by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies remain unscathed in the young USL season after scrapping it out with Ottawa Fury FC to take a 1-0 win at Al Lang Stadium through a Georgi Hristov header in the opening minutes of the second half.
An ankle injury to winger Leo Fernandes required Rowdies Coach Stuart Campbell to make a change to his starting lineup for the first time this year. Campbell gave Deshorn Brown his first start up top and shifted Hristov to Fernandes’ spot on the left wing.
Hristov and Brown came close to combining for a goal in the 10th minute when the Bulgarian passed toward the near post and Brown flicked a shot that banged off the post and went out for a corner.
Brown’s early chance was the best of the opening half for the Rowdies, who found Ottawa tougher to break down than the teams they faced before Saturday. The visitors remained sturdy and packed bodies inside the box to limit scoring opportunities.
“We knew it was going to be a different game,” said Campbell. “They’re an independent team. They’re playing for their livelihood, they haven’t got the backdrop of MLS. It’s them pretty much on their own. The style of play is obviously different to the MLS [reserve] teams.”
Despite the Rowdies holding an edge in many areas on the stats sheet, it was the Fury who put pressure on goal in the first half. Akira Fitzgerald was asked to make 3 saves( one more than he had to in the first two matches combined), but none of them were too taxing as Tampa Bay’s defense made Ottawa settle for shots from distance. Lance Rozenboom and Sito Seoane both had their long-range strikes denied.
Tampa Bay’s defense never looked overly distressed. The back line combined for 12 clearances, and center backs Neill Collins and Damion Lowe had strong showings. Collins won six aerial duels and Lowe produced six interceptions to hamper Ottawa.
“It was a great result again with another clean sheet,” said Fitzgerald. “The chances [Ottawa had] were from distance, things I’m expected to do well with. I’m glad I was able to help the guys out. The guys in front of me battled so hard. We knew it was going to be a tough game. Ottawa’s a good, strong team and we knew they were going to be direct. We did a great job.”
The Rowdies entered the break frustrated with their inability to break down the organized Canadian side. During his halftime interview, Campbell stressed patience as the key to getting through Ottawa’s tight lines.
‘They wanted to go get two or three goals in the first 30 minutes and that’s not always possible,” he said. “I told them just to calm down, be patient in possession and keep moving it and something will open up. Ottawa have come here defending very deep and they’re looking to hit us on the counter attack.”
Campbell’s players heard him loud and clear.
The Rowdies quickly won the ball through an aerial duel after the kickoff and worked the entirety of the field with a string of 21 passes that was capped off by Hristov heading the ball past keeper Callum Irving from a tight angle. Hristov’s goal is credited as unassisted given Luke Boden’s cross from the left flank took a helpful deflection off an Ottawa defender, but Campbell will likely be more than happy when the tape shows the build up from the entire team on the goal.
“The way [Ottawa] played, it’s very hard to play against,” said Hristov. “I don’t think they were really looking for a win. It felt like they were putting all their players in their box. It was a good test for us because it was hard to break through them because they were very tight and gave us no space. Even though it didn’t look like one of our best games, I personally think it was our best game so far.”
Following the go-ahead goal, neither team produced much quality in the final third. Ottawa failed to register another shot on target, while the Rowdies earned two half chances. Hristov scuffed a half-volley from a long ball that Irving palmed away without difficulty in the 54th minute, and Brown had another awkward half-volley covered by the keeper two minutes later.
With three wins and no goals allowed in the first three weeks of the USL season, the Rowdies are sitting first in the Eastern Conference standings. However, next week they play their first away match of the year against Louisville City FC (2W-0L-1D), who are just two points back of the Rowdies after knocking off the Richmond Kickers 1-0.
“You can build momentum and confidence from this type of start,” Campbell said. “Tonight was a tough game physically. They put us under a lot of pressure physically with a lot of long balls coming in our area and I thought we defended absolutely fantastically again. I was really happy for the whole team to get a clean sheet again.”
IMAGE, MATT MAY/TAMPA BAY ROWDIES