Sunday, November 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Rowdies

Rowdies seek a couple of wins this week to vault them into playoff contention

ST. PETERSBURG — Considering they just went through a winless month, and especially since it's the Fourth of July, there will be no looking ahead when the Rowdies host Toronto FC II Wednesday. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.

With that disclaimer out of the way: it's hard not to consider this portion of the schedule as a two-game set. And it's very difficult to not at least contemplate what a pair of victories would mean for Tampa Bay, which on Saturday welcomes league champion Louisville.

The Rowdies, after winning four of their first six games, have nabbed just one from their last nine. However it was against Toronto FC II, which is winless on the season and yet to grab a road point.

So though Tampa Bay (5-6-4) has dropped to 11th in the USL's Eastern Conference, a couple of wins would surely vault it back into playoff (top-eight) status with plenty of season remaining.

"It's huge. I mean, we've got a big game followed by another. You've got to look at the scenarios," said head coach Neill Collins, quickly adding, "But… win Wednesday. You can only win two games if you win the first one."

Although wins have been lacking, the club has pulled four draws from the last six, most recently a spirited comeback at Charlotte. After falling behind on two second-half goals, the Rowdies worked for a 2-2 result on Tam Mkandawire's tally and a glorious late long-range strike by newcomer Dominic Oduro, making his first start.

He's just one of several notable additions to the roster, all creating a palpable uplift. Coming soon is the Rowdies debut of midfielder Kwadwo Poku, signed last week. And on Tuesday Tampa Bay added forward Stefano Bonomo, who has 24 goals since joining New York Red Bulls II in 2015.

Four of those came against Tampa Bay. With Bonomo scoring 13, the Red Bulls II won the league title in 2016.

"Stefano is a great player that we unfortunately know a little too well," Collins said. "When the opportunity to sign him came up, it was very unexpected, but it was a great chance to add a guy that knows how to score goals in our league."

Bonomo has been training with the Rowdies and could see action at some point during the two-game stretch. Poku, who scored 15 for Miami FC (NASL) last year, comes from the Russian Premier League and won't be available until the transfer window opens July 10.

With five rostered forwards and plenty of new legs in the midfield, Rowdies players who manage to draw a start will likely be more motivated to produce. Toronto II (0-13-3) has allowed 2.5 goals per contest, including four in Collins' first head coaching victory back in late May.

"It was back and forth last time, Coach Neill's first away game, and to get a win was great," said Rowdies goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald. "We have to respect (Toronto), but I think if we come out here and play the way we want to play, we're gonna take it to anybody. Anytime we play at home, it's important to give these fans a show. Playing on a national holiday adds a little bit more to that. There should be a little bit more excitement, and maybe some more eyes."

Though Fitzgerald's eyes and those of his teammates will only be focused on Toronto Wednesday, a broad-view approach will likely come in the form of roster decisions. A veteran may be rested, what with another game set for Saturday.

"I think we've had a nice full week to not only recover but train for (Wednesday's) game, but at the same time we also have to think long term and balance out two games," Michael Nanchoff, one of said veterans, remarked Tuesday. "Our week's approach has been perfect, and we're excited for these two games and trying to get six points total at home."

Even the head coach will allow that possibility to be pondered.

"Fourth of July is a special day, and then Saturday the champions are coming to town," Collins said. "I think we're going to see a really vibrant Al Lang the next couple of nights."

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