The Tampa Bay Rowdies will get one more shot at the Charleston Battery. After knocking the Battery off 2-1 at Al Lang at the end of July, the Rowdies have gone on to drop three the last three matchups between the two sides.
So Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins and the rest of the Rowdies are looking forward to getting their chance at revenge against the Battery in the postseason, right?
Not so much.
“You might not believe me, but honestly I couldn’t care less who we’re playing on Saturday,” Collins said. “I don’t care if we beat Philly Union II or Charleston Battery. I want us to go out and perform and I want us to win. I want us to get to an Eastern Conference Final. The fact that it’s Charleston’s, fine. We’ve stressed this all along, it won’t mean any more beating Charleston because we’re focused on the Rowdies, we’re focused on Tampa Bay. We’re focused on what we want to do for this club. Beating Charleston’s hopeful going to be part of that.”
It may not matter to Collins, but the feeling among supporters is that the Battery are the one impediment holding this Rowdies team back from reaching that next level. That’s a reasonable conclusion to make considering Tampa Bay’s only losses this year have been against the Battery.
The season seires hasn’t been a blowout. Each match has has been a close affair. If you wanted to take a more optimistic approach for this Saturday, you could look at as Charelston only leads 4-3 on aggregate through the first four games of the series and the Rowdies have the advantage of hosting the final leg.
“I would say when team like Charleston and us have met so many times and it’s been close every single time, it’s not necessarily one thing or even a multitude of things,’ said Rowdies midfielder Zach Steinberger. “It’s really just on the day who comes out and who wants it more. I know that sounds cliche, but I truly believe if the 11 guys wearing one jersey have more desire than the other 11, those little things, those second balls, those little advantages start to just swing your way. Over the course of those 90 minutes, eventually those little wins turn into a win after 90. I think that’s what we’re gonna focus on is going out and winning every battle.”
Appreciating the Moment, Wanting More
The Rowdies have been here before.
In 2017, they also hosted in the Eastern Conference Semfinal round. They fell 2-1 in extra time to New York Red Bulls II on that day. Collins was stilll a starting center back for the Rowdies at the time, so he can appreciate what it means to be back here and how tough it’s been rebuilding the Rowdies to get to this point over the last three years.
Having experienced the bitter disappointment of that playoff loss to Charleston, Collins is eager to come away on the winning side this weekend.
“This would be another step toward what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “It’s no different to these other hurdles we’ve had to overcome… This is another great challenge for us. I think we’re at our best when we’ve got real challenges. I’d be pleased for everyone involved because it just shows the work we’ve been doing. It’s taken us a step closer. But by the same token sometimes you can do all the right things and not quite get there. We’re doing everything we can to give ourselves the best opportunity and I hope the fans get to enjoy another playoff win.”
Trust Your Routines
The 2020 Rowdies continue to shine on set pieces.
They were able to jump out to an early lead on Birmingham last week through a pre-planned set piece between Zach Steinberger and Jordan Doherty. Steinberger delivered the ball on a dime from the corner to the top of box for Doherty to trap and then blast on frame.
“That was a pretty incredible moment,” Steinberger said. “You work on those things all the time. Very rarely do they work out exactly as you planned. That one did. Obviously it was a great way to start our first playoff game.”
In their last matchup with the Battery a few weeks back, the Rowdies managed to get on the scoresheet with a header off a corner kick, as well. Additionally, their best chance by far in the two scoreless losses at Charleston was from a corner kick opportunity as well.
Collins understandably does not want his team to be too reliant on set pieces. Still, it’s a nice asset to have in your rotation when games are tight and you may need to bust through a stalemate.
“You’ve got to believe in what you do from the start to the end,” Collins said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. We don’t start training with an hour on set piece the week of the playoffs because the players wouldn’t buy into that. Whereas, by trying to do things you do every week you can try and build on them. There’s a routine to that. If you change much the week of the playoffs it doesn’t say much about your preparation throughout.”
There’s no denying Charleston has had great success stymying the Rowdies attack. Beyond the two shutouts, they’ve done well to also limit the Rowdies scoring chances in general. Even in the July win, the Rowdies only occassionally threatened the goal. It took a tremendous through ball by Doherty and a incredible bit of indivdual play from Sebastian Guenzatti to get the opening goal in that one. The second tally was another moment of individual brilliance from Malik Johnson, though it came after Charleston had been reduced to ten men due to a red card.
Collins will have his full roster to choose from in this last bout with the Battery, as everyone is fit and healthy. It will just be about selecting the right combination of players to come out on top.
“Charleston from their point of view will think they’ve played well, and I think they have,” he said. “But it’s not about beating yourself up about it. It’s about learning from it. I thought we’ve done that each time. We’ve not backed it up with a performance, but we play them again this week and we learn from what happened in the past. We’re in a different spot right now. We’ve got a lot of guys fit.”
The Lucky Factor
One player Collins and the staff may be happiest to see back to full health is striker Lucky Mkosana. Coming off the bench last week, Mkosana both scored and played a role in another goal to lift the Rowdies over Birmingham after the result looked in doubt. Mkosana has now recorded seven goals off the bench since arriving in Tampa Bay through trade midway through 2019. That accounts for nearly half of the club’s goals via substitutes in that time.
That x-factor that Mkosana brings to the squad was missing in the two trips to Charleston. He suffered an injury that took him out of action for over a month right before that first trip to Charleston. In both of those away trips, the Rowdies definitely lacked a punch from the bench. Mkosana was only just regaining his footing when he appeared off the bench in the season finale aganst Charleston, but last week showed he’s still more than capable of changing the course of a match completely when he enters. The Rowdies may need that if Saturday plays out the way the last four meetings with Charleston have.
Eyes on Louisville and Saint Louis
If you’re rooting for the Rowdies to come through this weekend and host again next week, then you should be pulling for Saint Louis FC to knock off Louisville City FC in the other Eastern Conference Seminfal. That matchup is set to kickoff in Louisville at the same as the Rowdies and Battery in St. Pete. Louisville finished as the top overall seed in the east, meaning they would host either the Rowdies or Battery next week if they take care of business agaist Saint Louis.