ST. PETERSBURG — Cup competitions in soccer can be a tricky proposition. Out of necessity they intertwine with the regular season, and if a squad has a key game in three days, the cup contest can take a backseat.
So tonight's game at Al Lang Stadium offers a rare matchup: two teams riding momentum from their respective Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup victories as the Rowdies host Ottawa in the penultimate NASL spring season contest for both.
It's the last home game of the spring for Tampa Bay, but the Rowdies know they'll play again shortly after the 10-game slate concludes. Tampa Bay got past Cincinnati of the third-tier United Soccer League 1-0 Wednesday, advancing to the fourth round where the Rowdies visit Columbus of MLS on June 15.
"Ten games, that's nothing, so we look forward to playing Columbus in Columbus and getting after them a little it," said Rowdies goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who had a pretty big hand in Wednesday's victory. He faced 14 shots and had to work hard on many of them.
Georgi Hristov, who had one goal through eight NASL games, netted the winner, his fourth goal in U.S. Open Cup play. Pickens was part of a normal starting lineup fielded by Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell, who didn't want to disrupt what has been an improved level of play — and is a cup guy.
"A bit of both if I'm honest," he said. "I wanted to build momentum. The performances I feel have been pretty good so I wanted to keep that going, and from a selfish standpoint I love cup competitions. I had a little bit of success back in England with 'em, but zero success over here, as a player and as an assistant coach."
The win marked a second consecutive early lead held, coming off a 2-0 victory at Minnesota. The Rowdies (3-2-3, 12 points) sit in sixth place but just two points off second place Indy and Edmonton, with New York (18 points) looking to clinch the spring title today.
Pickens was glad Campbell went with the full lineup approach.
"I think that was a good thing," he said. "With the good performance in Minnesota, I think it was kind of important that we kept it together … sometimes when you take a lot of guys out of the lineup, come Saturday maybe it looks a little bit different and the chemistry just isn't there."
Ottawa (2-4-2) sits eighth in the NASL with eight points but is riding high after a season-best crowd of 9,000 watched the Fury knock off MLS Vancouver in the Canadian Championship. The second semifinal leg is next week in Vancouver. The Canadian version is substantially smaller, with just the six pro teams as compared to the 91 involved in the eight-round U.S. Open Cup.
Rowdies fans will certainly recognize the visiting coach today. Paul Dalglish helmed the first season of the Rowdies reboot, though he was let go with two games left in the season after a 10-game winless stretch.
Campbell, as evidenced by his lineup strategy Wednesday, just wants to keep his team's good vibe going.
"The team have good a good camaraderie, we've got a great spirit in there, a great togetherness," he said. "Good mix of older guys and younger guys, all pulling in the same direction, that's the big thing. We've had a decent start to the season and they're all determined to really kick on now."