ST. PETERSBURG — Alex Morrell had scored in a Rowdies uniform before, but that was in a U.S. Open Cup match. The former Lakeland high school star opened his USL account in style Saturday, converting twice for a 2-0 defeat of Pittsburgh.
In a knowing nod, coach Stuart Campbell pulled Morrell in the 90th minute, resulting in a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 5,737 at Al Lang Stadium.
Tampa Bay extended its unbeaten streak to four games, three of them victories.
With first-place Charleston tying Orlando City B on Saturday, the Rowdies (9-5-7, 34 points) are just three points back in the Eastern Conference, albeit with two teams in between, Charlotte and Louisville City, and both have played fewer games than the Rowdies.
Morrell's first goal set the tone, and the second calmed a potentially troubling stretch. The Riverhounds had sustained pressure, forcing a tough save by Tampa Bay's Matt Pickens in the 56th minute. But Morrell, who went to George Jenkins High, took Marcel Schafer's left-footed cross out of the air and pounded it down. The ball bounced high and over the head of defender Jamal Jack for a 2-0 edge in the 76th minute.
"I've been working on that all week in practice, some runs back post and balls over the top, working on that back-post volley," Morrell said. "It was a nice goal. It felt good."
The first score was the culmination of a well-worked sequence, and defender Zac Portillos' well-timed through ball to Schafer was the key. Schafer had no resistance on the left edge of the penalty box, and his pass made its way through several players before settling to Morrell.
Tampa Bay appeared to have doubled its advantage a quarter-hour later when Morrell got the worst of a 50-50 ball and fell to the turf, only to see it ricochet to Martin Paterson, who knocked the ball in. However, Morrell was called for a foul.
Pittsburgh finished with more shots, 14-13.
"It was unlike us," Campbell said. "We were turning the ball over a little bit too often, and that's something we normally don't do. But with the quality we have, sooner or later we're going to create another chance."
The Riverhounds have not won since defeating the Rowdies on June 22, drawing their previous four.