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A rare treat Saturday for Rowdies: a home playoff game

By Darek Sharp, Times Correspondent
Published: October 20, 2017 Updated: October 20, 2017 at 10:16 PM
CHARLIE KAIJO | Times Rowdies captain Joe Cole celebrates with teammates forward Georgi Hristov and wingback Marcel Shafer (4) following a score in the first half during the game between Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Charleston Battery at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Saturday, Jul 22, 2017.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rowdies fans, set to be rewarded with their first home playoff match in five years, can also take a little credit for it.

Strong, supportive showings at Al Lang all season helped boost Tampa Bay to the best home record in the Eastern Conference, a substantial reason for the Rowdies being the East’s No. 3 seed. They won only three times in 16 road contests, but the 11-1-4 home showing has Tampa Bay hosting No. 6 FC Cincinnati tonight.

Kickoff is 7:30.

"There’s been a lot of buildup, not just this week but probably the last few years," Tampa Bay defender Neill Collins said.

Tampa Bay drew nearly 6,000 fans per game, just behind Louisville for third among the East’s 16 franchises. Cincinnati blew away the rest of the league, averaging more than 21,000.

"The fans have been superb this year. They’re a big part for us being where we are," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said.

Campbell, a player at the time, and midfielder Keith Savage are the only current Rowdies who took part in Tampa Bay’s last postseason appearance.

The last one at Al Lang was as dramatic as they come. Needing at least a two-goal victory over Minnesota as the 2012 NASL Soccer Bowl was an aggregate affair, the Rowdies won 3-1 and eventually took the title in a penalty kick shootout.

Fans would best not wait until the championship round to turn out, however. The USL Cup (Nov. 13, 9 p.m.) will be held at the site of the club with the better record, and the West’s top five seeds are all better than Tampa Bay.

The higher seed hosts each round. If the Rowdies (14-7-11) prevail tonight, they get the winner between No. 2 Charleston and No. 7 New York; they would host a conference semifinal only if New York prevails. And top seed Louisville (in action Friday) would have to fall at some point for the East final to be at Al Lang.

Of course, none of that matters if Tampa Bay doesn’t get past Cincinnati (12-10-10), which based on its U.S. Open Cup performance is pretty good at elimination games. Cincinnati won five matches, two against MLS sides, to reach the semifinal.

"We’re in good form, but I can’t help but feel form goes out the window to a certain extent, especially in the postseason (with) a win-or-go-home scenario," Campbell said. "We have to be really, really wary of Cincinnati. They’ve proved, (with) the success they’ve had in the Open Cup, in one-off games they’re as good as anybody."

The teams haven’t played since July 6, when Tampa Bay prevailed 2-0 at Al Lang. The Rowdies have added three new faces since then with all three — Hunter Gorskie, Sebastian Guenzatti and Walter Restrepo — providing valued contributions. They’ve combined for six goals, with Gorskie supplying three (on six shots) from his defensive post.

Georgi Hristov leads Tampa Bay with 13 goals, Martin Paterson adding nine and Joe Cole seven (with seven assists). Marcel Schafer has been especially hot of late, with five goals and a team-high 11 assists.

"It is different, because it is an elimination game," Schafer said. "These games are special. We work for that the whole year. It’s a positive energy for us. When you’re a professional athlete, especially for these moments you live, you work for that. It will be a tough game for sure, Cincinnati is a tough team, strong players, but we are a good team, too … a very good team. And we have home advantage."

Collins expects a full house, and perhaps some newcomers.

"I just can tell how excited everyone around the area is, (by) the amount of people that have mentioned to me they’re coming to the game, that aren’t necessarily huge soccer fans," he said. "I think the fact we’ve been successful has started to draw them to Al Lang."