ST. PETERSBURG — Heading into its NASL season opener, FC Tampa Bay knew its new-look soccer team would get a quick gauge of where it stood. The club would receive an early assessment of its new home, a fledgling league, its realigned roster and its cutting-edge coach.
And the opposing Montreal Impact, starting its final Division 2 season before making the jump to the MLS next year, offered the perfect barometer on a humid Saturday night.
Tampa Bay had just completed an unbeaten preseason (albeit against mainly college competition) as seven new starters took the field at the team's new home — the transformed-for-soccer Al Lang Field.
Despite all the newness, two familiar faces — midfielder Takuya Yamada and goalkeeper Daryl Sattler — lifted Tampa Bay to a 1-0 victory over the Impact.
"We're all smiles right now," said Sattler, who made the majority of his game-high eight saves in the second half. "I think we dominated, especially in the first half. We trained. We've prepared for this. It wasn't just luck. We knew we were facing a good side. We came out buzzing. We were ready."
Just two minutes after Tampa Bay botched the game's only penalty kick, Yamada scored the night's sole goal, booting a right-footed shot from 35 yards over Montreal goalkeeper Bill Gaudette at the 86-minute mark.
"I hit it hard, but it was just a lucky goal," Yamada said.
At the 84-minute mark, Tampa Bay was awarded a penalty on a call even new Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill called "fairly harsh." But midfielder Tsuyoshi Yoshitake's attempt lazily rolled wide of the far post.
"It just shows the mentality of the side (that) they weren't deflated by that," Hill said. "They still kept going."
For a team that last year won just two of its final 21 games to end the 2010 season, it was the perfect start.
"That's hard to swallow," Sattler said. "Everyone's starting out first in the league, everyone's trying to get that first W. Today somebody was going to win and we felt we were the better team."
After Tampa Bay dictated the pace of the game for the first half, Montreal gained momentum after the break, outshooting Tampa Bay 8-5 in the second half.
Sattler kept his team in the game late, making save after save in the second half, including a diving right-handed punch on a rebound and a point-black sliding save on Montreal midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer.
Even though Saturday's announced crowd of 3,693 was less than half of last year's inaugural season home opener at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the atmosphere was cozier as the crowd filled the seating down Al Lang's first-base line along the near sideline.
"That bodes well for the future," Hill said.
"Hopefully we can maybe play a little more entertaining at times. It's something to build on."
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com.