ST. PETERSBURG — After Tampa Bay lost two straight to fall dangerously close to dropping out of the fall season title chase, coach Ricky Hill said the Rowdies would need to approach its final four matches like a single-elimination tournament.
To defend its 2012 NASL championship, the Rowdies simply couldn't afford another defeat.
Since Hill's proclamation two weeks ago, the Rowdies have picked up two wins in two tries to stay in the hunt for the Soccer Bowl in Atlanta.
Saturday, the victim was San Antonio. The Rowdies, without leading goal scorer Georgi Hristov, grabbed the only goal on Luke Mulholland's 76th-minute penalty shot for a 1-0 victory in front of 3,237 at Al Lang Stadium.
The second-place Rowdies (5-2-5, 20 points) remain alive for the fall title but still need help. Should the New York Cosmos (24 points) defeat FC Edmonton today at home, New York will clinch the title. A Cosmos loss or draw keeps the Rowdies in striking distance.
"The last couple of weeks, I've been very pleased with the effort of the guys as always," Hill said. "I think as a team, particularly defensively, we've looked a much better unit."
The lone goal was set up by forward Etienne Barbara, who sprinted down the left flank on a breakaway and was fouled in the box by San Antonio defender Greg Janicki. Mulholland was true with the resulting penalty kick for his ninth goal of the year. The penalty conversion was the midfielder's second in two matches.
"The reason we've gotten the results is because as a team we're grinding out wins," Mulholland said. "Good teams can win ugly when they're not playing their best football."
San Antonio (3-8-1, 10 points) had a great chance to score in the 22nd minute when forward Sainey Touray hit the crossbar with a shot from the edge of the 18-yard box after Rowdies goalkeeper Diego Restrepo had been pulled out of goal.
"You need a little luck when it comes to these runs at the end of the season," said defender Raphael Cox, who started his second match in a row at left back.
The Rowdies had two goals disallowed. In the 41st minute, Stuart Campbell pushed Lucky Mkosana's shot past keeper Jeremy Vuolo on the back post but was offside. Later, Mulholland intercepted a pass and dribbled toward goal in the 52nd minute, shooting low at the near post from 17 yards. Evans Frimpong knocked the rebound in but was also offside.
Restrepo earned his fourth shutout this season. The match was delayed seven minutes late in the first half after a light tower in the southeast corner of the stadium temporarily went dark.
The Rowdies travel to FC Edmonton on Oct. 27 before closing out the season Nov. 2 at Al Lang against Minnesota United.