by JAKE NUTTING
It was a night of quite a few firsts as the Tampa Bay Rowdies recorded a 2-2 draw in Saturday’s bout with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Al Lang Stadium.
In his first match since taking over for Stuart Campbell on Thursday, Tampa Bay’s new head coach Neill Collins got enough out of his players after a hectic and stressful week to secure their first draw of the season and snap a three-match losing streak.
There were also a couple firsts in Collins’ starting lineup, as veteran keeper Akira Fitzgerald and attacker Alex Morrell received their first starts of the year. Both played important roles in the result, but Morrell had the most immediate impact when he set up Lance Rozeboom for the opening goal just three minutes into the match — their first tally since April 21.
“I wanted to try and get pace and energy in the game,” Collins said of his decision to start Morrell. “I needed some that was ding for a chance. Alex took it. He always a live spark.”
The goal came off the first corner kick of the match. Marcel Schäfer played a quick short corner to Morrell, who swiftly turned back inside before delivering a low cross into the box for Rozeboom to flick towards net for his first goal of the year.
Short corners were something Collins spoke to the team about implementing in the short lead up to the match. The new coach was pleased to see the player execute the tactic to great effect and generally saw the match as a step in the right direction.
“Those lads tonight have tried to do everything I’ve asked. At times, it worked. At times, it didn’t. The most important thing is they are trying to implement the specific things that I’ve asked… We could have won it or we could have lost it, but at the end of the day, we went for it.”
Pittsburgh leveled the match in the 20th minute with an unfortunate sequence on the Rowdies’ goal line. Fitzgerald made a save on a powerful shot by Romeo Parkes that popped the ball straight into the air in front of the net. Right back Max Lachowecki came in to clear, but scuffed his attempt and ended up sending the ball backwards into his own net — the first concession the Rowdies have made at Al Lang this year.
The visitors took the opportunity to grab hold of the match and burn the Rowdies for another goal 10 minutes later. Schäfer gifted the Riverhounds with a counter attack when he gave the ball away at the halfway line and they did not waste the chance. As Kernardo Forbes drew attention with the ball down the right side, Parkes ran free down the middle without a defender picking him up. Forbes centered to Parkes, who made the finish look easy.
Joe Cole put the Rowdies back in it in the 59th minute, skipping a free kick from the left edge of the box past the wall, off the wet turf, and right in between the legs of keeper Dan Lynd.
Collins made his first substitution a minute after Cole’s strike by swapping Morrell for Junior Flemmings and eventually followed that up by inserting Michael Nanchoff and Jochen Graf to try and find a winner. The Rowdies poured on the pressure in the final half hour as Pittsburgh hoped to hang to maintain its unbeaten record, but they failed to find the back of the net again.
Pittsburgh nearly ruined Collins’ debut when Nico Brett found himself alone in the box with the ball falling to his feet in the 82nd minute, though Fitzgerald came through with an outstanding save. Brett curled his shot with oomph only to see Fitzgerald stop it dead in its tracks with a diving effort.
“Akira’s trained great, he’s a fantastic teammate and I felt he deserved an opportunity,” Collins said. “Cody Mizell started the season fantastically well and, like a few other players, suffered because the team wasn’t doing so well. I’ve got three fantastic goalkeepers. Akira did the job tonight, but we’re gonna have real competition for places. Akira took his opportunity well, but we want to have that edge in competition.”
On the other end of the field, Lynd also prevented a late winner as Flemmings powered a header right down the middle that the keeper just barely managed to swat off the line.
It wasn’t the prettiest of matches for the Rowdies, but it’s a hard earned point after nearly a month of being stagnant in the Eastern Conference standings. Collins will hope it’s the starting point for a real turnaround as he continues to transition into his new role and readies for his first full week on the job.
“We’ll not be celebrating too many ties,” Collins said. “Tonight we’ll go away and we’ll all reflect. Hopefully I can sleep tonight and I cannot wait until Monday morning.”
The Rowdies travel to Canada next weekend to face Toronto FC II.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes