The Tampa Bay Rowdies came through their first round of Group H games on top, knocking off Atlanta United 2, the Charleston Battery and Miami FC by a combined scoreline of 7-1. As a result of those wins and the two draws in their non-group games, the Rowdies are first in the group with 14 points. Charleston is closest behind at 8 points.
Even with such a positive start, there’s no room for complaceny. The Rowdies start their second run through the group with a match at Atlanta this week. This go-around every team’s a little less rusty and has a past match to look back on learn from. Plus the Rowdies have put a big target on their backs thanks to their great restart.
“Every time we’ve played Atlanta it’s been a tactical game, it’s been a tough game,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “You look across the league, all these games are tough. Everyone’s finding it tough. Case and point was Friday night — a 3-nil victory because we played focused for the 90 minutes. We had to play really well for the whole 90 game to see that result through. It’ll be no different on Wednesday night.”
Atlanta has struggled to find consistency since dropping the first game back to the Rowdies. The club’s lone win of the year was a 4-3 result two weeks ago against Miami, who the Rowdies just dispatched 3-0.
Atlanta has also gone through a coaching change since their trip to Al Lang. Scotsman Stephen Glass has assumed interim coaching duties with Atlanta United in MLS, leaving Atlanta United’s academy director Tony Annan to take over with Atlanta United 2.
For a while it looked as if Atlanta would be able to steal a result in St Pete last month, even in spite of having a player sent off just seven minutes into the match. Ultimately the Rowdies were able to mount a second half comeback to win, but the first half is a good reminder that there are no guaranteed results in the USL Championship.
“We expect a lot and maybe you can get caught up in the idea that they’re an MLS 2 side and maybe have the stereotype of being a younger group and we’re an older, more experienced group playing at home,” Max Lachowecki said of the last meeting with Atlanta. “So maybe we felt that maybe we should be on the front foot the whole game. That’s just not the case in soccer in general, that you’re always gonna be on top.”
The Rowdies expect to see a much improved Atlanta side this week, but they’re equally hopeful to they can carry the momentum of their own positive strides in recent weeks into the midweek clash.
Lachoweck Relishing Rowdies Return
A lot of players who missed out on the season opener were anxiously awaiting their chance to get back on the field after the pandemic shut down the season. That wait didnt really compare to how long Max Lachowecki was waiting to make his return, though. Prior to his appearance off the bench against Atlanta on July 11, Lachowecki had not appeared in a competitive match since September 1, 2018.
Altogether, Lachowecki has played 138 minutes for the Rowdies as substitute since the season has resumed.
“It feels amazing. It may not be the most traditional season that we’ve ever had but it’s been amazing to be back, even in training,” Lachowecki said. “Obviously I still have a lot of good friends who are still on the team from 2018 and I know the staff really well. To get to come back to a city that I really enjoy and then ultimately to get to play again is really great. “
Lachowecki, 28, first signed with the Rowdies ahead of the 2018 season. In 10 starts and 16 total appearances, the Notre Dame Alum impressed enough for Neill Collins to offer him a chance to return the following season. Instead, Lachowecki elected to step away from the game.
(Video via WFLA News Channel 8)
After spending the summer of 2018 guding hiking and cycling tours in Utah, the itch to return to soccer eventually took hold of Lachowecki.
“I think my first phone call when I decided to come back was to Neill and I told him I really miss competing,” he said. “I think that was something I really found out along the way through the course of the last year was how much I love competing. Obviously there’s no better time to do that than in games and I’ve been fortunate since the restart to come in and contribute.”
Collins was happy to hear Lachowecki had decided to make a comeback. Still, there were no guarantees given. He was only invited on a trial basis at first. But didn’t take long for Collins to be convinced he’d be a worthwhile addition.
“I think it shows what we think about him as a person and a player that we wanted the opportunity to bring him back here,” Collins said. “He’s showed his desire by not talking about it but by doing it. He came in so fit, like supremely fit, and supremely competitive as he’s always been.”
Lachowecki’s two biggest moments of the season so far have been in the Rowdies’ last two road outings. In Birmingham, he was called on to slot into the back line when Forrest Lasso was subbed off at halftime to prevent him from picking up a second yellow card. Then last Friday in Miami Lachowecki was inserted onto the left wing after an unfortunate early injury to Leo Fernandes.
The two instances show the kind of versatility that make Lachowecki a key piece, especially in a season like this, when the squad’s depth will be pushed to the limit.
“He’s contributed really well this season, as have a lot of guys,” Collins said. “I was pleased to see Max made the decision to come back and that it worked out for him, because it might not have. Some people decide to come back and the opportunity’s gone. There’s gonna be guys every season at any level in world soccer that want to play and when the phone’s not ringing you can’t do anything about it. To do what Max has done says a lot about his ability.”
The Bench Getting it Done
One thing Collins highlighted after the Miami match was his satifisfaction with the offensive production off the bench so far this year. In three of six matches, a substitute has notched at least one goal for the Rowdies.
It’ll be tough to do direct comparison to past seasons in some areas considering how condensed this year is, but the numbers are encouraging for Collins.10 of the 61 goals scored by the 2019 Rowdies were off the bench. 4 of those were from Lucky Mkosana, who was only acquired through trade at the end of June. The bench also accounted for just two goals during the team’s 13-match unbeaten streak to start that year, meaning a few matches that could have ended in vitcory ended in stalemates if they had some super sub moments. Those are points that coud have kept the Rowdies inside the top four and given them a home match in the first round of the postseason.
“We’re only gonna be as good as the guys that come off the bench because you can’t just play 11 players from start to finish,’ Collins said. “That was something we really discussed a lot in the offseason. The start of last season we weren’t as effective because we weren’t getting an impact off the bench from an attacking point of view.”
Slaying the Turf Monster
In two outings on artificial turf this year the Rowdies have secured two wins. It might not seem like much, but it’s something that sure sticks out to the supporters, who have watched the Rowdies struggle for years to pick up results on turf. Prior to this year, the Rowides went winless on turf in both 2018 and 2019. It wasn’t much better before that either. They won just once on turf in 2017 and were again winless the two seasons before that. The two wins this year matches the totals from 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Of course the Soccer Bowl winning team in 2012 has the highest total with three total turf wins.
Hydration Breaks or Tactical Timeouts?
It could very well be coincidence, but the Rowdies have scored shortly after the firs-half hydration break in back-to-back weeks. The breaks are another facet of this return to play. They’ve existed in the past, but now they’re mandatory to aid players in their return to the field after such a long period off and limited lead up time to the restart in the height of summer.
“I think I read something recently that I need to stop calling them hydration breaks. They’re just tactical timeouts, aren’t they? That’s the way they’re being used,” Collins said. “I don’t particularly like it. As nice as it is to get to talk to the team, I trust the guys and I like to just play.”
The longer these breaks are a part of the game, the more likely it becomes for teams to take advantage of the opportunity in any way they can. It’s the nature of sports, teams constantly looking to every little facet to see if it can be exploited to their advantage.
“Everyone’s trying to work out their edges in these things and trying to take advantage of them as best we can, like other teams around the world that are doing the same,” Collins explained. “We’re not overemphasizing anything. Just getting a couple points in and get on with it. But you have seen games change. I’ve watched a lot of the games and you do see some of these games take a different course after these breaks because it does give a chance to regroup.”
Photo via Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies