ST. PETERSBURG —When the Rowdies met Louisville City for the first time less than a month ago, Louisville took control from the beginning, riding an early goal momentum to a home win and handing Tampa Bay its first loss.
Tampa Bay has struggled ever since, winning one of its next four games leading up to Saturday's rematch, which it won 2-0 in front of 5,410 at Al Lang Stadium.
The defense came out strong, but recent offensive woes returned in full force. The Rowdies (5-2-2) had their fourth straight scoreless half, and in their previous two games they had a scoreless tie against Ottawa and a one-goal win against Richmond.
"(Louisville is) a good team. We tried, and even if it wasn't going to work sooner, it would come in the 80th, maybe last minute of the game," forward Georgi Hristov said about the scoring drought. "The most important thing, keep our defense, which they did an unbelievable job tonight, again."
Citing a simple rotation of attackers, Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell kept Hristov on the bench through the first half. When he entered in the 53rd minute, making his modern era club-record 121st appearance for Tampa Bay, Hristov quickly made it 1-0. In the 59th minute, Hristov, from the left corner of the box, sent the ball whizzing toward the back right post, and 13 minutes later Deshorn Brown scored.
"I was feeling very calm, and I knew I was going to make an impact. I know it sounds a little bit cocky, but I just felt it this way," Hristov said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to score a goal, but I really believed I had to make an impact, because we needed it."
The Rowdies had chances early in the match. They had a pair of corner kicks in an eight-minute span before the break, and free kicks in the 11th and 40th minutes brought the Rowdies within reach again.
Louisville (3-3-1) midfielder Mark Anthony Kaye had two chances in the first half, getting one-on-ones with goalkeeper Matt Pickens twice in a three-minute span, but one shot went wide right, and the other bounced off the left post. Both teams had five shots in the first half.
When Hristov made his appearance after the break, the momentum shifted for good.
"The first half was tight, cagey. It was two teams near the top of the league who were almost canceling each other out," Campbell said. "In the second half, we felt opportunities would arise. … Georgi's a top-draw player. It's an absolute pleasure to work with him, and we're so fortunate to have him within our ranks, because he could play at the very, very highest level."