On the back of five goals scored and no goals conceded in two victories at Al Lang last week, the Tampa Bay Rowdies (8W-1L-3D, 27 pts) will head back to South Carolina this Friday hoping to rectify their loss to the Charleston Battery (6-2-3, 21 pts) two weeks ago.
Charleston have only played one game since their meeting with Tampa Bay. The club traveled to last-place Miami last week but only managed to take a point. As he did against the Rowdies, Stavros Zarokostas tallied Charleston’s lone goal of the game with another outstanding strike. Miami aided the Rowdies by finding an equalizer in the 86th minute.
That disappointing result for Charleston helped the Rowdies reassert their grip on the top spot in Group H. However, their six-point lead at the moment could still vanish pretty quickly with another loss this Friday and considering the Battery have a game in hand on the Rowdies. Atlanta United 2 and Miami are still hanging on for dear life in the postseason race, but at this point it take something truly bizarre for either catch up to Tampa Bay or Charleston.
“It’s an exciting game in terms of where things are in the standings and everything, but once the whistle blows it’s the same game we’ve been playing every week,” Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “I think a lot of players are coming into contention at the right time for us. It’s tough picking the team right now, which is a great problem to have. Whoever I pick to start I’m sure will be ready to try and put on a top performance.”
Collins wants his players’ focus to remain on themselves for this week’s match and the rest of the season. As well as the Battery performed in the last match up, it was still only a 1-0 result. Collins likes the Rowdies’ chances if the players can raise their game to the same level it was in their last two matches and throughout most of the year.
“I think the response to what was a disappointing performance and a disappointing result has been excellent,” he said. “I see a real focus, but also an enjoyment. If we can go and play better we’ll have a better chance of winning.”
This is pretty simple. Any point for the Rowdies or any points dropped by Miami this weekend clinches a postseason spot for the Rowdies. Three points against the Battery would obviously go a long way toward securing the top spot in Group H and a guaranteed home match in the first round of the postseason. However, Charleston would still have a shot at surpassing the Rowdies with their game in hand and another head-to-head match up to play in the regular season finale on October 3.
Ekra Showing His Value
Yann Ekra became the tenth Rowdies player to record a goal this year with his strike in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Philadelphia Union II. It was his first goal in a Rowdies since signing last season, though he had been knocking on the door for quite some time.
“It felt great, but to be honest it’s not something I was really thinking about,” Ekra said. “All I want is the team to be successful. If I have to score for the team to be successful, I’m happy. If I don’t score and the team’s still winning, I’m happy too.”
Even prior to his goal, Ekra had been making significant contributions with the Rowdies. He and Lewis Hilton are currently tied with a team-leading three assists. This is after Ekra missed the season opener due to an injury and then had to be subbed off at halftime of the first game of the restart after picking up a knock that sidelined him for several weeks.
Collins, who wanted to bring Ekra in during the 2018 season but had to wait until the offseason that year to do so, guessed during this week’s media call that the club has an excellent record when the midfielder is in the starting lineup. The numbers do back him up. With Ekra starting the Rowdies have a record of 10 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses.
Ekra’s value has definitely been on display in the last two matches as he started in a more advanced attacking role, especially in the first half against Philadelphia. If the Ekra and the Rowdies can the mount a similar attack this Friday, they’re likely to come away with something from the match.
“When he’s fit and he’s in full flow, I just think he makes our team very exciting,” Collins said. “That was one of the things we wanted to do . We want to give the fans a team that they enjoy watching, that gets them up off their seats. When you see Yann driving with the ball, Malik Johnson driving past people, Leo Fernandes and Seba Guenzatti linking up; that’s the kind of football that we want to watch. We want to win, but we want to win a certain way. Yann’s a big part of that. You can see in his last two games he’s had a good effect.”
The main reason Ekra hasn’t gotten more starts over the last two years is injuries. Besides the injuries from earlier this year, he also had to contend with some nagging ones last year that limited him to just 17 appearances.
“Injuries for every player is a tough moment,” Ekra said. “You have to be strong mentally to come back and try to be stronger. It was tough, but I had people around me like the staff and all my teammates. When I had my injury they were always behind me, trying to help me. That’s really helped, actually. If you are injured and no one really cares, you put your head down and can be hurt my psychologically. But the team we have and the staff were really with me during that period.”
Despite his somewhat limited playing time in Tampa Bay, Ekra is one the more experienced players on the roster. He started out in Lyon’s youth program in France before eventually finding a foothold in U.S. Soccer with the Harrisburg City Islanders in 2012. Fast forward to 2020 and he’s now played in over 150 matches in the USL.
“He’s one of the top appearance makers in the USL, which is excellent. And he’s still got plenty of time on his side,” Collins said. “He brings a nice calmness to the team. The players really like Yann. He’s a real personality. A very polite, nice guy, but also funny. I’m sure he tells a lot of the jokes behind my back, but I do know he’s a funny guy.”
In It For the Long Haul
There are no real like-for-like comparisons between this year and last year. That said, the Rowdies have the task of ensuring they finish this season stronger than they have in recent years. Last year was the most glaring example, as they fell out of the top four in the Eastern Conference after an underwhelming final two months and had to travel to Louisville City for the first round of the postseason.
Ekra started in that postseason loss in Louisville, though he missed much of the weeks leading up to it due his injury problems.
“Last year we also had a great team too,” he said. “This year what I notice the most is there’s a lot of players willing to do anything to be successful. Everyone is focused. Everyone is going in the same direction. Also, in the time we had off, we worked a lot, we built chemistry. We can really call ourselves a family. That also helps. We had time to work on everything we wouldn’t usually have time to work on. That gives us more of a chance to do our best and be successful.”
Collins offered updates on the injuries of strikers Lucky Mkosana and Juan Tejada. Mkosana has been sidelined for several matches with a hamstring injury, but Tejada only just rolled an ankle in a training session the day before the win over Philadelphia. Collins didn’t rule either out for Friday, but also indicated it might not be likely to see either.
“Lucky’s progressing slowly. I think we said it was gonna take a little time with Lucky,” Collins said. “Juan, it’s only four days since he rolled his ankle. There’s nothing to be too concerned about. We want to be careful because Juan is very important to us. We want to get him right because he’s the kind of guy that relies a lot on his physicality in terms of being able to run around and challenge. For Friday night, it’s probably gonna be too close for them. We’ll give them right up until the last minute, but it’ll probably be just too soon.”
Photo Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies