ST. PETERSBURG — An early goal from Richard Menjivar set the stage for a good hour-plus of nail-biting, but the Rowdies pulled off a necessary 1-0 victory over Carolina before 6,973 at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday.
And in news that was just as welcomed for the Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale lost 2-1 at Indy Eleven, meaning Tampa Bay controls its playoff fate with one game left in the NASL regular season. Tampa Bay (39 points) leads Fort Lauderdale by a point heading into the Rowdies' game next Saturday at New York.
But while Indy was holding onto what had been a 2-0 halftime lead, the Rowdies were sweating it out against Carolina.
"I'd like to say I was cool, calm and collected," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said. "It's nice to be able to win a game like that."
Combined with a handful of prime missed chances to put away the game, the Rowdies faced an opponent that refused to relent its offensive pressure. The nerviest of the moments came at 70 minutes when RailHawks 10-goal scorer Nacho Novo, with the Rowdies scrambling on defense, got the ball 10 yards from the goal but flubbed the shot.
A close second came 12 minutes later as sub Daniel Jackson got past the defense, but goalie Matt Pickens came up strong.
Central defenders Tam Mkandawire and Stefan Antonijevic stood tall as Carolina refused to make it an easy finish. And Ben Sweat, coming off all-league recognition last week, had a clutch sliding shot block as stoppage time began.
"Letting a team hang around is never good. But everyone was on the same page (defensively) tonight, the whole back four, and outside mids," said Sweat, a Palm Harbor native and former USF standout.
Georgi Hristov had three ripe opportunities, but moments after his first near-miss, Menjivar struck in the 12th minute. He gathered a loose ball from 35 yards away, took a touch and struck a low bouncer that snuck inside the left post.
Carolina dominated possession most of the first half and had three free kicks from inside 25 yards, but none produced a serious scare for Tampa Bay.
Sweat said Rowdies players were aware of the Strikers' result throughout the match.
"That's exactly what we needed," he said. "Finally some luck to go our way."
Fort Lauderdale is at Jacksonville next Saturday. The Strikers hold the tiebreaker, so if the Rowdies can't beat New York, they would need either Fort Lauderdale to lose or have both the Rowdies and Strikers tie.