ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies, owners of a seven-match unbeaten streak, entered Saturday's second leg of their NASL semifinal against Carolina with one thought.
Having defeated Carolina 2-1 in the first leg last weekend, the Rowdies needed a win or tie at Al Lang Field to make the league final.
After 20 minutes of play and a 2-0 deficit, however, the Rowdies' title hopes were fading.
But they were undeterred. The Rowdies rallied to take a 3-2 lead and held off a late Carolina charge for a 3-3 tie and advanced to the championship round based on a 5-4 aggregate score.
"It's been a team effort, a real team effort," coach Ricky Hill said. "And I'm delighted the players were able to reward all … with their performance (Saturday)."
In the final, the Rowdies play the winner of today's San Antonio-Minnesota game. The Scorpions and Stars played to a scoreless draw in the first leg of their semifinal. The first game of the two-game final is Oct. 20.
First-year player Luke Mulholland, who knocked the Rowdies out of the playoffs last season with Minnesota, scored Tampa Bay's series winner in front of 4,123 at Al Lang.
He one-timed a long cross from Frankie Sanfilippo toward the goal and hit the crossbar. The rebound came back to Mulholland, who buried his second chance into the far corner in the 82nd minute to put the Rowdies ahead 3-2.
"That just gave us the insurance," Mulholland said. "Obviously very happy to get the rebound because the keeper did very well to save the first shot."
The Rowdies trailed 2-1 at halftime but drew even in the 65th minute. Carl Cort dribbled the ball into the box and slipped a pass to Mulholland, who was able to direct a pass toward Mike Ambersley. Ambersley calmly slipped a shot past Carolina goalkeeper Ray Burse.
"A forward dreams about those goals," Ambersley said.
Carolina put maximum pressure on Rowdies goalkeeper Jeff Attinella through the opening 20 minutes. Matt Luzunaris scored on a breakaway in the 14th minute for the game's first score, and Ty Shipalane intercepted a poor back pass from Rowdies defender J.P. Rodrigues to Attinella in the 18th minute for a two-goal Carolina lead.
Ambersley was brought down in the box shortly before halftime, and Shane Hill converted a penalty kick in the 40th minute to put the Rowdies on the scoreboard.
"(That) was vital for us," Mulholland said.
Carolina tied the score at 3 on Nick Zimmerman's penalty-kick conversion in the 87th minute.