ST. PETERSBURG — In five previous matches with in-state rival Orlando City, the Rowdies were beaten and bloodied by the Lions, losing all five by an aggregate score of 15-5.
During the sixth installment of the tempestuous series Sunday at Al Lang Stadium, the Rowdies twice rallied from one-goal deficits against an Orlando City team that has yet to lose in 16 USL Pro league matches (13 wins, three draws) this season.
The final result, however, was more of the same for the Rowdies.
Orlando City striker Corey Hertzog scored the winner in the 75th minute to secure the second leg of the 2014 I-4 Derby with a 3-2 exhibition victory in front of a crowd of 3,033.
The Lions, who will move to Major League Soccer next season, earn their second straight I-4 Derby title, winning both legs by a combined 6-2 (not including a second-round U.S. Open Cup meeting that Orlando City won 4-1 on May 28).
"Encouraged? Yes. Disappointed? Yes. Despondent? Slightly, yes, because ultimately we haven't gained a result out of the game," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "The performance warranted some kind of result. I think on a better day defensively, we would have won the game."
Quick, one-touch passing between Orlando City's Kevin Molino and Hertzog resulted in the first goal. Molino played a give-and-go to Hertzog, who returned the ball to a wide-open Molino at the 6-yard box, and Molino calmly shot past Rowdies goalkeeper Ryan Thompson to give Orlando City a 1-0 lead in the 32nd minute.
Three minutes later, the Rowdies leveled the score 1-1 on striker Georgi Hristov's first goal in seven matches. Midfielder Darel Russell stole the ball from an Orlando City defender deep in the Lions' defensive third and slipped a pass to the left edge for Hristov. The Bulgarian drew goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski off his line and deftly slipped a shot into the open goal in the 35th minute.
"I tried to be calm until the last second. It's very important," Hristov said. "I'm happy I had the composure to score."
Orlando City entered halftime with a 2-1 advantage courtesy of Darwin Ceren's 25-yard free kick score in the 44th minute. Ceren's shot ricocheted off the Rowdies' wall and inside the left post.
Hristov got his second goal of the match in the 59th minute to tie the score again. Midfielder Ricardo Morris, on a tryout and making a strong case to earn a roster spot, sent a through ball into the 18-yard box to spring Hristov alone in front of goal. Hristov slotted a shot past Woszczynski. The assist was the second in two exhibition matches for Morris.
"I was delighted with some of our offensive play," Hill said. "I think we moved the ball around quite nicely at periods during the second period. To see Georgi score a couple of goals in one game is always gratifying, and I'm sure that's going to give him a great lift going into the fall season."
The Rowdies open the NASL fall season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Al Lang against the Atlanta Silverbacks.