ST. PETERSBURG — On Sunday, the Rowdies were a couple of stoppage-time minutes away from being eliminated in the NASL fall season title chase.
The New York Cosmos, needing a victory to wrap up the championship, took a 1-0 lead in the 78th minute against Edmonton and only had to hold off the Eddies to secure a spot in the Soccer Bowl.
With time winding down on Tampa Bay's title hopes, Edmonton threw the Rowdies a lifeline, scoring in the 90th minute to tie the score and prevent the Cosmos from winning the title in Week 12 of the 14-week season.
Now, as Tampa Bay travels to Edmonton on Sunday, the Rowdies have something to play for.
"That just shows the mentality of the group that they have (in Edmonton)," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "They haven't given up even though they're not contesting for the championship. I don't anticipate it'll be any different on Sunday."
To win the title outright, the Rowdies have to win both remaining matches against Edmonton and Minnesota United on Nov. 2 and hope the Cosmos lose at last-place San Antonio on Saturday and at Atlanta on Nov. 2.
Should the Cosmos lose one match and draw one while the Rowdies win their last two, both teams will finish atop the standings tied at 26 points. In that scenario, the Rowdies would earn the title based on a superior goal differential. Any victory by the Cosmos or Tampa Bay draw or loss over the final two matches eliminates the Rowdies.
Let it snow? Field conditions could become a major issue in Edmonton. Weather forecasts for Sunday predict temperatures in the mid 30s with a 60 percent chance of a rain/snow/sleet wintry mix. Combined with Clarke Stadium's unforgiving artificial turf, footing will be difficult.
"It will be slick, and it will be slippery, and it will take a definite amount of technical ability to try to play good football," Hill said. "That's why in practice I've been stressing the importance of ball retention and not giving the ball away cheaply, not turning it over because Edmonton has proven that they're a side that is difficult to break down."
Late-season switch: Following a 2-1 defeat at Fort Lauderdale, Hill altered the back line, shifting left back Andres Arango to center back and starting Raphael Cox at Arango's vacated position.
The result? Two victories in a row, one goal given up in those two matches and considerably less work for standout goalkeeper Diego Restrepo.
"We're a lot better in terms of our distances away from our goal area," Hill said. "We contest slightly more advanced than we had been doing previously, which is great because you don't get that anxiety, that nervousness around the box. … I don't remember anyone having a clear one-on-one through to Diego where he's had to make a world-class save. The change has solidified that for sure."