With a little less than two months to go in the regular season and eight games remaining, the Rowdies have all but secured a place among the top six in the NASL standings to qualify for the postseason.
Should Tampa Bay win its next two matches, starting tonight against the Atlanta Silverbacks at Al Lang Field, and both Edmonton and Atlanta lose or tie their next two matches, the Rowdies could clinch a playoff berth Aug. 19 after their game at league-leading San Antonio.
Wins shouldn't be hard to come by. The Rowdies have collected seven in their past nine games. So with a playoff spot virtually a foregone conclusion, the Rowdies' focus has shifted toward loftier goals.
One is finishing in the top two in the regular season, thus earning a bye into the semifinal round of the playoffs and skipping the single-game quarterfinal round.
Last year Tampa Bay entered the playoffs as the third seed, but its playoff run lasted one game, a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Minnesota.
A bye would guarantee at least two playoff games for the Rowdies. The semifinals and final are two-game, home-and-away series.
"Last year I was in the playoffs with Minnesota, and we only just snuck into the playoffs," said Rowdies forward Luke Mulholland, who scored the goal for Minnesota that knocked Tampa Bay out of the postseason.
"We snuck in (as) a No. 6 seed by one point in front of Montreal, and we took that momentum and won five games in a row and automatically were then playoff champions."
Since the re-emergence of Tampa Bay's franchise in 2010, the final team to qualify for the playoffs in the Rowdies' league has won the championship each season.
Before Minnesota did it in the NASL a year ago, Puerto Rico entered the 2010 USSF Division 2 playoffs as the eighth seed, 17 points behind league leader Rochester, but knocked off the Rhinos in the opening round en route to the title.
Mulholland said he would have rather played for Carolina's regular-season championship squad last season than his Minnesota team, citing superiority over a 28-game stretch as a bigger achievement than superiority over a five-game playoff run.
"It's bittersweet, though, when you win the regular season and then lose in the playoffs," Mulholland said. "But I'll say this, if (the Rowdies) do win the regular season, I'm going to celebrate it like we won the World Cup. That's my mentality."
And that's the Rowdies' ultimate goal. With eight games to go and only two points separating them from league-leading San Antonio, the Rowdies believe the regular-season championship is well within its reach.
"That's the way I've been brought up: It's about the course of the season," said Rowdies coach Ricky Hill, who will serve a one-game suspension tonight following his second-half ejection Aug. 4 at Carolina. He stepped onto the field to argue the location of a Carolina throw-in that resulted in the RailHawks' third goal in 3-3 draw.
"I want us to be the best team in the league over the course of the season through our efforts and through our work and through our victories. That's what we aim for every week."
Rowdies vs. Atlanta
When/where: 7:30; Al Lang Field, St. Petersburg
Records: Rowdies 10-6-4 (34 points); Atlanta 4-11-5 (17)
Standings: The Rowdies are tied for second with Puerto Rico. If the playoffs began today, the Islanders would be the No. 2 seed on the first tiebreaker, goal differential. The Rowdies are plus-5; Puerto Rico is plus-7. …Atlanta is in last (eighth) place.
Notable: The Rowdies signed forward Carl Cort on Friday to try to offset the loss of Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, who was transferred to Yokohama FC Hong Kong last week. Cort, from London, played five seasons (2000-04) for Newcastle of the English Premier League and most recently for League One side Brentford (2009-11). The 6-foot-4, 172 pound Cort is on the Guyanese national team with Rowdies defender J.P. Rodrigues.