by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies welcomed Miami FC into the USL Championship by handing their in-state rivals a 3-0 defeat. Sebastian Guenzatti, Malik Johnson and Juan Tejada all tallied goals to give the Rowdies the impressive scoreline.
It was Tampa Bay’s first ever win over Miami in competitive play. The two sides battled to three draws back in 2016 in the NASL and Miami knocked the Rowdies off in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup.
The Rowdies have now beaten all three of the other teams in Group H and sit with 14 points at the top of the group through six matches played. Miami is still without a point on the year, while the Charleston Battery (7 points, 5 matches played) and Atlanta United 2 (5 points, 6 matches played) are second and third in the group.
“I just felt the players worked hard again this week to try and improve their performances and it’s good we get the 3-nil victory on the back of it but I’ve seen real signs of promise tonight that is building on how we want to play,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “It’s pleasing to get the win but we’re just constantly trying to build the performances. Our position on the table reflects our performance tonight, but we know that we’ll need to improve because all these teams we’ve played are going to improve. We’re happy but we’re certainly not gonna get complacent.”
Things looked fairly even throughout most of the first half, with the hosts edging out the Rowdies by creating a few more scoring chances. The Rowdies were unfortunately forced to swap Leo Fernandes out for Max Lachowecki early after the mindfielder went down with an injury.
Collins, though, wasn’t dissauaded by his squad’s opening.
“It doesn’t matter who you play in this league. On the road, the first 30 minutes are generally gonna be tight affairs, especially when it’s their home opener,” he said. “I wasn’t overly concerned. I thought there was more to come from us. I was happy with how we were dealing with other aspects of the game. I was quite comfortable.”
As he did last week, Guenzatti found the go-ahead goal with just a few minutes to go before halftime. Center back Forrest Lasso launched a booming header into Miami’s end of the field and forward Kyle Murphy did well to challenge for the ball as it came down. He managed to get just enough in the 50-50 challenge to guide it toward Guenzatti, who slipped his away into the box and deposited a strike into the back of the net before any defenders closed him down.
Guenzatti has now scored a goal in four straight matches, which is his longest scoring streak since joining the club.
“A fantastic goal, well taken, out of nothing. Pleased for him that he’s gone on this run and we know he’s capable of that,” Collins said. “I was also delighted with his partner’s performance tonight. Kyle Murphy really led the line well and he linked up well with Seba. He may not have gotten his goal, but he played just as big an impact on the goal as Seba did, challenging and winning the knock down.”
The second half played out similarly. Miami held the ball more and earned some good chances but failed to convert on any of them.
Harrison Heath had the best opportunity of the night in the 61st minute with a terrific free kick that was destined for the top left corner if not for an outstanding save by keeper Evan Louro to keep the Rowdies ahead.
“Evan broke our hearts many a time at New York Red Bulls. Just point-blank saves and all those saves,’ Collins noted. “That’s the sign of a good keeper. You look at the big teams, their keepers don’t have a lot to do, but when they’re asked to step up they make saves. I felt he was an integral part of that Red Bulls team. He’s fitting in here nicely and he’s still only 23 years old. He’s still got huge potential and he’s got the best coach in the league in Stuart Dobson to help him realize that potential.”
For the second week in a row, Johnson came off the bench and turned heads with a mesmerizing move to double the Rowdies lead. This time he did it in the 85th minute, faking out one defender on the right edge of the box before shaking off a second and firing a shot into the back of the net.
Tejada got in on the fun in stoppage time with his first goal of the year. On the fifth and final corner kick of the night, midfielder Lewis Hilton’s delivery was nodded home by a leaping Tejada at the near post.
Collins wants to see the Rowdies creating even more chances on the back of Friday’s win.
“The biggest thing for me is as long as we’re creating chances it doesn’t matter who scores them,” he said. “Of course you’re pleased that the strikers are getting it from a confidence standpoint. We’re just looking to create more opportunities and if we do that we’ve got multiple players throughout the team that will score goals.”
Next up the Rowdies travel to face Atlanta on Wednesday before returning home to host Miami next Sunday.