In the days leading up to the Tampa Bay Rowdies' third-round U.S. Open Cup match against Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders FC, Rowdies coach Ricky Hill suggested that his team's defense, when playing to its potential, was as good as a number of MLS teams.
On Wednesday, Hill's words rang prophetic.
Even though it was missing usual right back starter and captain Frankie Sanfilippo, the Rowdies defense repeatedly thwarted Seattle's attack, getting in the path of shots before they reached goalkeeper Diego Restrepo, tackling balls away at just the right moment and keeping the Sounders in perpetual frustration.
And when Georgi Hristov scored in the 75th minute, a raucous crowd of 4,124 at Al Lang Stadium went home delighted by a 1-0 Rowdies victory, their most significant this season.
"Saturday, we weren't great as a defensive unit," Hill said. "Today we went in with the same defensive unit and it was like night and day. All credit to them."
The Sounders, winners of three of the past four Cup competitions, had a golden opportunity late in the match when they were awarded a penalty kick in the 84th minute after Rowdies defender Jordan Gafa used his hand to clear a shot off of the line as it was headed for the back of the net and was red-carded.
Obafemi Martins took the penalty kick, and Restrepo guessed correctly, diving right to push the shot away from goal and preserve his first shutout of the season.
"I give big credit to Shane (Hill) for telling me (Martins) was going to go there from past games," Restrepo said. "Shane told me, 'He always goes there.' So I just went with Shane, and thankfully (Martins) put it there."
The Rowdies next play two road matches in their league, NASL, against Edmonton on Sunday and against Carolina on June 8. Their fourth-round Cup opponent will likely be the Portland Timbers (MLS) on June 12. Portland led the Wilmington Hammerheads 5-1 in the second half late Wednesday night.
The Rowdies scored off of a well-worked set piece. Hill, near the midfield stripe, sent a free kick into the middle of the field for second-half substitute Mike Ambersley. The St. Louis native, making his second appearance this season for the Rowdies, played a through ball into the path of Keith Savage, charging hard toward the Sounders' goal. Savage, one-on-one with goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, had his shot saved, but Hristov was free on the back post to slip the rebound into the goal.
It was Hristov's team-leading seventh goal of the season. The Bulgarian has scored all three goals for the Rowdies in the U.S. Open Cup.
"One thing Mike brings is that composure and that little bit of class in his execution," Ricky Hill said. "As it turned out, everything went well. It was three good passes. Keith found himself clear in front of the goal. The keeper pulled off a very good save, and Georgi, as he has been in recent times, always hunting, always looking to finish things off … was there."
The win was the first of the season for the Rowdies at Al Lang, against a team at the highest level of the American pro soccer pyramid.
"This was a game for (the Rowdies) to showcase themselves and to make a name for themselves in front of their home fans," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "It's what the Open Cup competition is all about. They took advantage of that opportunity."