ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies hadn't won at Al Lang Stadium in three opportunities to begin the 2014 NASL season, but they looked to the rivalry against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers to finally break through.
Entering Saturday's Coastal Cup derby, the Rowdies had won nine of 12 matches against the Strikers during the NASL's modern era, including all six at home.
The Strikers provided the perfect tonic for the Rowdies' ailments.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first half, the Rowdies rebounded to score three straight goals, taking the lead on Tampa native Blake Wagner's winner in second-half stoppage time to win 3-2 before 4,331.
"Fourth of July last year (beating Fort Lauderdale) was a catalyst for us," Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill said. "We then went on to a 10-match unbeaten run. I'm hoping today will be the catalyst for a similar kind of run."
The Rowdies (2-2-3, nine points) scored all three goals with a man advantage after the Strikers' Carlos Salazar picked up his second yellow card in the 41st minute and was ejected. With the full-time whistle moments from blowing, Shane Hill laid a pass off inside the 18-yard box to Wagner on the left wing and the second-half substitute buried his shot to the far post to set off a raucous celebration.
"That was real sweet, not just for me but everybody involved with the team," Wagner said. "We needed that. I don't care who scores, whatever, as long as it picks us up and we can go on a run."
Rowdies left back Anthony Wallace, a former USF standout from St. Petersburg, tied the score in the 62nd minute on a rocket from 25 yards. His shot rose the whole way until settling into the top corner of the goal.
Fort Lauderdale scored first against the run of play in the 19th minute. Strikers midfielder Mark Anderson looped a shot from beyond the 18-yard box over Rowdies goalkeeper Cody Mizell, who made his first start of the season.
The Strikers made it 2-0 in the 34th minute after Marius Ebbers centered a pass to Shawn Chin and Chin, with the goal open, headed a shot off the left post that spun in.
"Not once did the players get themselves down, which showed the great resolve and resilience that they need," Ricky Hill said. "It could have been easy to get down, but I think the support of the fans wouldn't allow them to get down."
Strikers goalie Oka Nikolov (13 saves) made several outstanding stops in the first half, including stonewalling Georgi Hristov on a 36th minute penalty kick.
The Rowdies, though, found a way past Nikolov in first-half stoppage time as Willie Hunt powered a header into the goal off a corner from Christophe Lallet after a slight deflection off Hristov.
The Rowdies were eliminated from the NASL spring season title contention by virtue of first-place Minnesota's 0-0 tie against Carolina.