ST. PETERSBURG — Fortune favored the visitors in this one.
The Rowdies’ unblemished start to the USL Championship season came crashing to a halt Saturday, North Carolina getting two goals from Dre Fortune in a 3-1 win before an announced crowd of 5,167 at Al Lang Stadium.
Tampa Bay (8-1-5) had allowed four goals total in its previous 13 league contests combined.
North Carolina converted on nearly every scoring chance it had. The Rowdies, who dominated possession and outshot North Carolina 17-4, had two shots clank off the wordwork in the second half.
“That’s football,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “First of all, you have to give credit to North Carolina. They obviously had the game plan in getting the (first) goal. Certainly the second goal (for a 2-0 lead) gives them the great platform.
“But equally, there were moments in the game that we had some great play and we just didn’t capitalize on it. And if we had … as the famous saying goes, goals change games.”
Tampa Bay switched up its starting defensive trio, using Mohamed Kone, Pap Diakite and Tarek Morad. It took North Carolina 19 minutes to get its first goal when Fortune curled the ball past goalkeeper John McCarthy into the bottom-right corner. That ended the Rowdies’ scoreless streak at 548 minutes, stretching back to April 27.
Caleb Richards returned from midfield back to defense after halftime. It took North Carolina less than three minutes to double its lead on Fortune’s second goal.
The Rowdies cut their deficit in half just shy of 55 minutes when Zach Steinberger, a late first-half substitute for ailing Andrew Tinari, put in a chip shot on an assist from Morad.
A dozen minutes later, Tampa Bay’s Dom Oduro, known for his long-range prowess, blasted a shot off the crossbar that had goalkeeper Alex Tambakis frozen.
“We had a great passage of play,” Collins said. “Everyone in the stadium thought we’d get the second (goal). It’s unusual for this group to sense defeat. The important thing for everyone is to not go overanalytical.”
The telling sequence came with 15 minutes left in the game. Malik Johnson sent in a cross from the left side, but substitute Antoine Hoppenot’s solid one-timer was stopped. Not a minute later, McCarthy allowed an innocent-looking shot from Steven Miller to slip through his fingers.
“Second half we picked it up,” Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti said. “Their third goal just kind of finished us off. Leave disappointed, but from here is where our true selves come out. If we start pointing fingers right now, it’s not going to work. Just have to look forward for the next game.”