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Pair of Late Goals Send Rowdies Past Birmingham and on to Conference Semifinals

Things were looking pretty bleak for the Tampa Bay Rowdies an hour into their clash with Birmingham Legion FC in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinal on Saturday night at Al Lang. After torching Birmingham with two goals in the first half, the Rowdies then conceded twice themselves in the second half. Thankfully they righted the ship thanks to contributions from several players off the bench and came away with a 4-2 victory.

The thrilling victory was the first win in the playoffs for the Rowdies since 2017.

“Honestly, the grey hairs are appearing slowly but surely,” Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins joked after the match. I think what tonight will do is set us in really good stead for moments like that potentially in the future. Hopefully we don’t have too many more, but if we do we know we’ve got plenty of time to come back into the game.”

As they have done so often this year, the Rowdies scored through a corner kick to kick things off in the 8th minute, though this time the goal came from someone you don’t usually see involved in many corner kicks — midfielder Jordan Doherty. On the second corner of the night, Zach Steinberger fired his delivery straight to Doherty at the top of Birmingham’s box. The Irishman then rocketed a shot on frame that that took a helpful deflection off Mikey Lopez and wound up in the back of the net..

That corner kick connection was something the Rowdies drew up in training.

“We practiced that,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t say we had loads and loads of reps with that. We had a few and that was the best out of the lot. They saved it for the lights.”

With a go-ahead goal in hand, the Rowdies continued to dictate play throughout the first half. A second tally finally came in the 38th minute when Sebastian Dalgaard and Sebastian Guenzatti combined. Dalgaard played an excellent ball in from the right edge of the box and Guenzatti deftly one-timed a shot that snuck under the crossbar.

The Rowdies went into the halftime break happy to be up 2-0, but it Birmingham came out of the break playing like a team that knew its season was on the line.

The first red flag of the second half was Neco Brett’s terrific chance a few minutes in. Rowdies keeper Evan Louro came off his line to cut off Brett before he latched on to a long ball over the top, but the attacker slipped a shot past him instead. It took a clutch clearance from defender Aaron Guillen off the board.

Birmingham could not be held off for much longer, though. The visitors finally finally made the Rowdies pay in the 57th minute. Working off a corner kick, Birmingham got the ball in to the far post, where it was headed into the air. Prosper Kasim then swooped in to get a shot off that beat Louro with his first touch as the ball fell back down to earth.

Just five minutes later, the Rowdies shot themselves in the foot as they were unable to hold the ball and clear it out of their own end. Juan Tejada was stripped of the ball from behind, allowing Birmingham to charge forward and quickly find their way into the box, where Bruno Lapa provided the finishing touch.

“I think there’s little things we’ll need to do better. I also think if Juan secures possession, maybe we go up the other end and score. I think when a team comes out to do that you have to be very diligent. We weren’t diligent enough in some of our defending. Then you’ve got Juan who’s not played as much Max who’s not played as much. They were definitely starting to tire, but I don’t think that was the most important factor. I just think that’s part and parcel to the playoffs. If you don’t then defend certain situations right, the ball’s in the back of the net and it’s game on.”

Collins promptly inserted Leo Fernandes and Lucky Mkosana in the 67th minute. However, it wasn’t until Malik Johnson came on ten minutes after that that the Rowdies found their second wind.

With one of his first touches after entering, Johnson played a pin-point ball from the right wing into the middle of the box for Mkosana. The striker’s header was on the money, hugging the inside of the right post to best Matt Van Oekel.

“It was a great delivery from Malik and a great goal,” Collins said. “Honestly I’ve said it all along, Lucky comes on the field and the players take on a great confidence. He exudes a great confidence for the team. He’s very level headed and I’m so pleased for him. Juan had run his race and gave us a lot. Lucky comes on and takes it home. That’s what this team is all about. Whether you play 60, 30, 70, or 20, your contribution’s just as important. “

It was then Fernandes’ turn in the 80th minute. Mkosana kept the play alive on the endline with a great individual effort before playing a ball forward to Guenzatti, who then played it forward to Fernandes inside Birmingham’s box. The midfielder cut back and forth and then fired a left-footed shot past Van Oekel to seal the result.

Saturday is the first time the Rowdies have dropped four goals on an opponent this year. They’ll hope to carry that attacking momentum into next week’s matchup with the Charleston Battery. The Battery narrowly escaped elimination against the Charlotte Independence this weekend by scoring in extra time to win 2-1. That close call aside, they’ve had the Rowdies’ number this year, beating them the last three times out and holding them to just one goal in that stretch.

Luckily, the Rowdies get to host again next week. This weekend they sent the 1,098 fans in attendance home with smiles on their faces and they’re eager to do it again.

“Every time I come to Al Lang as a player or coach I get a buzz,” Collins said. “The players are the same. For me, tonight is what the Rowdies are about, other than maybe 15 minutes. That’s what I want us to look like on and off the field. The fans were fantastic. It was great to cheer the final whistle with them and hopefully we’re doing it again this time next Saturday.”

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