ST. PETERSBURG — In recent weeks, the Tampa Bay Rowdies had fallen victim to slow starts, a trend that concerned coach Ricky Hill entering Saturday's home match against Atlanta.
The Rowdies had allowed the opening goal in each of their last three matches, rallying to draw two and win one.
It appeared the streak would live on when Atlanta was awarded a penalty kick in the 39th minute of a scoreless game.
But Rowdies goalkeeper Diego Restrepo saved the shot to keep the Silverbacks off the board. In the second half, the Rowdies' offense hit its stride, scoring three straight goals to win 3-1 in front of 3,571 at Al Lang Stadium.
"We had to (score) first, and I think because we did it, that's why we won the game," Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov said. "I think also we were the better team the whole game."
With league-leading New York defeating Fort Lauderdale 2-0, the Rowdies (3-0-5, 14 points) remain a point back in the race for the NASL fall season title and a spot in the Soccer Bowl.
Restrepo continued his fall season MVP campaign with the momentum-changing penalty save. Defender Jay Needham arrived late to a challenge and upended Atlanta's Shane Moroney in the box. Ruben Luna's low attempt to the left was smothered by Restrepo.
"Usually on my (penalty kicks), I just have that instinct that I go with," Restrepo said. "I feel it right away."
Hristov gave the Rowdies the first goal in the 54th minute. Luke Mulholland sent a cross into the box, and Devin Del Do stretched to get a touch on the ball. Hristov, lurking on the back post, pushed the deflection past goalkeeper Joe Nasco.
Three minutes later, Mulholland's corner kick was placed in the center of the box, and Hristov jumped to head it past Nasco.
Hristov leads the Rowdies with 11 league goals this season.
Shane Hill put the Rowdies up by three with a 30-yard strike in the 65th minute.
Atlanta (2-2-4, 10 points), the spring season champions, scored in the 75th minute when Horace James volleyed a shot past Restrepo off a long throw-in.
The Rowdies can grab sole possession of first place with a victory next Sunday at New York.