ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies have a natural rival in Fort Lauderdale dating to the teams' involvement in the original North American Soccer League. But the cross-state derby has lacked vigor in the new NASL with the Rowdies winning seven of the past eight meetings.
Of late, the Rowdies' fiercest adversary has come in the form of Minnesota United FC.
In 2011, Minnesota (then known as the Stars) knocked Tampa Bay out of the playoffs in the opening round en route to the championship.
Last year, the Rowdies got their revenge, beating Minnesota in the Soccer Bowl for the league title.
In 2013, the Minnesota-Tampa Bay rivalry has continued to blossom.
Through two meetings over the past two weekends, Tampa Bay and Minnesota have combined for 10 goals. On Saturday, in front of 3,372 at Al Lang Stadium, Minnesota held on for a 3-2 victory.
A week prior, the Rowdies won by the same score.
"We seem to bring the best out of Minnesota, I guess, and they seem to bring, sometimes, the best out of us on occasions," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said.
Tampa Bay (3-2-2, 11 points) finds itself in a three-way tie with Minnesota (3-2-2) and Carolina (3-1-2) for second place in the NASL. They are two points behind Atlanta (4-2-1 after a 1-0 home win over San Antonio 1-0).
Tampa Bay remains winless at Al Lang, losing twice and tying twice in four games.
For the first time this season, the Rowdies surrendered the opening goal of the match.
In the 10th minute, Simone Bracalello's corner kick traveled across the box to Cristiano Dias, who lobbed a header over goalkeeper Diego Restrepo and inside the far post.
The Rowdies tied it four minutes later when Georgi Hristov played give-and-go with Keith Savage and blasted a sharp-angled shot past keeper Matt VanOekel from the right wing.
"From this small angle, you don't think where you are going to put the ball," Hristov said. "You just think about putting it anywhere in the goal. The only way to score from this angle is a really strong shot."
Minnesota retook the lead and extended it in quick-fire succession.
On the left wing, Pablo Campos back-heeled a pass to an open Geison Moura, who shot past Restrepo from close range in the 23rd minute.
Three minutes later, Bracalello and Campos had a two-on-one against defender Jordan Gafa, starting in place of late scratch Frankie Sanfilippo (bronchitis). Campos slipped a pass to Bracalello, who faked a shot to elude Gafa then fired between Restrepo's legs to make it 3-1.
Hill blamed his defenders.
"I thought for two of the goals, (Gafa) was really exposed by his teammates: Daniel Scott, (Takuya Yamada) and (Andres Arango)," Hill said.
"They have to take their responsibility, too."
The Rowdies got a goal back in the 29th minute, Raphael Cox crossing to the far post for Luke Mulholland, who pegged a shot off the crossbar. Hristov, though, was there to guide the rebound into the net with his head for his team-leading sixth goal and fourth in league play.