The 2018 Tampa Bay Rowdies needed just one try to do what took last year’s squad two months.
On an afternoon when the Rowdies did not always appear to be at their best, they pulled through to capture a valuable 3-1 road victory over North Carolina FC in Saturday’s United Soccer League season opener. The Rowdies notched their first road of last season in late May.
The home side put the Rowdies under pressure five minutes into the match when Kyle Bekker lofted a free kick from the edge of the box to the far post for Captain Austin Da Luz, whose header was only denied by the near post.
North Carolina continued to push for an early lead as Tampa Bay’s back line looked to still be carrying off-season rust. In the 11th minute, Bekker created space a yard outside the box and might have found the back of the net if keeper Cody Mizell had not gotten enough of his fingertips on the effort to push it into the post.
After North Carolina’s early surge, Leo Fernandes gave the Rowdies a much-needed boost with a fantastic individual effort in the 23rd minute. Georgi Hristov initiated the play with a one-touch pass into space, but it was Fernandes who took the onus of making a nearly 50-yard run down the left side before slipping a shot under the foot of defender Michael Harrington and past keeper Alex Tambakis.
Tampa Bay’s casual and sluggish play at the back came back to bite them in the 38th minute as Steven Miller found acres of space to bury an equalizer. Dre Fortune’s initial cross into the box took a fortunate deflection off Marios Lomis to fall to the far side for Miller, who calmly deposited the ball into the goal.
North Carolina’s hopes of heading into break to regroup with a deadlock were dashed only three minutes later when a controversial penalty call went in Tampa Bay’s favor. Da Luz was whistled for infringing right back David Najem from behind as he charged toward the box on the right side. Despite the infraction occurring a yard outside of the box, referee Guido Gonzales Jr. immediately pointed to the penalty spot. North Carolina’s protests fell on deaf ears and Hristov powered the conversion down the middle to put the Rowdies back in front.
North Carolina earned its chances in the second half, but Mizell was up to the task on every occasion in his first start since returning to Tampa Bay in the off-season. Mizell finished his shift with seven total saves, including three in quick in a sensational two-minute span as North Carolina peppered the goal with shots just before the 70-minute mark.
Hristov had a chance to extend the lead eight minutes into the second half when a beautiful passing sequence down the left side gifted him with a sitter in front of goal that he failed to get any power on. Substitute Jochen Graf had a similar miscue in the 89th minute, scuffing an open look wide left.
The Rowdies did not end up ruing those misses, though, as they held on long enough for Jack Blake to put the game away in the 90th minute. With no defender closing him down, Blake wound up and delivered a searing 25-yard strike between Tambakis’ outstretched hands and the left post.
Tampa Bay hosts Bethlehem Steel FC for its home opener next Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.