by JAKE NUTTING
Last year’s Tampa Bay Rowdies were cruising at the top of the standings with a 13-match unbeaten streak to start the season when North Carolina FC came into town on June 8 and handed the Rowdies their first defeat of the year in a 3-1 result.
North Carolina also won the second meeting between the two sides in August with a 4-2 drubbing. It ended up being the most goals allowed in a league match by the Rowdies all year.
This Friday the Rowdies host North Carolina once again with an unbeaten run to protect. It’s only been two matches, but Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins does not want to lose the momentum gained from the first two victories.
“It’s interesting North Carolina beat us that day,” Collins said of the loss that ended last year’s streak. “I thought it was one of our better performances at the time. Actually we had a worse performance the following week against Charleston and we drew. I was angrier at that match and we had more reaction to that than we did the North Carolina defeat. Hopefully tomorrow night we’re not cursing North Carolina again.”
Collins has a similar perspective on another loss to North Carolina. According to him, the 2-0 defeat in 2018 is another instance of them performing well, but failing to execute in important areas and close out a match.
“North Carolina are on the day a team that beat anyone home or away. They can adapt to the game because of their good players,” he said. “If we keep improving and working on our strengths and deal with their strengths I always think we’re the same. We can beat anyone, particularly at home.”
The Rowdies have faced off against North Carolina four times since Collins took over as coach, with North Carolina claiming victory in three of those bouts. One of the players who helped see North Carolina to victory on those occasions is now with the Rowdies — defender Aaron Guillen.
“(North Carolina) always comes out and wants to win, either home or away,” Guillen said. “Last year here at Al Lang we scored two goals on the counter attack just by sitting back and then hitting Tampa Bay. But we, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, have been training and building the team to reach our goal of our championship. I think we have a good opportunity to give our coach a win against NCFC.”
North Carolina’s attack has proven lethal against the Rowdies in the past couple season. In their three losses to North Carolina, the Rowdies allowed 9 goals.
Now the Rowdies have Guillen paired with Forrest Lasso and Jordan Scarlett on the back line in front of keeper Evan Louro. It’s an entirely new defense but one that has done well in the first two contests. Atlanta’s lone goal last week aside, the Rowdies have limited the opposition to almost no meaningful scoring chances.
“Every game is a new test for us. Every team that comes up with different strategies on how to break us down,” Guillen said. “We started the season against New York Red Bulls II and they’re a very attacking team. We did a great job and kept the clean sheet. North Carolina has a great team, and we have a great back line. It’s a good test. Every game is going to be a new test for us. I think we will be up for that test.”
Midfielders Yann Ekra and Dominic Oduro will be gameday decisions after their injuries last week, though Collins indicated the knocks were not as bad as they initially feared. He also noted that right winger Malik Johnson is fit and available for selection after an injury last week and attacking midfielder Kevin Mendoza is likely to be included in the gameday roster for the first time.
Another win would put the Rowdies at 9 points in Group H. With Atlanta being the only other Group H team to have played, the Rowdies have a chance to build a slight cushion before Miami FC and Charleston Battery resume play.
The Rowdies have been picked to advance out of their group and the USL Championship has had them fairly high up in its power rankings. However, Collins isn’t letting any hype distract him from the everyday work building the team into a championship outfit.
“The power rankings are of about as much use as a chocolate teapot, to be quite honest with you. It’s irrelevant to me,” he said. “9 points would be a great start. Equally, when you look back at our last three or four seasons, we’ve generally started well as a club. Win, lose or draw or whatever we’re focused on improving our performance and getting individuals better and winning games by doing that. Because I know that we will win games if we do that.”
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies