ST. PETERSBURG — In the past two weeks of this surprisingly successful North American Soccer League season, Tampa Bay had been challenged to rebound from a tough performance, including a spirit-sapping 4-0 loss to San Antonio on Sunday.
Now with the playoffs in sight, the Rowdies had to make a stand Saturday to get a better view of them.
Tampa Bay, coming off one of its worst defensive performances, turned in one of its best in a 0-0 tie against Puerto Rico as the Rowdies salvaged a point despite being shut out for the third consecutive game.
Tampa Bay (10-7-6) remained tied with Puerto Rico (10-7-6) for second in the standings and can secure a playoff spot with a win Sept. 1 at Fort Lauderdale along with some help. The top six teams in the eight-team league reach the postseason; the top two seeds get byes into the semifinals.
"I was disappointed for the players," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "The effort and enthusiasm was there and they deserved more than a point. After last week, I thought the players regrouped, especially the back four, and gave us a sterling performance tonight on defense."
Much of the beauty of Saturday's game was in its struggle.
From tough defense to cramping desperation, the teams played valiantly through regular time plus four minutes of extra time.
But the Rowdies still could not score and have not done so since a 3-3 tie Aug. 4 at Carolina.
The defense, though, came through.
To clamp down on Puerto Rico's high-powered offense, the Rowdies had to take the ball and refuse to give it back. Without possession, the Islanders could not unfurl their attack. Even when it won the ball, Puerto Rico lost it again quickly at midfield.
In the first half, Tampa Bay outshot Puerto Rico 9-5 and had more corner kicks (6-3). In the second half the Rowdies had their chances with a penalty kick and a corner kick opportunity that missed.
"I thought this was a much better performance than last week," said Tampa Bay goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, a former Countryside High and USF standout. "That was a wakeup call. We tightened up and kept everything in front of us. Their shots were 18-20 feet away, which helped me. We just have to keep doing this the rest of the way."