ST. PETERSBURG — For months the Tampa Bay Rowdies hovered near the top of the United Soccer League's Eastern Conference standings, but all they've done lately is lose ground.
Kind of how it goes when you don't play any matches.
Tampa Bay returns to the pitch for the first time in two weeks — and a full five weeks since its last home outing — when second-place Charlotte comes to Al Lang Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
"Probably for the first time this season we have games in hand on the teams above us," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said.
He's right. Even when Tampa Bay was stashed near the top of the Eastern Conference table, there sat the specter of teams not far behind, all having multiple games in hand. That has all changed since Tampa Bay's schedule spread out, its bye hitting the weekend after Hurricane Irma.
Tampa Bay (11-7-8, 41 points) needs eight points to secure a playoff berth that comes with a top-eight finish in the East. The Rowdies are in fifth place; the top four in the East host first-round matches.
Charlotte (13-6-9, 48 points) sits second but is within reach for the Rowdies as they've played two fewer matches.
"It's a good place to be, and we know what's required. First and foremost, we're really concentrating on the game on Saturday night against Charlotte," Campbell said.
Tampa Bay will make up for lost time. The match originally scheduled for the Saturday of Irma's approach at Bethlehem Steel has been rescheduled for Wednesday. That means that after having played zero matches in 17 days, the next 20 will see Tampa Bay play its final six of the regular season.
"It's the business end of the season. The games are coming thick and fast," Campbell said.
"It was a tough sort of start to the break for everybody connected to the Rowdies, and everybody in St. Pete and the Tampa area but thankfully that's behind us now, and it's up to us to give everybody in the surrounding area to cheer about over the weekend."
East leader Louisville City (53 points) has already clinched a playoff spot, and Charlotte and Charleston (third place, 47) would also advance with victories this weekend.
Tampa Bay is 9-1-3 at home, best in the conference. The Rowdies' last action saw them pick up just their second road win, 3-2 at Harrisburg City on Sept. 6. Georgi Hristov scored twice and leads the team with 10 goals, while Martin Paterson added his ninth.
"It was a break that was forced, (but) everybody was safe and now it's back to business and getting points on the board," Paterson said.
"It's gonna be a tough run but, wins build momentum. We're just ready to go on Saturday."