For the second time in recent weeks, the Tampa Bay Rowdies (8W-L-3D, 27 pts) are aiming to rebound from a loss to Charleston Battery (7W-2L-3D, 24 pts) on a quick turnaround. This Wednesday they travel to face Atlanta United 2 (2W-8L-3D, 9 pts) for the fourth and final time this year. The MLS reserve side became the first club in the USL Championships Eastern Conference to be eliminated from contention for a playoff spot after falling to Miami FC (2W-5L-3D, 9 pts) in a 2-1 result.
“I’m sure they’ve been realistic for a while about their playoff aspirations,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said of Atlanta. “Those guys have played hard from the start and they’ll do that to the finish. You could see that in their game against Miami Saturday evening. They probably deserved something out of that game and didn’t quite get it. There’s certainly enough to show they’re gonna throw a lot at us and we’re gonna have to be at our best again.”
The Rowdies have secured three wins in their previous matchups with Atlanta this year, with those last two meetings arguably being two of their best performances of the year. Now that Atlanta has nothing to lose, don’t be surprised to see the club push hard to spoil the trip for the Rowdies, who remain at the top of Group H.
“Playing a team regularly like we are Atlanta, it’s not just the fourth time, it’s the fourth time in three months, which is really, really strange,” Collins noted. “There’s definitely something new to that. This fact that it’s such a race, such a sprint, to accumulate points, it’s definitely difficult. But the players are ready to go.”
Meanwhile, the Rowdies are seeking to clinch their berth into the postseason. All they need to do that is earn at least one more point or for Miami to drop any points. Miami will be in action at the same time as the Rowdies on Wednesday as they host Group G leaders Birmingham Legion FC.
Last week’s loss in Charleston gave the Battery a fighting chance to overtake the Rowdies for the top spot in Group H and the guaranteed home match in the first round of the postseason that comes with it. The good news is that the Rowdies still control their destiny. Charleston and the Rowdies are scheduled to meet at Al Lang in the regular season finale on October 3. So if both sides enter the finale even on points, the Rowdies will hope to take advantage of the home advantage.
“We’re in a good spot,” Collins said. “It’s now about capitalizing on that the best we possibly can. So in many respects I’m pleased, but this is the interesting bit. This is the bit we want to get right. Rest assured we’re doing everything we can to do that.”
A Brief Respite
After Wednesday’s match, the Rowdies will have a 10-day break in action before they come back to face Miami in their penultimate match of the regular season.
The time off will hopefully give Juan Tejada, Lucky Mkosana and Yann Ekra time to recover. Collins said the club hopes to have all three back when they return against Miami, but they won’t be rushing anyone back before they’re ready. The break will also give the entire roster a chance to refresh before two more vital regular season matches and a potential deep playoff run.
“I think something that doesn’t get mentioned enough is there’s always the pressure of performing and winning and trying to produce results, but with the guidelines and structure there’s a lot more added pressure than normal,” Collins said. “It will be good for the players. They’ll be limited in what they can do. I hope they can get some enjoyment. The ones that have got their families here can get some time with their family and the ones that don’t can get some respite, if anything just from me.”
Iron Men in the Back
Three guys who may be most deserving of a little break are the back three of the Rowdies. Defenders Jordan Scarlett and Aaron Guillen are two of three players (Evan Louro is the third) who have played every minute of the Rowdies’ 13 matches this year. Forrest Lasso would be even with his teammates if not for the second half he missed in Birmingham back in July in order to avoid picking up a second yellow card.
With the Rowdies tied for the second most clean sheets in the league (6) and tied for fewest goals allowed all year (8), it’s easy to see why Collins is more than happy to keep the back line unchanged.
“We’ve been very fortunate that those guys have been able to do that and carry that load,” he said. “We’ve got two very, very capable depth options in Max (Lachowecki) and Alex (Davey). Max’s contributed a lot for us and he’s pushing hard to start, as has Alex since he’s arrived and been in training. If I felt I need to make a change I would. But I’m a great believer in consistency at the back. I think it’s a position where, while you still work hard and take the bumps and bruises, it’s different from the different kind of energy you expend up at the top end of the field. All being well, those guys will take the field. If I felt they needed a rest I wouldn’t hesitate to make it. I think our defensive record speaks for itself. I think those guys are eager to turn things around from Friday night.”
Some Players Still Looking for Their Shot
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the defenders, there are a few players who have yet to see much time on the field.
Attacking midfielders Adam Najem and Kevin Mendoza have both appeared in four matches so far and are the only players to have played fewer than 90 total minutes. Najem has only been utilized as a late substitute, with most of his minutes coming off the bench in the Charleston losses. His integration into the club was complicated by the fact that he not only came in late but also after being without a club for several months.
“Adam’s come in with a great attitude, trained really hard and been a good addition to the team,” Collins said. “I think the reality of coming in to a team that’s already winning and training together six week to two months, it’s going to take time. I think over the last two weeks he’s shown an improvement and I’ve really expected him to start contributing more and getting more minutes in the team. There’s still games left for Adam to show his value and I believe he will do that. It’s never as easy as people think; sign a player and just put them in and magic happens. I know he can do great things, but we’ve also had a team of players that have done good things up to this point. He’s had to be patient and I’m sure his patience will pay off.”
Mendoza’s only start came back in the 1-1 draw against Miami on August 16 at Al Lang. He started up top with Tejada on that day, but he was swapped out at halftime after the Rowdies struggled to look potent in the attack. Collins pointed out that the unique format to the season after the restart has likely impacted the amount of time Mendoza has received. The condensed schedule has raised the stakes of every match, meaning the staff are slightly more hesitant to take chances in some areas and shake things up if things are already working well.
“It’s just tough to give everyone these minutes or to guys you know have positives, but also have a little bit more of the unknown. You’ve gotta go and try and find results. That’s what we’ve had to do,” Collins said. “I feel for some of the guys because some of them are probably anxious. They want to play and, as opposed to having 20 games left and saying that’s alright you’re gonna get opportunities, they’re thinking in their minds ‘I’ve got three games left, possibly the playoffs and I’ve not played… If I was a young player and I wanted opportunities I’d be anxious, but I’d be trying to show everyday in training that I want that opportunity. Kevin will get opportunities. How many I don’t know. I think he’s done fine when he’s come on and played. I think he did well against Atlanta last time and that opportunity may come again on Wednesday.”
The USL Championship confirmed more details about the structure and competition details of the 2020 postseason on Monday. 8 teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason. That 16-team field will be comprised of the top two teams from each group. The Rowdies’ Group H has been paired off with Group G for the first two rounds of the postseason, meaning the top team from Group H will face the runner up from from Group G and the runner up from Group H will face the Group G winner. The winning sides from those two matches will then meet in the Semifinal round the following week. After the Quarterfinals, hosting rights will be determined by regular season records.
- Conference Quarterfinals: October 8-11
- Conference Semifinals: October 15-18
- Conference Finals: October 22-25
- USL Cup Final: Date TBD
Downtown St. Petersburg will be a busy spot if the Rowdies make a deep run in the postseason. After being cancelled in March, the St. Pete Grand Prix is scheduled to occur in St. Petersburg from October 23-25. For years now, the race has forced the Rowdies to start the first couple weeks of the season on the road as it shuts down virtually everything in downtown St. Pete in the lead up to race day. Despite the race forging ahead, the Rowdies say they are still planning to play at Al Lang should any home postseason matches coincide with the race in October.
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies