The Tampa Bay Rowdies (9W-2L-3D, 30 pts) are set to make their last road trip of the regular season this Saturday to take on last-place Miami FC (2W-7L-4D, 10 pts) for the fourth and final time this year.
Saturday will be a return to action for the Rowdies after getting last weekend off. The players took a four-day break from training after their last-minute 2-1 victory at Atlanta United 2 last Wednesday and came back to work on Monday morning.
As much as the players may have appreciated the brief rest and opportunity to regroup after a hectic few weeks, they were more eager to get back to work. Now would not be a good time to lose your edge with the postseason right around the corner.
“You always need a little break, but I think with the rhythm we have right now I don’t think we want to stop because we’re getting to a part of the season where it’s the most important,” Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti said this week. “It’s important to keep everybody’s head in the game. Everybody needs to be a part of it.”
Miami recently battled to a scoreless draw with the Charlotte Independence. That draw was also the club’s third straight scoreless effort. The Rowdies themselves have shut out Miami twice this year in a pair of 3-0 victories at Al Lang and in South Florida, but sanwdwiched in between those resuts was an underhelming 1-1 draw. Avoiding that kind of result this week will be key for the Rowdies. There is no room for error with the Charleston Battery (8W-2L-3D, 27 pts) hot on their tails in Group H. Anything other than a win against Miami will put the Rowdies in a tough spot heading into next week’s finale against Charleston at Al Lang. Charleston won’t play again until they face Miami on Wednesday. Their match with Loudoun United this weekend was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result within Loudoun’s orgaization.
The Rowdies went into the short break carrying a few injuries to key players and “not too much has changed” in that area, according to Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. Backup keeper Macklin Robinson is fit for selection after missing the last few matches. However, Collins did confirm Malik Jonson remains out after missing the last match in Atlanta due to injury. The situation with Lucky Mkosona’s hamstring injury that has sidelined him for five straight matches remains the same. Striker Juan Tejada has also been out for three matches now due to an ankle injury and Collins didn’t hint at when he might return. On top of all that, midfielder Yann Ekra is also in doubt after exiting with a knock last week in Atlata.
Those are all big losses for the Rowdies, who don’t have much more time before the stakes are raised in the posteason. Mkosana, Tejada, Johnson, and Ekra are responsinble for seven goals and seven assists this season.
“We want to have as many options as possible heading into the playoffs,” Collins said. “You’ve seen the difference of Lucky and Juan, two really special players being out. Heading into the playoffs you want these guys available. We try and do everything we can. We’ve done a great job of that, but when you’re playing in professional sports people do pick up injuries. Little things happen when you least expect it. You either feel sorry for yourself or you give yourself an opportunity.”
No Spotlight, No Problem
Earlier this week, center back Forrest Lasso was named to the USL Championship’s Team of the Week for his goal and overall performance in Atlanta. He’s the fourth Rowdie this year to be selected to the league’s Team of the Week, follwing Ekra, Leo Fernandes, and Jordan Scarlett.
Four players might not seem like much for one of only two teams in the Eastern Conference with at least 30 points, but the Rowdies aren’t worrying to much about individual plaudits.
“Forrest doesn’t act like he’s a big man because he’s on the team of the week,” Collins said. “It means nothing to Forrest. Forrest wants to be part of a team that wins championships. He’ll do whatever it takes, whatever his role. He came off at Birmingham at halftime and he was straight away behind Max. He knew it was for the team. We’ve got guys that are like that littered through our squad. I really hope they put all these good traits into practice in these next few games and get what they deserve.”
Collins refereced an unexpected source when explaining what they value in players during this week’s media call.
“When we started this season we showed the team a video of Tony Dungy and, I could be wrong because American football is not my strong point, but I think he said it wasn’t his most talented team that won the Super Bowl, it was his third most talented team,’ he said. “His point was it’s about the guys who turn up, it’s about the guys that have consistency. Those are talents, but they’re sometimes not considered as much on paper. This team has definitely got a great togetherness and bit more resilience than maybe we’ve had in the past. These character traits we believe we’ve got.”
Sebastian Guenzatti definitely fits that bill of guys who turn up. He showed that in Atlanta with his thrilling winner in the final seconds. Guezatti knows a thing or two about being on a team that grabs late winners. When he was with the Cosmos, the team routinely scored in the dying moments to convert draws into victories.
“I told Neill and Lee (Cohen) as soon as we finished the first game of the season against Red Bull, this team has so much heart,” Guenzatti said. “We’ve had great players in the past, great quality, but I think this team, we’ve showed it in the games, we never give up. The heart that we show is good to see from the group of guys.”
Collins is always quick to point out the attitude of the Rowdies starts and ends with Guenzatti. The captain may not always grab the same headlines as other strikers in the league, yet he’s there’s no doubt where he ranks for Collins.
“There is no question Seba is an elite player in this league,” he said. “The thing is we live in a world right now where people like to get credit on social media. It means nothing. The credit comes when your name’s on the teamsheet every week and you wear the armband and the players respect you and the coaches around the league and the people that matter respect you, as opposed to someone tweeting something nice or being on a team of the week. That is irrelevant. As much as some people might think it might mean something it doesn’t I think Seba understands that. Some people don’t. Seba does. He’s a team man. An elite player plays for the team. We know he’s a top player in this league and he’s a top player for this club. The team all get that.”
Green and Golden Gloves?
The race for first in Group H isn’t the only competition to keep an eye on in these final weeks. A strong year in net has Rowdies keeper Evan Louro in the mix for the USL Championship’s Golden Glove award, which is given out every year to the keeper with the lowest goals against average. At the moment, Louro sits second in the race with a 0.64 goals against average. San Diego Loyal’s Jon Kempin is ahead with a 0.50 average having played in four fewer matches than Louro. San Diego has just one regular season match left to play, so it will be very tough but not impossible for Louro to catch up. If Kempin gives up at least two more goals in his final match and the Rowdies secure two clean sheets to close the season, then Louro could come away with the award. A keeper is required to have played at least half of his team’s minutes to be eligible for the award. Keepers like Danny Vitiello in PIttsburgh and Charleston’s Joe Kuzminsky could come in at the last minute and become eligible if they get the necessary minutes in the next two weeks.
86 > 85
The next time Sebastian Guenzatti steps on the field it will be his 86th time suiting up for the Rowdies. While not the usual 100-appearance milestone that some past Rowdies players have been celebrated for, 86 is noteworthy when it comes to Guenzatti. Before signing with the Rowdies in 2017, Guenzatti was part of the rival New York Cosmos, who the Rowdies faced off with many times in heated matches in the NASL. In total, Guenzatti made 85 appearances for the Cosmos, meaning he will have officially appeared in more matches for the Rowdies the next time he plays.
Admittedly, this is a small thing to highlight in the grand scheme, but it’s the little victories that are gonna get us through this year.
“When I first came to the Rowdies, I fell in love with. The faciities, the fans, everybody,” Guenzatti said. “The love that the Rowdies fans have for me, it means a lot. At the end of the day it means a lot for me to be part of this history. It’s an unbelievavle achievement. If you would have told me this when I first came in 2017 after being hurt (the previous year) I never would have dreamed that. I’ve come a long way with the Rowdies and I’m so grateful they gave me the opportunity. Neill coming in as a coach, he gave me an opportunity to play my position where I thought I was the best. It all worked out. It was the right decision and the right choice for me.”
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies