The Rowdies will get a break from Group H action this Sunday as they host Philadelphia Union II at Al Lang. This will be the first time the Rowdies have faced the MLS reserve side since it rembranded from Bethlehem Steel FC to Philadelphia Union II in the offseason.
Neill Collins and his staff are looking forward to a break from playing the same three teams for over a month now.
“We’ve gotten into that rhythm of playing the same teams and it’s been unusual and then now it feels unusual to be playing someone different,” Collins said. “It’s a great opportunity to come up against something different and learn something else about ourselves against someone different. We’re really looking forward to it. We’ve had some good games with Philly Union and Bethlehem Steel in the past and I’m sure it’ll be no different on Sunday.”
Positive COVID-19 tests within Philadelphia’s organization caused the club to sit out action for nearly a month recently. Philadelphia finally resumed play this past Wednesday, falling 2-1 at home against Atlanta United 2. Despite the extended break, Philadelphia played a competitive match with Atlanta and only found themselves on the losing end after conceding a goal one minute before halftime and then another in second half stoppage time.
“I think I’d rather be the team that have been playing regularly, but whose to say whether that break has helped or hindered them. We’ll find out and they’ll find out as time goes by,” Collins said. “We know, like Atlanta, they have a lot of talented players that you’ll probably see in MLS in years to come, potential American internationals. We’ll be very respectful to them and we’ll do our preparation as always, but we’re wanting to build on what we’re doing.”
For two straight matches Philadelphia has set a record for the youngest starting lineup in the team’s history. A notable youngster also came off the bench for Philadelphia late in Wednesday’s match, as well. Paxten Aaronson, 17, notched his first career goal a minute before the final whistle with a crafty chip over the keeper after a rebound fell to him in the box. Aaronson’s older brother, Brenden (who is only 19) is with Philadelphia’s senior team in MLS and made his debut for the U.S. national team this year. Paxten is expected to join his brother in MLS next year after signing a homegrown contract last month.
On paper, the numbers are not good for Philadelphia as they sit last in Group F with just 4 points. Only two other clubs have scored fewer goals than their seven-goal total. Granted they’ve only played seven matches because of their time off in August, but they’ve also conceded a shocking 22 goals.
One of the first players the Rowdies acquired in the offseason was Lewis Hilton. He’s been a solid performer for the Rowdies in midfield this season, but he’s also contributed in an area the Rowdies were hoping to see him excel — set pieces.
After Wednesday’s corner kick assist to set up Jordan Scareltt’s opening goal, Hilton has matched Yann Ekra for a team-best three assists. All of those have been through corner kicks.
“I’d be lying if I said when we went to sign Lewis, it wasn’t a big part in the fact that he has the ability to deliver good balls and cause problems,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent of the time that we need it from Lewis when he’s on the field because we do have other players, Leo’s done a great job. It’s about having that variety so that other teams don’t know, but we know if we need a ball in the right spot, Lewis is more than capable of it. He’s delivered well for us on that end.”
Hilton also leads the league with 16 chances created from set pieces, proving he’s putting the ball in dangerous areas with consistency.
“It’s always been part of my game, and I try to work on these things leading up to a game,” Hilton said. “It helps when a coaching staff give you information or a scouting report on the team that we’re playing or what areas we want to hit, what type of runs in the box our guys are going to make. All the preparation that goes into it makes it a lot easier.”
As well as the Rowdies played on Wednesday, they weren’t able to convert the positive play into any goals in open play. They did make the most of their set pieces, though. A corner kick, free kick and penalty all helped the Rowdies finish three goals over Miami.
“The other night we played well and created chances in the run of play, but sometimes if you don’t take your chances or if a team doesn’t play well, set pieces give you another look at goal,” Hilton said. “If I’m the one taking the corners or free kicks, then I’ve got a responsibility to make sure I put it in the right areas and give the guys a chance to get on the end of it.”
The 2020 Rowdies lead the league with six headed goals in 11 games, matching their entire total in 32 games last season. When the postseason comes around and every little thing could be the deciding factor, it can’t hurt to know you’re capable of breaking through with a set piece when everything else might not be going your way.
“I’ve never seen a successful team that didn’t have a guy from the back who couldn’t come up and score a goal, that didn’t have players from the wide positions that couldn’t assist or score a goal,” Collins said. “It’s just a fact. You look at (Sergio) Ramos at Real Madrid, one of the best teams in the world, they’ve still needed him from time to time to come up and head a goal into the net. He’s done it in Champions League Finals, so as we’re always trying to do, we’re trying to have every weapon in our armory, and that’s one that we’re trying to make use of and then improve the other ones as well.”
Hilton’s set pieces aren’t the only things he’s been dead-on with.
We finally got the midfielder on the record about his thumbs up celebration in Atlanta after Juan Tejada’s wonder-strike. Yes, it was absolutely an homage to the internet famous gif of 90s child actor Brent Rambo giving a thumbs up in an Apple ad.
“It was just a group chat with a few of the guys. It’d been kind of a running joke that whole week and we said we’d do it if one of us scored,” he said. “So that was a bit of fun at the end when Juan scored.
“I nailed it, huh?”
“The Rowdies could be the first team in the league to lock up a postseason berth this Sunday if they win and Miami loses the day before on Saturday. Collins, though, has no interest in talking about the prospective achievement.
“That’s not what we’re about as a club,” he said. “We’ve got a team full of guys that just want to improve. They want to be the best they can be. Being the the best they can be is not just qualifying for the playoffs. It’s about getting better. That’s what we’re working towards. We’re pleased with where we’re at in the standings because of course it means something, but we’re forging ahead in terms of how good can we get this team to be. There’s still loads of room for us to keep getting better. Come the end of the season we’ll see where we stand.”
How Davey Fits In
The Rowdies announced a new addition before their match on Wednesday in defender Alex Davey. He joins the Rowdies after starting three matches for Hartford Athletic in July and appearig in 13 matches in 2019. The move was not done out of neccessity due to a weakness on the field (Wendesday’s result was the Rowdies’ fifth clean sheet of the year), but rather to shore up the roster ahead of a potential postseason run.
Last year the Rowdies entered the playoffs missing their preferred left winger Leo Ferandes and didn’t have a backup they felt comfortable with. It proved costly as they ended up going one and done in a loss to Louisville City FC.
“Our defensive record’s been excellent, but that’s when you strengthen, as opposed to waiting until your weak,” Collins said. “…Alex has been impressive in his first two, three days in training. He fits right in with the squad. When the opportunity comes Alex will be ready to play. That was one of the biggest things, finding someone like that was nigh impossible. You were either getting a kid out of college whose fitness you’d wonder about or you’re getting a player on another team that hasn’t played. We managed to get a good player that has played. Credit to the club for getting us that one.”
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies