by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies were mere minutes away from closing out their time in the NASL on Sunday with a win on the road until they allowed Jacksonville Armada FC to rally for two quick-fire goals and all three points.
Tampa Bay was missing a handful of regulars for the season finale, including leading scorers Joe Cole, Georgi Hristov and Eric Avila. Attacking midfielder Freddy Adu got his first starting nod of the Fall Season, while Chris Glodack filled in for Matt Pickens with his first professional start in net.
“We made a lot of changes, but I still expected to go out there and get the result we wanted,” said Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell. “We wanted to finish the season with a victory.”
Even without all three of their top three scorers, the afternoon still got off to a promising start in the 4th minute thanks to a sensational finish from Martin Vingaard. Noticing Miguel Gallardo was well off his line, the midfielder brought down a loose ball 40 yards from goal and swiftly chipped a shot over the keeper to put the Rowdies ahead.
Keith Savage then got in on the action with a deft header in the 19th minute. Michael Nanchoff lofted a long-range free kick into the box and Savage rose to beat his mark and flick the ball back across goal to beat Gallardo.
The two-goal lead would not hold as Jacksonville managed to pull one back at the half hour mark. Zach Steinberger (a name that will pop up again) laid a backheel pass off for Alhassane Keita to take in stride inside the box and the attacker slotted his left-footed strike past Glodack.
Jacksonville took advantage of a drop in focus and energy from the Rowdies to assert their control throughout the rest of the match.
Despite dipping in quality, the Rowdies were still only eight minutes away from sealing the road result to close out the year until set-piecing defending sunk them.
Steinberger lifted a corner kick into the box that narrowly missed the heads of Ben Sweat and Derek Gebhard and bounced to an unmarked Jemal Johnson on the far side. With time and space, Johnson hit a chip with back spin toward the far post that tucked under the crossbar to level the match.
Before the Rowdies had a chance to compose themselves, Jacksonville was pushing down the field on the restart and found the go-ahead goal. Gebhard maintained his balance after a challenge to flick a pass into space for Steinberger, who froze Neil Collins inside the box and fired a low finish into the bottom left corner.
“The two goals that we conceded in about a minute, that’s extremely frustrating,” said Campbell. “The second goal came from a set piece that we should have defended better and then we just didn’t click back on in time for the third goal and it cost us.”
Had the Rowdies been able to ride out the win, they would have secured sole possession of the fifth spot in the league’s tight standings. Instead, the collapse leaves them ninth on the combined table for the year, with just two points separating them from fifth-place Minnesota United FC.