The Tampa Bay played to a 2-2 draw with Indy Eleven in front of 6,377 fans at Al Lang Stadium in St Petersburg. With both teams already eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago, the game was the 2014 finale for both. Despite the post season irrelevance both sides approached the game looking to end the year on a boastful and came out looking to earn the full three points.
The Rowdies brought the intensity that fans were hoping to see at the opening whistle but, much like in most matches this season, could not find that quality finish in the opponent’s final third. Ricky was forced to play his second match all year without Darel Russell available as a result of the midfielder’s post match red card last week in New York. Keith Savage, having performed well in central midfield got the obvious start, but Hill made a somewhat surprising decision to start Anthony Wallace as his partner in the center. Wallace has played in the defense and midfield in his career, but primarily played in midfield when he got time at MLS clubs Dallas in Colorado. Many fans have been wondering all year why Wallace has been Hill’s preferred left back all year while a more experienced left back like Blake Wagner has been used as a left winger. It’s likely that Hill enjoys the attacking option that Wallace can be at left back, but at times he has occasionally shown vulnerabilities in the role and left his fellow defenders exposed while bombing up the field.
The breakthrough came for the Rowdies in the 17th minute when forward Georgi Hristov showed great composure with the ball, cutting across the field from left to right and waiting for right winger Evans Frimpong to run on into an advantageous position. Hristov played it Frimpong who took one touch and fired off a shot that appears to have taken a fortunate deflection off of an Indy defender and rocket right above keeper Kristian Nicht’s right shoulder. It was Frimpong’s third of the year, and the other two came in last week’s game against the Cosmos. Frimpong always brings great pace to field but it’s nice to finally see him breakthrough and find his finishing touch and get some fortuitous bounces this year. A consistent scoring threat and creative sparkplug in the midfield is one of the things that the Rowdies have been sorely missing all season.
The First half was filled with some good spells of possession for the Rowdies, with Savage and Wallace having some success as a partnership. Tampa Bay failed to create many more dangerous opportunities for themselves apart from a dangerous whipping cross from Hristov that had Nicht beat and deflected off a defender for a near own goal. So the Rowdies had to settle for a one goal lead at the half and during his halftime interview on the broadcast Ricky Hill stressed the importance of maintaining their focus for the entire match to secure the victory.
Unfortunately the team didn’t heed his message and within two minutes of the second half had given up the equalizer. Indy had eight corner kicks in the first half, all of which were dealt with sufficiently by the Rowdies. Indy had only one corner kick the entire second half and it was not handled well at all. The corner was initially deflected out of the box off the back off the back of forward Luciano “Lucho” Olguín. The ball weakly bounced in the direction of Hristov, but he couldn’t manage the clear the ball from danger as it caught him wrong-footed. The ball trickled right into the path of Indy Eleven’s Don Smart who blasted it from 30 yards out to tie things up. In the highlights the shot seemed to graze the left side of center back Tam to move even further out of keeper Matt Pickens’ reach but the fact remains that the defending on that set was not the intensity that Ricky Hill stressed at halftime.
After the equalizer Indy clearly had the best run of play, taking control of the midfield and closing down any passing lanes that the Rowdies exploited in the first half. The game didn’t even out until Hill made a double substitution in the 72nd minute, Lucky Mkosana for Brian Shriver and Amani Walker for Lucho. When the substitutions came in the game opened up and the Rowdies looked threatening on the counter attack. Of course, the Rowdies back line has had its issues stopping opponents when the game opens up this year, and that is exactly how Indy found its second goal in the 88th minute. Victor Pineda timed a perfect pass to 71st minute substitute Jhulliam to beat the offside trap. Pickens came off his line but didn’t make himself big enough or close down the angle quickly and Jhulliam had an easy goal.
The beauty of an open game though is that no one goal lead is safe. In the 89th minute, Blake Wagner delivered his best set piece of the year from the left flank that Walker put a convincing header in to tie things back up. In stoppage time it looked as if the Rowdies were going to pull of the full comeback and win it when Savage received the ball at the six yard box with some space. He just couldn’t manage to get the ball out from under his feet before being closed down by an Indy defender and Nicht.
The draw means the Rowdies are tied for the longest winless streak this season at nine games with, coincidentally, Indy Eleven. This is not the place any fan hoped for or expected the team to be when the season ended, but there is no denying that this is where the Rowdies should be. They were regrettably consistently mediocre this and the harsh reality of the offseason has already begun. General Manager Perry Van der Beck has 30 days to make a decision on players with club options in their contracts. Tough choices will likely need to be made to get the Rowdies back to their winning ways. Below is a list of players with a club option or that are now a free agent. All info is taken from the Rowdies original press releases.
Club Option (May be retained or released): Frankie Sanfilippo (D), Evans Frimpong (M), Diego Restrepo (GK), Jordan Gafa (D), Devin Del Do (F), Cody Mizel (GK), Keith Savage (M), Ryan Thompson (GK), Darel Russell (M), Shane Hill (M), JP Rodrigues (D)
Free Agent: Kyle Clinton (M/D), Takuya Yamada (D/F), Anthony Wallace (D/M), Casey Townsend (F), Lucky Mkosana (F/M), Amani Walker (F)