by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies remain unbeaten on the year after posting a 2-0 victory at Atlanta United 2 on Saturday night, putting them even further ahead in the Group H standings. Defender Forrest Lasso notched his first goal as a Rowdie to open the scoring in the first half and substitute Juan Tejada put the match away with another late goal.
It was also the club’s third straight victory and clean sheet.
“Credit to the players because they’ve taken on board every feedback that we’ve given them and have done everything in training to try and improve. We’re gonna need to keep doing that. Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “This team’s relatively new, a bit newer than we maybe would have liked in some respects. Continuity’s important. Night’s like tonight, they’re learning together, theyre trusting each other, they’re building relationships. All of these things are just improving. I’m sure we’ll have our bumps and bruises along the way, but they’re certainly growing nicely.”
After the match, Collins said Atlanta had the edge in the opening half hour, but that he was pleased to see his side grow into the match and end up taking all three points. Defender Jordan Scarleet and keeper Evan Louro both had big moments to stifle opportunities in the box during the slow start.
It appeared for a moment as if Lasso’s night come to an early end when Amadou Diop poked the Rowdies center back in the eye. Thankfully, Lasso powered through and regained enough of his vision to put the Rowdies ahead in the 34th minute.
On the first corner kick of the night, midfielder Lewis Hilton delivered the ball on a platter for Lasso on the back post and the Rowdies defender provided a textbook header to put it in the back of the net.
Lasso got his noggin on another corner a few minutes later, but this time Atlanta’s keeper Ben Lundgaard was up to the task and punched the attempt away.
“It was concerning because he struggled to see out of it. But one eye’s all you need to play,” Collins quipped. “Credit to Forrest for staying on. We all know that’s the kind of character he is. He could’ve had another goal. His performance has been excellent along with the whole back line.”
The Rowdies roster was strethced to its limit for the match. Leo Fernandes, Mustapha Dumbuya and Max Lachowecki were all out due to injuries. Zach Steinberger stepped up and played a solid half out of position out on the right wing. Steinberger and forward Kyle Murphy were both swapped out at halftime for Tejada and Malik Johnson.
“I said to the boys that came off, it was no reflection on their performance. Kyle Murphy put in a great shift on Friday night and he had to do so much running in the first half,” Collins noted. “We changed our shape slightly and I thought fresh legs would help… The biggest thing is there’s a lot of great performances, but it’s all about the team. It’s all about 1 to 22. Tonight we needed certain guys and on Sunday we’ll need different guys that we need to contribute more than tonight.”
Tejada and Johnson’s insertion helped the Rowdies take hold of the match. Apart from a few efforts from distance by the hosts that Louro handled well, the Rowdies comfortably played out the rest of the match on top.
Yann Ekra also contributed greatly in the second half performance after entering in the 66th minute. A couple of injuries this year have kept Ekra from playing much, but he looked at his best on Wednesday. He had two great chances stymied by outstsanding saves by Lundgaard.
Ekra also provied the through ball the sprung Tejada into Atlanta’s defensive third for the second goal in the 81st minute. The Panamanian turned to the center of the field to create space for himself at the top of Atlanta’s box, then looked up and saw none of the three defenders in the area coming to close him down, so he decided to have a go. The placement was perfect and Lundgaard stood no chance at stopping it.
Tejada has been dubbed the “Fox in the Box” for his relentless effort in creating and causing havoc for opposing defenses in the box, but Collins wasn’t at all suprised to see that kind of quality from Tejada from distance.
Recalling when Tejada was still a trialist last year, Collins said, “We were playing a smallsided game and I saw him hit a couple shots with his left and right foot and that was when I really thought this guy could play at our level. So no surprises for me to see him score a goal like that, although it’s not his normal goal. A bit of magic from Juan, who’s scored two off the bench the last two games. You can’t highlight enough that there’s a team that starts the job and then there’s the team that comes on and finishes the job, and they’re both as important as each other.”
For the moment the Rowdies sit top of the USL Championship’s overall standings. Indy Eleven could jump out ahead again this weekend, but the fact remains the Rowdies are establishing themselves as a contender. However, Collins is quick to point out that we’ve been here before. Last year’s squad also jumped out of the gate with a lengthy unbeaten run only to falter in the last couple months and lose out on home field advantage in the postseason.
“We’re focused on how this team can develop and get better keep improving,” he said. “In the second half we showed great signs of that, but it’s another big challenge on Sunday. If for whatever the reason we’re not top of the table, we’ll keep learning. We’ll just continue to get better. One thing I learned last year is it’s about where you finish at the end.”
The Rowdies host Miami FC at Al Lang on Sunday at 7:30 pm.