Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

The final weekend of the regular season last week was not go according to plan for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. With the top spot in the Eastern Conference within their grasp, they instead faltered in a 2-1 loss to the Chalreston Battery and saw Louisville City FC, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Hartford Athletic all leap over them in the standings.

The only bright side to the situation is that either Louisville or Pittsburgh will be gone after this weekend as they’ve drawn each other to open the single-elimination postseason.

“Of course it’s a disappointment,” Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said of his side’s stumble at the finish line. “The way we performed on Saturday was ultimately the biggest disappointment. But then quite quickly you then get back in on Monday and you’re ready to play a home playoff game.”

Last week’s loss was so deflating it’s easy to forget the Rowdies still sit in an advantageous position heading into the postseason. If they can get past Birmingham Legion FC in the Quarterfinal round at Al Lang this Saturday, they’ll have hosting rights the following weekend against whoever prevails between Charleston and the Charlotte Independence. This accomplishment itself is a step up from last year when the Rowdies were dropping in form and in the standings for two straight months and were forced to hit the road in the first round of the postseason.

“At times, because it’s a great club with a great history dating back a long time, you can start taking things for granted,” Collins noted. “It’s the first back-to-back playoffs the club’s had in 8 years. It’s not been a given that you qualify for the playoffs. We’ve got a home game in the playoffs. So you’ve got to enjoy these moments. That’s what we said to the players last Saturday. Don’t wish the week away to get to Saturday kickoff time You’ve got to enjoy the week. You’ve got to enjoy every moment of training and be together, working and preparing… As crazy a year as it’s been, we can still make it a great year for the club.”

Birmingham Comes to Town

It feels like a lifetime ago, but the Rowdies only last met Birmingham on July 25. The Rowdies came away from that road trip with a point after a second-half goal by Sebastian Guenzatti secured a 1-1 result. Guenzatti’s goal was the capper to a beautful 23-pass sequence by the Rowdies. Collins still consider that match one his sides better performances this year.

At the time Birmingham seemed like a favorite to win Group G. Like the Rowdies, though, Birmingham ended the regular season on a downbeat with a surpising 3-1 defeat to last-place Memphis 901 FC to finish as the runner up to Charlotte. However, the Rowdies didn’t have anywhere near as bad a final stretch as Birmingham. Tom Soehn’s one just one of its final six matches.

The Rowdies will still need to remain vigilant. Birmingham’s leading scorer Neco Brett and a few others on the squad are capable of burning teams on the counter, similar to the way Charleston has hurt the Rowdies recently.

“Form goes out the window because you know guys are playing to stay alive, to keep their season alive,” Collins noted. “We know that Birmingham will come here very resilient, very well-organized, working hard and ready to try and spoil the party. As always, we need is to focus on what we need to do first. We always respect the opposition and pay attention to the important things, but don’t lose sight of how important it’s going to be what we do and how we implement ourselves.”

One thing the Rowdies definitely want to avoid is another poor showing in the attack. While they did manage to get a goal off the Battery last week, it was another lackluster attacking effort. The Rowdies attack is a vexing conundrum, in that creating chances only seems to be a major concern when the opposing defense in the Battery. Granted the Battery are one of the better defensive sides in the league, but odds are you’re gonna have to perform againt a few strong defenses in the postseason if you want to win the whole thing.

“A big part of this week is about who we are. Who we are and what do we want to look like,” Collins said. “You don’t hear me bang on too much, at least I hope not, about our identity. I think that’s for other people to decide. When you watch the Rowdies, what do you see? If you guys say certain things, that means we’re doing it right. (Against Charleston) we didn’t see those things that we like to see. So the aim is to get them out on this Saturday evening and get them out more often than not. I think the players really take that on board. They’ve got a clear idea of what we want. We’re all on the same page. I believe they’ll go out and rise to the occasion and be able to perform for us.”

Increasing the Home Field Advantage

This Saturday, the Rowdies will have a little more support in the stands of Al Lang than they’ve been used to this year.  After permitting a few hundred invite-only supporters into the stadium on matchdays since the restart, the club is now opening the venue up to over 1,000 people this weekend. They’ll do the same next week if the Rowdies advance.

“We need the fans that are in the stadium to bring everything,” Collins said. “I’ve said it before, the fans should be super proud of this team. Not just for what they’ve done on the field, but the way they’ve handled themselves through the whole shutdown. You want to come and see them give 100 percent for the jersey. That’s a given, right? But are they giving 100 percent for the club and the jersey all the other time? This group are. If the fans could see the sacrifices they’ve made to give ourselves and the club the best chance to be successful, they would be proud of them. I’m sure the fans will get right behind them on Saturday and I’m sure the players will give them something to get behind as well.”

Tickets for the match and for a potential match next Saturday are available here.

Injury Report

Attacking midfielders Malik Johnson and Sebastian Dalgaard were the only two Rowdies listed on last week’s injury report. Their status remain in question as the club moves closer to their Quarterfinal clash with Birmingham. The finale was the first match Dalgaard has missed, but Johnson was last seen on September 11 in a loss at Charleston. Collins did not sound overly optimistic about Johnson making a return agaist Birmingham.

“(Malik) has been back and he’s been doing more in training, but for that playoff game you want to get as many guys that are fit and have match minutes out there,” Collins said. “That’s certainly going to be a late decision on Malik. Seb D’s looking much closer then not at this stage. Everyone else is excellent.”

The Rowdies were fortunate to see strikers Lucky Mkosana and Juan Tejada get back to action right before the end of the regular season after extended absences. The unfortunate side of the situation is that the pair were out so long that it seems unrealistic to expect them to be able to start a match at this point. This limits Collins in what he’s able to lineup with at the outset. Still, it’s better to have some Tejada and Mkosana as opposed to none at all.

“(Starting) is a big ask,” Collins said. “Lucky’s done fantastic. He’s had a great impact off the bench and he’s trained fantastically well this week. He’s probably further ahead than Juan. But the fact that we’ve got them both available is a great boost to the squad.”

Updating the Appearances List

The pandemic may have cut the USL season in half, but Sebastian Guenzatti and Leo Fernandes have still made headway rising up the Rowdies’ appearances list. A deep run to the postseason would likely mean both players end 2020 reaching at least 90 appearances for the Green and Gold. It’s just another reason to root for the Rowdies to come away with the USL Cup.

  1. Georgi Hristov, 173
  2. Keith Savage, 133
  3. Takuya Yamada, 120
  4. Matt Pickens, 112
  5. Frankie Sanfilippo, 108
  6. Tamika Mkandawire, 99
  7. Shane Hill, 88
  8. Sebastian Guenzatti, 87
  9. Darnell King, 86
  10. Leo Fernandes, 86

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