ST. PETERSBURG — Before the Rowdies' last meeting with the Atlanta Silverbacks three weeks ago, coach Ricky Hill hinted at a formation change for his offensively challenged squad.
The Rowdies had erupted for seven goals in the NASL fall season opener at San Antonio but scored only twice in the next three matches, all draws.
Against Atlanta, Hill inserted an extra forward at the expense of his midfield, shifting from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3. The result was more of the same: one goal and a frustrating draw.
But Hill stuck with the formation. Playing Carolina back-to-back in consecutive weeks, Tampa Bay netted five goals, a victory and four points from the then-league leaders.
With Atlanta visiting Al Lang Stadium tonight for a critical match — at the halfway point of the fall season, the Rowdies (11 points) trail the New York Cosmos by a point for first, with Atlanta one back of Tampa Bay — the 4-3-3 has breathed life into a previously anemic attack.
"I'm sorry I didn't revert to a 4-3-3 long ago," Hill said. "I'll be looking to play that formation all the way through the season."
The change allows the Rowdies to combine a target striker up top — currently new loan arrival Lucky Mkosana because of injuries to Carl Cort (hamstring) and Etienne Barbara (quadriceps) — with speedy forwards Georgi Hristov and Evans Frimpong.
"It's more of an attacking system," said Frimpong, who has scored a goal in back-to-back matches. "If you can see in the last three games, we keep the ball a lot around our opponent's goal and that's where the goals are going to come from."
On the flip side, the additional attacker leaves less cover defensively, resulting in a number of one-on-one opportunities against Rowdies goalkeeper Diego Restrepo. The Venezuelan-born 25-year-old has been up to the challenge, turning away shot after shot and earning consideration as league MVP.
But Hill knows it's only a matter of time before an opponent capitalizes on the Rowdies' defensive lapses.
"Diego's had 10 one-on-ones in the last four, five games, maybe more, and that's not good enough," he said. "We're living life on the edge. … Why should we be living like that as defenders? If they've got personal pride as defenders back there, they will understand that it's a no-no that our goalies have to work in that manner to keep us in games."
Currently, however, the positives of the 4-3-3 outweigh the few drawbacks. The Rowdies have six goals in the past three matches using the formation and have remained unbeaten in their past nine matches, the longest such streak in team history.
With seven weeks remaining in the fall season, the Rowdies are hoping the change in tactics will give them the opportunity to defend their league title in the Nov. 9 Soccer Bowl.