The Tampa Bay Rowdies are set for their first appearance in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference final this Saturday at 7:30 pm. Waiting to take them on is Louisville City FC.
“There’s always a goal to reach and we’re just at the start,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “I’m pleased with the steps we’ve made, but this team’s still scratching the surface honestly. The players have done so well as a group. It’s not just hollow words. These boys are so together. They are just getting started. Some of the football over the last month or two has been excellent. But it’s just the start, so we want to keep building. This is just another one of the steps to where we want this club to be on a regular basis.”
A few days out from the matchup, it seems as if everyone outside of Tampa Bay is picking against the Rowdies. There are plenty of reasons to pick Louisville. After all, they’re hosts, they finished top of the league in the standings, they have been to the USL Cup final the last three years, and they have not dropped a match since the last week of July.
Still, Collins has taken issue with growing sense of inevitability setting in this week that it’s already a foregone conclusion that Louisville is already on its way to a fourth straight USL Cup final.
“I like our guys a lot. I’ll back them against anyone,” Collins said during Wednesday’s media call. “I think we’ve got a great team spirit, a great team togetherness, a great way of playing. Yeah, it’s a challenge. Going on the road against any team in this league is a challenge, whether it’s in the Eastern Conference finals or not. We’re gonna go down there and hopefully put the cat amongst the pigeons.”
The Rowdies and Louisville have yet to meet in 2020 due to the pandemic and the regionalized restructing of the league. However, there’s enough familiarity for each side to lean on along with their usual scouting this week. Saturday will be Collins’ fifth time coaching against Louisville, which has maintained many core players and stuck to a similar system over the years.
The last meeting between the club came almost exactly one year ago in the first round of the postseason, as Louisville put an end to the Rowdies’ campaign in a 2-1 result.
“Last season we went in there not on the finest run of form,” Collins said. “We had important players injured. So this year we’re heading in full of momentum, top of the group on the back of two wins, everyone fit. On top of that we’ve got strength in the squad with the players that we’ve brought in.”
Louisville gets a lot of credit and attention for its three-man attacking line that includes Cameron Lancaster and former Rowdie Antoine Hoppenot. Lancaster has tallied a goal in his last seven appearances, inlduing Louisville’s first two postseason matches. He also leads the leage in shots on goal, while the Rowdies have allowed the fewest shots on goal of any team this year.
“If we were to listen to everyone else we’d just go down there and put ten men behind the ball and hope for a few hail marys where we get something,’ Collins said. “We believe in ourselves. We know what we’re going to do. We’re gonna go and try and implement what we always try and implement. I believe if we do that we do it well we’ll be good enough. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We always adjust accordingly. Louisville have their high press and things like that but so do Red Bulls. So do Atlanta. It might be that Louisville are able to do it more consistently. You guys seem to think they’re the Real Madrid of the USL, but I quite like our team and I like what we’re gonna do. So we’re focused on that.”
It’s fitting that the Rowdies will have to go through Louisville in order to jump up to that next level in the USL. Collins frequently talks about relishing this type of high-pressure challenge.
“It’s great that we’ve got a great test against what’s been one of the strongest teams in the USL, but the biggest motivating factor for me is just the people behind the scenes here that I’ve worked with. That’s who I want the success for,” Collins said. “Not to get one over on Louisville. I want to get one up for the Rowdies. We want to become an elite team because we want it and we put the work in. So people counting against us week after week, that always adds a little fuel to the fire. But the fire we’ve got comes from within, because we want success for each other. That’s what we’re striving towards. I think that’s what is the biggest motivating factor, that internal motivation to enjoy the success together. We’re definitely looking forward to putting on a good Rowdies performance.”
Whether Starting or Subbing In, Leo Comes Through
One notable player missing from the Rowdies lineup for last year’s trip to Louisville in the postseason was Leo Fernandes. The midfielder was one of a few Rowdies players struggling with injuries in the final weeks of the season as the club slipped down the table. Heading into this weekend’s matchup, Fernandes if fortunately fit and ready to play.
Fernandes has been one of the few constants for the Rowdies since Collins took over in 2018 and even before that. He’s the longest serving player in the locker room, with last week’s match being his 88th appearance for the club. This year he’s second on the team in scoring with five goals and has also recorded two assists.
With all that in mind, many have wondered why Collins has left Fernandes out of the starting XI for the first two matches of the postseason. Max Lachowecki has taken on the starting left wing back spot, with Fernandes coming on as a substitute. The move has worked well so far, with Fernandes scoring in the win over Brimingham and drawing the foul that led to the winner against Charleston.
“Obviously Leo’s not (started) the last couple of games, but I think people forget the position Leo plays, it’s a really difficult position to play the number of games he’s played and have the output that he’s had because you’re having to create all the time and creating’s the most difficult thing in football. You’ve seen the impact he’s obviously had off the bench. He’s been a great teammate to the guys.”
For his part, Fernandes hasn’t let the recent lineup shakeup throw him off his game.
“I think it’s business as usual,’ said the midfielder. “Anytime we get a chance to get on the field, you’re excited. It doesn’t matter if it’s 90, if it’s 20, if it’s 10. If you’re gonna get in the game it’s just another opportunity to make your presence felt. It doesn’t really matter to me. As long as I’m playing I’m happy. If I can help the team win, that’s the number one goal.”
Fernandes is one of the few Rowdies players with a championship already under his belt. Back in 2015 he, Rowdies capatin Sebastian Guenzatti, and striker Lucky Mksoana all helped the Cosmos claim the NASL title.
“I would say that we do have a lot of heart, a lot of those intangibles of being a championship team,” Fernandes said. “We have so many great players, from all the way to the end of the roster. It’s tough to compare the two teams because the NASL was a different league at that time. It was only like 12, 13 teams in the NASL. I feel like to win the USL championship is a little harder just because there are so many more teams, so many more challenges. You travel a lot more. I think in our locker room I don’t think anyone has won the USL championship, so our guys are so hungry to do that. We’re taking it day by day and we’re excited by the challenge.”
Earlier this week the USL Championship announced that Phoenix Rising had relinquished hosting rights to the USL Cup final should the club advance past El Paso Locomotive this weekend. The club elected to give up hosting rights after public pressure to do so since it was only in a position to host as a result of points gained from San Diego Loyal forfeiting a match in which Phoenix’s Junior Flemmings used a homophobic slur against Colin Martin, a publicly gay player.
The result of all this is that whoever comes out on top in the Eastern Conference will host the championship final next week. Both Collins and Fernandes said they aren’t allowing themselves to even entertain the possibility of hosting until Louisville is done and dusted.
“We’re gonna focus every day on getting better,” Collins said. “… We’re thinking about tomorrow’s training and then we’ll deal with playing at Al Lang in a week’s time when it comes. Let’s try and enjoy every moment because it’s a long time coming during the lockdown and it’ll be a longtime coming back once it finishes. It’s a great period to enjoy every moment.”