By JEFF HERNDEN
The hype surrounding this home opener following an impressive display at NCFC was massive, and the match did not disappoint. The fans were incredible, the players played their hearts out, PRO did their best to stoke the fire, and the atmosphere was immense.
Head Coach Stuart Campbell went with speed in his lineup, lining up in an attacking-focused 4-3-3. The only change from last week was the introduction of Junior Flemmings in place of Michael Nanchoff on the right wing. Aside from a nervy first ten minutes that we’ll say were some home opener jitters, the Rowdies were excellent. In those first ten minutes, Cody Mizell produced two world-class saves, keeping the match scoreless. For the remainder of the match, the Rowdies kept their foot on the gas and dominated. What has impressed me most about the start of the season is the attacking style. Last season, we grew accustomed to ultra-defensive style away from home, and a methodical, possession-based style at home. The first two matches have thrown those out the window. The Rowdies have held less possession than our opposition, but their possession has had more purpose. With 47% possession against the Steel, the Rowdies produced a total of 26 shots and 34 crosses. If not for a herculean effort from Steel keeper John McCarthy, the scoreline would have been much wider.
This squad is set up to play fast-paced, exciting soccer. The midfield trio of Jack Blake, Marcel Schäfer, and Joe Cole were far more effective at controlling the pace of the game and bringing winger Leo Fernandes and defender David Najem in to the game. With Georgi Hristov playing the traditional number 9 role, he held up the Steel’s two center backs, and allowed the speed to attack in behind. Despite holding less possession than the Steel, the majority of match was played in the Steel end of the field. Clearly the strategy is to defend as much from the front, keeping the ball in the opposition’s end, and when the opposition does come in to the Rowdies’ half of the field, to transition as quickly as possible to attack. This strategy was executed to perfectionm which allowed the Rowdies to produce many scoring chances throughout the match. With nearly 3 dozen crosses in to the box, it was inevitable that the Rowdies would score. Despite one such attack producing a clear goal just before half-time, the Rowdies finally opened their account in the 62nd minute when Blake put a pin-point free kick on to forward Georgi’s head.
62′ – ROWDIES GOAL! Hristov makes it 1-0 off a header. https://t.co/bwPeGiNxAt
Center backs Neill Collins and Hunter Gorskie both improved their performances. Due to the Rowdies’ high-press, both Collins and Gorskie held average positions at nearly half-field. They were often in excellent positions to clear out most of the Steel’s attempted long passes. In fact, the Rowdies second goal came as a result of Gorskie making an excellent sliding challenge just inside Tampa Bay’s defensive end, which freed up Najem to make the quick cross-field counter to Fernandes, who finished was an excellent far post effort.
Have to say that Campbell got it spot on with this one. The starting XI were excellent and he forced introduction of Sebastian Guenzatti in the 33rd minute for an injured Flemmings was like-for-like. It allowed the Rowdies to continue without changing style. Just like last week, Lance Rozeboom was swapped in for Cole for the final stages as the Rowdies looked to close out the lead. Jochen Graf also came on late again to boost the energy and keep Bethlehem honest.
The biggest positive from this match is how the squad dealt with frustration and adversity. We’ve seen the Rowdies boil over with frustration and drop points in the past. This time Campbell’s men kept the faith and their heads (mostly). I’m looking forward to seeing the Rowdies carry this confidence and momentum to Louisville this weekend.
Manager rating: 8/10 — Overall team rating: 8/10
Cody Mizell (GK): If not for two spectacular saves from Mizell in the opening 10 minutes, this match could have had a very different story line. Four saves and first clean sheet of the year. Was aggressive, claimed crosses, and communicated and distributed well. Mizell is the real deal. Player rating: 9/10
Zac Portillos (LB): The left side was the strong side for the Rowdies in this one. Portillos combined well with Schäfer and Fernandes in attack, and was defensively sound. Player rating: 7/10
Neill Collins (CB): Much improved. Collins had his back line in solid form for most of this one. He and Gorskie played much better as a unit. Collins was closer to his best, winning headers and making interceptions. Player rating: 8/10
Hunter Gorskie (CB): Excellent challenge to stymie the Steel transition and spark the second goal. Stayed more central and partnered better with Collins in this one. Solid night winning tackles, making interceptions and blocking shots. Player rating: 8/10
David Najem (RB): With Flemmings and Guenzatti keeping more wide ahead of him, Najem didn’t quite get up as far offensively as he did in the previous match, but this allowed him to concentrate a bit more on his defensive responsibilities, while still bombing forward when possible. Excellent switch to set up Fernandes for his goal. Player rating: 7/10
Jack Blake (CM): Much improved performance holding the midfield by Blake. He stayed central, moved the ball around well (completing 93% of his 45 passes) and provided an excellent free-kick cross for Georgi’s goal. On the defensive side, he was more present than in the NCFC match, winning 3 tackles, blocking 1 shot and providing cover for the back four. Player rating: 7/10
Marcel Schäfer (CM): SEVENTEEN crosses. Marcel was a key player in keeping the Steel defense and keeper busy. Excellent partnership on the left with Portillos and Fernandes. His overlapping run in the 68th minute helped put off the defender just enough for Fernandes to score his goal. Good overall performance, but I’d like to see those crosses finding their targets with a bit more accuracy. Player rating: 7/10
© Joe Cole (CM, Subbed off 75′ – Rozeboom): Effective passing, burgeoning partnership with the midfield triangle, and excellent leadership. Cole’s numbers this season won’t be quite what they were in the past, but you can’t put a price on leadership and experience, especially in the center of midfield. Player rating: 7/10
Leo Fernandes (LW): Man of the Match. Should have had two goals and was the best attacking threat for most of the match. Excellent skill to take down Najem’s cross, take on the defender and finish for his second of the season. Fernandes was a constant threat on the left. Player rating: 9/10
Junior Flemmings(RW, Subbed off 33′ – Guenzatti): Flemmings was a lively threat in his first 25 minutes, getting in behind the defense and drawing fouls in dangerous areas. Unfortunate that an early injury ended what was looking to be a good performance. Player rating: 6/10
Georgi Hristov(F): Georgi doesn’t have quite the pace of his youth. Now, playing as more of a traditional number 9, Georgi had a solid match holding the ball up, dropping deep, and opening up space in behind for the speedy wingers. Excellent header on his goal. Player rating: 8/10
Sebastian Guenzatti (RW, Subbed on 33′ – Flemmings): Like-for-like change coming on early for Flemmings. He didn’t get quite as involved as I would like, as most of our attack went down the left. Contributed a couple shots and still had a decent performance. Player rating 7/10
Lance Rozeboom (DM, subbed on 75′ – Cole): Necessary substitute to provide defensive cover for the final 15 minutes. I’ve got the feeling that this will be a typical substitution for much of the season. Look to see Rozeboom start some of those tough away matches, especially when Cole doesn’t travel. Player rating: 7/10
Jochen Graf (F, subbed on 88′ – Guenzatti): Wasted some time as late sub and provided an attacking outlet for final minutes. Not enough minutes to make an impact. Player rating: NA/10
Photo Credit: Patrick Paterson, The Unused Substitutes