ST. PETERSBURG — With the first half of the NASL season drawing to a close, the Rowdies desperately needed a victory over the defending league champion Cosmos on Saturday to have any realistic chance of securing the spring season title and an automatic postseason spot.
From the start, the odds were stacked against Tampa Bay. Starting defender Takuya Yamada (hamstring) and forward Brian Shriver (ankle) missed the match. A third starter, goalkeeper Matt Pickens, had to be substituted in the 24th minute after falling to the grass and grabbing his right thigh.
The circumstances proved too difficult for the Rowdies to overcome.
After a scoreless first half, the Cosmos opened the second half by scoring three goals in 17 minutes to defeat the Rowdies 3-0 in front of a crowd of 4,855 at Al Lang Stadium.
"Before the game, I put down all these things on the board that we have to do, and one is eliminate individual errors," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "When you gift opportunities, you get punished."
Although Tampa Bay (1-3-2) is not eliminated from spring title contention, its title chances are virtually nonexistent. The Rowdies need to win their final three matches while other teams lose.
"I'm focusing on winning the next game," Hill said. "I have no interest in looking beyond that because our last two home games, we've conceded six goals and we haven't won."
Coming off a two-game road swing where they picked up four of a possible six points, the Rowdies were hoping to carry their good form into the Cosmos match, but a steady wind pushing off the bay toward downtown, coupled with the Cosmos' ability to maintain possession, kept the ball in the Rowdies' defensive zone for much of the first half.
With the wind at their back in the second half, the Rowdies started in an extra gear, but their momentum was quickly erased.
In the 48th minute, a long ball into the box found Cosmos striker Mads Stokkelien near the goal line. Backup Rowdies goalkeeper Ryan Thompson came off his line to try and disrupt the pass, but Stokkelien slotted a shot into the goal.
Three minutes later, the Cosmos were up 2-0 after Ayoze hit a free kick with his left foot into the far corner of the goal from right outside the 18-yard box. The free kick was awarded when Thompson knocked down a Cosmos attacker on the edge of the box. Paulo Mendes scored the Cosmos' third goal from 10 yards out in the 62nd minute.
"We've conceded three tonight," Hill said. "Ryan's had no shots in the second half to save, yet still we've conceded three goals. So that tells a story, and the three goals were avoidable."