ST. PETERSBURG — Though Ricky Hill stopped short of calling Tampa Bay's match against Carolina on Saturday a must-win, the Rowdies coach acknowledged the path to the NASL Soccer Bowl would become much more congested with a loss to the league leader.
In an effort to spark a stagnant offense, Hill said he would more willingly throw numbers into the attack if the Rowdies found themselves chasing the game. But the biggest difference might have been giving Etienne Barbara his first start.
Barbara had two assists and new addition Lucky Mkosana created the winner in second-half stoppage time for a 3-2 win at Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies (2-0-4) moved into a tie with Carolina (3-2-1) and Fort Lauderdale for first in the league. All have 10 points; the Rowdies own the tiebreaker on goal differential.
Barbara, who joined the team in a trade with Minnesota during the midseason break, provided creativity and panache for an attack lacking both recently. The Rowdies had scored three goals in their previous four matches.
The game, which was delayed 43 minutes by lightning between halves, appeared it would end in a draw until Mkosana's right-footed blast moments before the full-time whistle was deflected and found its way into the net for a Carolina own goal. Mkosana joined the Rowdies on Monday.
"The run he made to get to the ball, first and foremost, was tremendous," Hill said. "And then the composure that he showed to stand the defender up and then to take the defender on and drive him to the box before putting in the cross-corner shot, I'm delighted for him to make that kind of impact."
Carolina scored first when Enzo Martinez passed into the box for Ty Shipalane, who, from 10 yards away, ripped a shot around goalie Diego Restrepo.
The Rowdies tied it eight minutes later. Barbara controlled a long pass in the box, held off two defenders and wheeled toward the goal to slide a pass into the box for Evans Frimpong, who cracked an offbalance one-timer past keeper Akira Fitzgerald.
"(The Rowdies) are a team that plays more my game," Barbara said. "So I have more chances to show what I can do."
The Rowdies got their first lead in the 60th minute, Georgi Hristov atoning for a missed penalty shot in the first half by ripping a left-footed shot from just inside the 18 that tucked inside the far upper corner of the goal. Barbara found Hristov open in the box for his second assist of the night and third since joining the Rowdies. The goal was Hristov's team-leading ninth.
"You see (Barbara's) relationship with Georgi developing," Hill said. "They've only had 25, 30 minutes in (a game at) Atlanta and then (Saturday), but they looked as if they've been playing together for a long, long time."
Carolina tied it at 2 in the 64th minute.