Photo via Tampa Bay Rowdies/Matt May

After a bit of a delay, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are officially the top team in Group H, guaranteeing them home adavantage through the first two rounds of the postseason.

The first-placed finish was sealed on Wednesday night, when Miami FC mounted an incredible four-goal second half comeback to edge out the Charleston Battery 4-3. Charleston will now have to settle for second place but will still have a chance to play spoiler to the Rowdies, who are aiming to lock up the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

“Obviously the result benefits us, but the biggest thing our players have done is they’ve taken care of their own business,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “We weren’t relying on anyone. It just shows you, to go to Miami twice and win and not concede is not easy. Only ourselves and Birmingham have won in Miami. I think when people sometimes look across the groups they don’t realize just how difficult that Miami team has been to take 10 points off.”

A win this weekend over the Battery would give the Rowdies the top spot in the east. They could still finish first if they draw or lose against the Battery, but that would require the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Louisville City and Hartford Athletic to all drop points on the final weekend of the season as well.

Hosting rights in the Eastern Conference isn’t the only thing on the line this Saturday. The Rowdies could also capture the top spot in either across the league depending on how results out west shake out. Reno 1868 FC, San Antonio FC and Phoenix Rising (depending on how the USL handles Phoenix’s abandoned match with San Diego on Wednesday) are all in the mix in the Western Conference.

“We’ve said all year, we’re not necessarily battling against Charleston, Miami or Atlanta. We’re battling against how good can we be as a group,” Collins noted. “We’ve got an opportunity on Saturday to be the first seed in the whole USL. The players have put us in that position. That’s our aim. Our aim is to go out and put on a performance that gives us the best chance of being the number one seed in the whole of the USL.”

Next Week

We now know the Rowdies will be at home to start the postseason. The only thing left to figure out is who the they’ll be playing. We do know they’ll face whoever finishes second in Group G, while Charleston will take on the winner from Group G.  The winners from those two matches will then face each other in the next round.

Birmingham Legion FC and the Charlotte Independence are in a dead heat at the top of Group G with 25 points each. Third-place North Carolina FC has not yet officially been eliminated, as there remains an oustide chance their cancelled 16th game against Loudoun will be made up somehow. However, that theoretical make up game won’t matter unless North Carolina defeats Charlotte in their head-to-head battle this Saturday. If Charlotte wins or draws then North Carolina will be eliminate no matter what. Meanwhile, Birmingham will play last-place Memphis 901 FC.

Every Day At a Time

The Rowdies may have secured first in the group, but it’s hard to deny they still have something to prove against Charleston. The Battery are the only team to have beaten the Rowdies this year, and they did so twice.

Forrest Lasso didn’t mince words when discussing the Charleston losses. The center back broke in to the professional ranks with Charleston back in 2015 and spent three seasons there, so he’s aware of how dangerous that side can be.

“Credit to our opponent, respect to our opponent, they’ve been really good when they’ve beaten us and maybe deserved the points, but I look at myself in the mirror and I look at our performances, we were inhibiting ourselves,” Lasso said. “Small details in our game, tactically, where we weren’t perfect. We let our foot off the gas and we maybe tried to shoot a corner or two, you see it in the result, we didn’t get three points. We conceded and I can put my hand up, I know in two games on the road there I can do better defensively. That’s just the real point about it.”

This Saturday afford the Rowdies one more opportunity to make a statement before the playoffs start, especially with a possible rematch with Charleston looming in the second round.

“We have the luxury of being in the playoffs already,” Lasso said. “We don’t have to go and get the result this weekend, but we want the result. We always want the result. Want to make a statement that hey we have five more games to play and we’ll see you on November 1.”

Last year around this time the Rowdies were struggling to find consistency on the field and fell out of the top four in the conference, losing the ability to host in the playoffs. This year they control their fate. Hosting rights over everyone in the east and maybe even a USL Cup final is within their grasp. All they have to do to get it is play the at the level they’ve come to expect of themselves.

“Last year we set the standard of every game at a time. This year it was every day at a time. Let’s get better every day. These players have really stuck to that… Whatever happens on Saturday night, we know we have a playoff game to look forward to. I do believe these players are preparing to go out and put on a performance that reflects well on themselves. The biggest disappointment for us as a collective unit is we just didn’t reflect ourselves well in those two Charleston games. Not taking anything away from Charelston, I just believe on Saturday we will see a Rowdies performance.”

Forrest Wants That Cup

It’s easy to forget because he’s became a fixture in the USL for so long, but Forrest Lasso is only 27. He has plenty of prime playing years left and even some to keep evolving as a player. He’s hoping Collins can help him with the latter.

“Neill was a player. He played on the same field at Al Lang. He’s played in much higher leagues across the world. He’s seen it. He’s done it. He’s lived it. He can teach it. He’s shown that. I’m still a pretty young center back and I have plenty areas of my game I need to develop. I believe in just the 15 games in this crazy year I feel I’ve taken strides personally and I credit that to the leadership in front of me. You can see the mentality across the board. We’ve got maybe a smaller roster than other teams, but it just shows the trust and the level of commitment we have to one another. It starts at the top.”

Lasso was part FC Cincinnati’s squad in 2018, when the club dominated the entire USL during the regular season only to crash out early in the postseason. That failure likely motivates Lasso with the Rowdies now that he’s on the verge of his first playoff run since then.

“I want to win the cup, I haven’t won the cup. I want to win the cup. We want it. Our squad wants it. Our dressing room wants it. The club wants it. The community wants it. You can feel it.”

Lucky’s Return

Along with the positive result in Miami, the Rowdies also got back Lucky Mkosana. The striker had missed a month of action due to a hamstring injury, but he looked to be back at a high level while coming off the bench midway through the second half in Miami.

“Lucky is just such a great person off the field, but it also helps that he’s such a good player as well,” Collins said. “He’s been fantastic in training the last week and a half. He really helped us take the game home on Saturday night. He gives the team a great energy, a great quality. He could’ve had a goal. That’s the big thing, he always gets his chances. On top of that he holds the play up, links the play. Kyle Murphy did a great job battling away for the first 60, 65 minutes. Lucky was able to come on, and we’ve missed that. We’ve missed Lucky and Juan Tejada. To have him back at this stage is huge.”

Lasso knows full well what Mkosana is capable of after matching up with in training all year long, so he’s as grateful as anyone to have the attacker back to full health.

“At the beginning of the year he won us games, he was the striker that was winning us games,” Lasso said of Mkosana. “…When you have a dressing room full of guys that can look to a veteran guy like him and see how he’s handled 2020, it’s pretty easy to look at yourself and think if I can do my part we’ll have some success at the end of the day.”

Collins noted that the only players with injury questions heading into the weekend are striker Juan Tejada and wingback Malik Johnson. Tejada has missed the last three matches, while Johnson has been sidelined for the last two. Both players will be late decisions for the match with Charleston.

Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

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