Instead of putting an exclamation point at the end of a season by pitting one of the league’s most prolific attacks against one of it’s stingiest defenses, the game comes as the third match of the 2021 regular season, but there’s still some interesting elements that make this a must-watch (ESPN2, 8pm) match – both clubs have started the new season with identical 2-0-0 records, having won both of their games by 3 goals or more, and neither have conceded a goal yet either. Tampa Bay counts the reigning USL Championship Defensive Player of the Year (Forrest Lasso) while Phoenix boasts the reigning USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year (Ben Lundt, on loan from FC Cincinnati). Further parallels can be drawn by considering the men leading each side from the touchline, as both coaches are in their 4th year with their respective clubs.

If you ask Neill Collins though, you’d get a different answer…

It’s the third game, it’s a good game to look forward to, it’s on ESPN – and there’s no doubt it’s two very good teams, but ultimately it’s the third game of the season and three points are at stake. While people may put a little more emphasis on it, by the fifth or sixth game we’ll all have moved on. So we’re just hoping to get three points and have a very good performance.

Midfielder Zach Steinberger, whose early goal against Lundt, then with Louisville, in last season’s Eastern Conference Championship set the Rowdies on a course to host the Final, agreed with his boss.

To be honest, last year is in the past. It really is just the third game of the season for us. Obviously, we’re looking to carry the momentum that we’ve built in the first couple of games. The culture in our locker room is just to try and put in as many good performances over the course of the season and get better every day. That’s something that comes from the top and everyone buys into it. So that’s our that’s where our focus is every day and that’s where our focus is will be on the weekend.

Last year, Tampa Bay developed a reputation as a second-half club, a trend that looks to have carried over to this season, with 5 of their 6 goals coming in the final 45 minutes. With Phoenix’s propensity to score loads of goals, you might be wondering if the Rowdies feel any pressure to get off to a quicker start and grab the early momentum

I thought we were patient against Pittsburgh, but it was still a very positive start. With two very good teams, we have to be prepared. We have to start right from the first whistle. That means if we can implement our style quickly, that’s great and if they’re stifling us, then we’re patient. I think the good thing about having so many players back and from the past is they’ve experienced all these different scenarios and are real quick to deal with them. That experience is going to be important on Saturday. Whatever happens, good start/slow start, there’s 90 minutes to try and get it right.

The Rising attack is led by Santi Moar and Solomon Asante, but the Rowdies feel they have some weapons of their own in captain Seba Guenzatti and winger Leo Fernandes.

I think we respect how good they are as players, and Santi’s been doing it for a long time. We’ll have to have our defenders – our team, because we defend as a team – on top of our game. Equally, we look at the top scorer we’ve got in our team and wonder how they are going to defend that? We’re definitely always respectful of the strength of the opposition and how are they going to cope with our strengths and what is that going to take away from having to defend a Leo Fernandes coming down the same side? We always like how we match up. It will be a case of the performances on the night.

Though both teams have turned in similar performances against clubs they would be expected to beat, they’ve gone about it in different ways, Tampa Bay by controlling possession and Phoenix by capitalizing on the counter-attack. Collins is aware, but not afraid of that.

I think having possession is one of the best ways to negate that, because we’ve got the ball. If we’ve got the ball and we are in control of possession, then that’s a big part of our defensive record it’s not just the way we defend, but how we keep the ball. Phoenix’s been able to counter on any mistakes and that’s something that we all need to be very aware of, I think. To give their game some context, they scored early in both of those games, which I think then changes the opposition’s risk. So they were much more willing to risk the ball and have the ball. And Phoenix were more more than happy to let them have it knowing that they’ve already got the lead. We had to be a little bit more patient in our first game. We know we want to be at home and we want to have the ball. But I think we’re always willing to do what it takes to win the game and for any reason that we’re not having the ball, we’ll adapt. But the plan will be to implement our style and just make the adjustments for their strengths without changing too much. Because if you change too much, you lose your identity and then it can become a bit fractured, the performance.

Saturday will be a homecoming for Rising defender Darnell King, a Tampa native who played three seasons with the Rowdies, manning the backline with Neill Collins before he became the Rowdies coach. Neill is looking forward to reuniting with King for this match.

Darnell’s a fantastic teammate, someone that’s got a great attitude and is always willing to do what’s best for the team. I’ve lined up against him before, coached against him before and it’s great because you’ve got the insight to their strengths and weaknesses. It just probably makes me feel old…but Darnell has had a fantastic career in the USL and I’m pleased to see him playing for a good club in the West. It’s great to see, until we see them on Saturday, as long as he doesn’t play too well.

While there may be some adjustments made to counter the opposition’s strengths, Collins doesn’t expect to be making wide-scale formations to his preferred formation.

We’re not going to be making big changes to our formation. I believe in our system. Phoenix has been a very good goal scoring team inside, and we’ve been a very good defensive side. On Saturday, who can perform well will generally be the team that comes out on top. The ones that can do their jobs on defense, that can do the job as we know when they get possession. Just like any other game, if they can’t then we’ll put ourselves under pressure. These are all the things that we do every week for every team. Pittsburgh had strengths, Charlotte had strengths. It may just be that Phoenix has got a few more strengths that we’ll need to combat, but we look at our own strengths and I see our team growing in front of my eyes every day in training. I’m hoping we can just keep taking that on the field.

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