The Tampa Bay Rowdies have become a formidable defensive side in 2020. That fact was certainly on display in last Saturday’s 2-1 win in the Eastern Conference Final, in which the Rowdies stifled a Louisville City FC attack that had produced goals consistently throughout the year.

Louisville’s leading scorer Cameron Lancaster was a non-factor for the hosts, taking just two inneffective shots. A high-press from strikers Sebastian Guenzatti, Juan Tejada and midfielder Zach Steinberger also impeded Louisville’s ability to work the ball up the field.

“It sounds so cliche but you can see we’re a team that defends from the front, said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “Our defenders and our goalkeepers rightfully take a large part of the credit because that is their main job, but in our team it’s so important that all our main units are working together.”

Tampa Bay’s only concession in the match was a self-inflicted one, as an errant clearance by Max Lachowecki wound up in his own net. Aside from the own goal, the Rowdies were locked in defensively all night. Collins even thinks his players played their best after giving up the goal but also that they’ll need to be even a step above that to knock off Phoenix Rising FC in the USL Championship Final this Sunday at Al Lang.

“To be 2-nil up and then 2-1 up and defending in a playoff game is really difficult,” he said. “Teams are throwing everything they’ve got at you and I thought it was an admirable defensive performance. One of many this year. Sunday could be the ultimate test against one of the best attacks in the whole league, nevermind just the west. When you get to the final or the semifinal of these competitions that’s what you expect — even more of a challenge. So we’re going to have to be even better. If the boys do what they’ve done all season they’ll rise to that. It’s definitely going to be an interesting matchup with some of the top attacking talents in the league.”

Phoenix has earned its spot in the championship match largely on the back of its stellar attack in the regular season. The club will be without its leading socrer Junior Flemmings, but the rest of its attackers should not be taken lightly by any means. Phoenix’s second leading scorer Rufat Dadashov’s 11 goals would be enough to make him the top scorer on most other clubs in the USL. Last year’s USL MVP Solomon Asante accounts for 17 of Phoenix’s goals this year with 9 assists and 8 tallies of his own. Santi Moar has not had nearly as many goals since joining from New Mexico United, but he’s still a threat when it comes to creating chances for others, as shown by his 8 assists this year.

“I think the thing that sets Phoenix apart from most teams is just their individual quality for moments of brilliance,” Collins said. “Santi Moar, Assante, Dadashov to name just a few, but those particularly. We’ve defended well, but these guys can turn a game on its head in an instant. When you’re playing a team like that, that won 20 games in a row last year and have followed it up this year by being one of the top teams in the west, it’s going to be about 100 percent concentration for 100 minutes or however long it takes. That’s the big thing for me, they’ve got real quality in their ranks. Our defenders will need to be showing their quality to keep them quiet.”

Ironicaly, the Rowdies have actually outscored Phoenix through the first three rounds of the postseason. Phoenix has needed penalties twice and extra time all three times out so far in the playoffs. If not for a controversial goal by Asante in the 114th minute of their match against Sacramento Republic FC in the first round, Phoenix likely would’ve needed penalties in that one as well. Sacramento and also El Paso in last week’s Western Conference Championship have shown that a well-organized effort can close down or at least slow down the threats Phoenix poses.

The Rowdies could be missing one of their key defensive pieces against Phoenix. Center back Jordan Scarlett was taken out 30 minutes into the match at Louisville after he pulled up with an early injury. Collins did not rule Scarlett out for the final but said he’ll be day-to-day leading up to Sunday. If Scarlett is unavailable, Collins has a few options. Lachowecki has now filled in a couple times on the back line, though he’s yet to start in the back this year. Center back Alex Davey made his Rowdies debut as a late substitute in Louisville, but it’d probably be a stretch to start him considering his fitness level after sitting out for so long. Another potential option to look out for could be Mustapha Dumbuya, who has not featured for the Rowdies this postseason, but has plenty of experience playing on the right side of a defense. He was Phoenix’s primary option at right back all through last year when it finished top of the league.

Photo via Samantha Ponzillo Media

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