ST. PETERSBURG — Sure, there are still three games left after tonight, and the Rowdies could be worse off, tied for the fourth and final NASL playoff spot. But there's no mistaking the must-win feel to this one.
"We're under no illusions about what's required," said coach Stuart Campbell, whose Rowdies face league leader Ottawa tonight at Al Lang Stadium.
Here's the situation: Tampa Bay is tied with Fort Lauderdale and Edmonton for fourth place overall, at 34 points, with third out of reach. But the Strikers have a game in hand.
Fort Lauderdale also has a decided edge in the first tiebreaker category, goal differential. The Strikers are six on the positive side, while Tampa Bay is a minus-3 (Edmonton is even).
But say the Rowdies win three of their last four. Considering they have games against Ottawa and second-place New York that would be quite the accomplishment. Since Fort Lauderdale has the fifth game, Tampa Bay would need it to win no more than two.
"They know. They check the standings. There's no big rah-rah speech coming from me. They know they have to stand up and be counted," Campbell said.
Forward Freddy Adu, who has seen more playing time of late, did not hesitate to use the phrase "must-win" in comments made on the team's website.
"Especially the home ones. We can't draw, we can't lose — we have to win," he said. "Especially when you're trying to push for a playoff spot. We have to finish. That's the one thing that has plagued us a lot. We have to finish our chances because we create a lot of chances."
It won't be easy against a physical, streaking Ottawa team that has clinched a playoff berth but still has plenty to play for, namely possible hosting rights for the final.
A recent 4-1 rout of New York, part of a three-game win streak where it has outscored opponents 9-2, has the Fury ahead of the Cosmos by a point for the top overall spot.
"Their confidence is sky high. They feel like they're going to get a result from every match," Campbell said.
Tampa Bay has performed well against the Fury, drawing 0-0 and 2-2, with both of those games played in Ottawa. In fact, the Rowdies are the only team Ottawa has yet to beat.
With a roster freeze placed on NASL teams this week, the Rowdies made a late pickup in defender Willie Hunt. On Thursday, they parted ways with forward Omar Salgado and defender Gale Agbossoumonde. Salgado returns to Mexico after being on loan from Tigres UANL while Agbossoumonde was simply released.
Campbell felt a boost was needed to the defensive part of the team, and with the must-win mind-set, the one concern is losing a hold on that part of the game.
"You still have to be sensible in your approach. You can't go out and win the game in the first 10 minutes, but you can lose it," he said.