An earlier kickoff to make way for the Independence Day fireworks show in St. Petersburg meant conditions on the field at Al Lang were a little more sweltering than usual, but the Rowdies were able to push through and defeat the Atlanta Silverbacks for the second time in as many matches. Right back Darnell King was the hero, tallying the goal to ensure a 2-1 result in the club’s Fall Season opener.
Head coach Thomas Rongen selected the same starting eleven that dispatched the Silverbacks 3-0 in the Spring Season finale. The unit didn’t quite match the same level as the previous match, although they did thoroughly dominate the majority of the first half. The Silverbacks seemed content to throw numbers behind the ball and cede acres of space for the Rowdies to operate in the midfield and final third.
In only the 4th minute, Martin Núñez nearly scored a clever free kick goal to match the one he had in the previous match. Núñez caught keeper C.J. Cochran cheating to his left and placed the kick to the opposite end of goal. Cochran recovered late, but it didn’t matter as Nunez’s attempt was a yard wide of the post.
Despite controlling possession in the opening 20 minutes, it took a sloppy turnover and a well-executed counter for the Rowdies to break through in the match. An errant pass from Atlanta’s Rauwshan McKenzie fell straight to Brian Shriver just short of the halfway line. Shriver quickly played the ball to Corey Hertzog and he charged toward Atlanta’s net before playing the back to a now unmarked Shriver near the penalty spot. Shriver took a touch and attempted to fire the ball back across the net as Cochran was falling to his left. The keeper got a hand on the ball, but it continued to trickle toward net anyway. McKenzie flew in to clear the ball, but he miscued the clearance and blasted the ball into his own net.
The Rowdies continued to press and were rewarded with an outright goal in the 30th minute. It was Hertzog again who distributed the ball to the eventual scorer. The forward showed composure by holding up the ball just outside the box in the center of the field. By assessing his options, Hertzog was able to pick out an unmarked King on the right edge of the box. The defender received the ball well, took a touch to turn the ball back inside and shot with his weaker left foot. The attempt wasn’t hit with much conviction, but King took it quick enough to catch the rookie Cochran off guard and slip it into the net for his first goal in a Rowdies shirt.
Rongen said after the match that on the bench they were all hoping King would whip in a cross because that is something they’ve been stressing in every practice, but it’s hard to be upset when you finish off a chance like the defender did. King’s decision to have a shot actually makes sense when you factor in how far into the box he was already.
“[A cross] came into my head because that’s what they’ve been telling me, but the position I was in, kind of inside the box, it made sense to take that touch inside and put it on frame. That’s what I was taught at a younger age and it worked out this time,” said King. “We got video and we knew that they had gaps in the back. We’ve been working on getting our outside backs forward and having our outside midfielders tuck outside, so that gives us a lot of space. I had that free space with no one really guarding me and took the shot.”
The Rowdies seemed to lose much of their energy after King’s goal and Atlanta was somehow able to claw their way into the match despite not taking a single shot on goal. The Silverbacks got on the scoresheet with an unfortunate own goal from center back Stefan Antonijevic off the visitor’s only corner of the match. Keeper Matt Pickens appeared to have his run cut off and perhaps the sun caused Antonijevic to lose sight of the ball and the towering defender’s header found the back of the net to give the otherwise lifeless Silverbacks hope.
Rongen stressed the need to pick the energy up at halftime, but the team was never able to reclaim the dominance they saw in the first 30 minutes.
“I thought we actually played superb in the first 30 minutes. We went up 2-0, and yeah one of them was an own goal, but we would have scored that one anyway. And then we stopped playing,” said Rongen. “We’re still young, maybe a little naive, thinking the game is over… They’re all still learning lessons, but it’s great to teach when you’re still winning games. We’re undefeated at home, with five wins and a tie. That’s pretty darn good obviously and I keep saying that we’re only going to get better, which is nice to see.”
Atlanta’s had a number of late and physical tackles that seemed to slow down any momentum the Rowdies tried to build in the attack. Couple the physicality with the overwhelming heat and you have a good understanding why both sides struggled to produce many quality chances in the second half. Rongen, though, seemed to dismiss the notion that his team was negatively impacted by the heat.
“It’s the first time during a game that I’ve perspired, so that tells you something,” remarked Rongen. “You have one or two players, including one of ours Martin Núñez, who go down with cramping so they’re not easy circumstances. But we train in this on a daily basis. I thought outside of Martin, everyone looked strong towards the end. I feel they that’s part of our home field advantage. They died a little bit, I thought.”
While Saturdays’ win may not have been as convincing as the last two matches, it does extend Tampa Bay’s home winning streak to five. It also gives the team some confidence to build as they try to improve on their underwhelming road form from the Spring Season. The team had a road record of 1W-1L-3D in the spring, but the good news is that next week they suit against San Antonio, the one team that they were able to earn that lone win against.