After a month straight of facing Miami FC and Atlanta United 2, the Tampa Bay Rowdies (6W-3D-0L, 21 pts) are looking forward to a matchup with the Charelston Battery (5W-2D-2D, 17 pts) this Saturday in South Carolina.
Since the Rowdies last beat them 2-0 on July 31, the Battery have solidified their hold on the second place spot Group H and have now pulled to within four points of the Rowdies after a 3-1 win over Miami on Wednesday. Both the Battery and the Rowdies have seven matches left to play.
“These next seven games are gonna be even tougher because everyone in our league’s getting better. Everyone’s up to speed. Everyone’s playing for something,”Rowdies head coach Neilll Collins said. “Charleston’s really on a great run. They’ll be chasing the top seed in the group. Miami are certainly not gonna give up without a fight. This is now when it gets really exciting and this is what we all do the job for.”
Collins isn’t suprised in the least to see the Battery challenging the Rowdies for the top spot considering the consistency Michael Anhaeuser has brought to the club in nearly two decades in charge. Like Collins, Anhaeuser was a player for Charelston before stepping into a coaching role. The main differene is Anhaeuser was assistant coach for six years before taking the top job in 2004. That same year, Collins was only in year four of his 19-year playing career.
The Rowdies only managed two draws and a loss in Collins’ first three matchups with Anhaeuser. But they’ve fared much better in their last two outings, besting the Battery by a combined score of 7-0.
“I think they’re a very good side. But is it any surprise? Mike’s record is excellent,” Collins noted. “I think he’s one of the longest serving coaches in the world, someone was telling me the other day. That’s no coincidence. He’s obviously good at building teams. They’re playing some good stuff. We know this is gonna be a really tough game for us, but a great game, one that we’re really looking forward to.”
A win this weekend would go a long way toward putting the Rowdies in a good position to secure the top spot in Group H, but they would still need to stay on top of their game for two more head-to-clashes with Charleston.
“Charleston are gonn do what they’re gonna do,” Collins said. “We need to keep controlling what we can and that’s that we have three games against Charleston because that means it’s in our hands. That’s always a nice feeling to have.”
As good as the results have the been for the Rowdies, they’re still a couple away from locking up a postseason spot as one of the top two teams in the group. Any point this weekend guarantees them a finish over Atlanta. However, topping Miami is not a given just yet since that side has two games in hand on the Rowdies. Miami will travel to Al Lang this coming Wednesday for their third of four against the Rowdies.
Will the Three-Man Front Line Last?
A big change for the Rowdies in last week’s win was the decision to start three strikers up top. Sebastian Guenzatti, Juan Tejada and Kyle Murphy all led the line in the new formation. The change appeared to work well, with the Rowdies putting the visitors under a tremendous amount of pressure in the first half before the rain slowed things down a bit in the second half.
Collins was coy about whether the three-man front line would be a permanent fixture moving forward, though.
“I felt the three up top was the best for that particular game. Whether we use it again or not I’m not quite sure,” he said. “It was definitely pleasing to see those guys work so well together. I think it gave the team a lot of confidence. It’s something we know that we’ve got if we need to use it. We’ve performed well on the road using other shapes, so we’ll see what we decide to go with this weekend.”
Collins’ thoughts make sense. Playing at home against a struggling team with less experience like Atlanta, it’s a safer risk to go with a more aggressive formation. Against a team with a lethal counter attack like Charleston, though, that’s a much riskier proposition.
For his part, Murphy looked incredibly confident in the new formation. After notching his first goal with a spectactular strike, he’s is eager to add some more.
“I always put pressure on myself to score,” Murphy said. “I think sometimes the first goal is always the hardest when you get to a new place. I’m just glad to get that one and glad to help us win that game.”
Despite the unusual circumustances of the season and his early scoring drought, Murphy is enjoying his first season in Tampa Bay. Prior to this year he played for Rio Grande Valley FC, San Antonio FC and Loudon United.
“It’s been great. This is the highest level of a whole team I’ve been at,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition in every single position, so it’s good to have that. You can push yourself every day to be the best you can and reach my fullest potential.”
Stopping the Battery
Charleston’s attack has hit quite the stride in the last three matches, notching three goals every time out in three straight victories. While Zeiko Lewis was carrying most of the load in the attack in the early weeks (and still leads team with 4 goals), others like Romario Piggot and Mauro Cichero have begun to contribute more in the last month.
Charleston and Tampa Bay are now tied with three other teams for sixth most total goals in the league with 16 tallies. However, the Rowdies have one more clean sheet than the Battery. They shut out the Battery at Al Lang a month ago and are hopeful they can do it again.
“We know that Charleston are very, very good in the attack. But they’re also very adaptable,” Collins said. “They’ve got goof experience and good continuity. What we’ve found our players have done well is they’ve adapted in the game. I know that’s something that Charelston do well. However the first 10, 20 minutes go, it can all change because both teams are very good at adapting to the circumstances.”
Good News, Really Bad News on the Injury Report
Collins offered some good news with an injury update on midfielder Dominic Oduro, who resumed full training this week and is a possibility for selection against the Battery. He then followed that up with the unfortunate news that striker Lucky Mkosana will miss the match this weekend and potentially more due to the injury that forced him out last weekend just a few minutes after entering the match.
“Dom’s had a good week training so he comes back into consideration for the game,” Collins said. “All being well, Dom should be fit. But you never know until you get to Friday and just see how he feels. Lucky won’t be available for this game. You could see that he came off pretty quickly. That’s probably gonna be more long-term, but we’ll just take that as it comes.”
Mkosana’s two goals and quality performances off the bench this season have been vital for the Rowdies.
The Rowdies will not have a full week’s rest between matches until the season finale on October 3. A stretch like that will be a massive challenge and is sure to test all the work the club has done trying to ease players back into playing after so much time off during the lockdown.
Murphy was one of the players that the Rowdies took their time buidling back up. After a few late appearances off the bench in July, Murphy has started four times in recent weeks and has now played 285 minutes.
“Everyone’s feeling good,” Murphy said. “You get halfway through the season and you want everyone to be fit and ready to play. Our depth of our squad is really good, so that’s gonna be really important to keep everyone fit and healthy and ready to play whenever their number’s called.”
Some guys really will need to step up if the Rowdies are going to get through this hectic month still on top, espiecially if someone like Mkosana does end up being out for an extended period of time.
“We’re always working so hard to try and keep the physical side right,” Collins said. “I’ll tell you what, it’s not easy in Florida in this time of year to come straight back into the season in mid-June, July and try and get that match fitness. Credit to the players. These are the things that kind of don’t get talked about. We normally have that March start, so you have those three months to get everyone where you want them and then you can maintain. We just don’t have that maintaining phase now. We had to rapidly try and get them there while staying safe to not injure anyone. The players have certainly helped with that.”
Photo via Samantha Ponzillo Media