TAMPA — The Rowdies' game tonight at Al Lang Field against Puerto Rico might be the most important of their regular season.
Coming off Sunday's 4-0 loss at first-place San Antonio, which Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said was his team's worst defensive performance of the season, Tampa Bay faces a similarly skilled offense in Puerto Rico. The Islanders play direct passes to their three forwards — Nicholas Addlery (eight goals), David Foley (five goals) and Jonathan Fana (four goals, five assists) — a tactic San Antonio used to expose the Rowdies' central defense and its susceptibility to quick-hit attacks.
Tampa Bay is eager to prove Sunday's result was an anomaly.
"It couldn't be a better game," Hill said. "I'd rather play Puerto Rico than a team at the bottom of the table because if they can't get up for Puerto Rico to try to rectify their wrongs, then I've got no chance. I shouldn't have to give a team talk; I should just be able to say: 'It's time. Over that white line, off you go,' "
The Rowdies have been in a bit of a slump since the transfer of star forward Tsuyoshi Yoshitake (six goals, two assists) to Yokohama FC Hong Kong on Aug. 4. They needed two late goals to tie at Carolina on Aug. 4 and looked lackluster in a scoreless draw at home to last-place Atlanta a week later.
Then came Sunday's drubbing.
"I think (the San Antonio loss) will add a little fuel to our fire, and that's something I think we needed," forward Mike Ambersley said. "Over the last three games, we haven't played the way we should be. Maybe it takes a little kick in the butt to get things turned around."
Savage-less: M Keith Savage has started 19 of 22 games this season but will miss at least the next two because of an abdominal tear in his side, Hill said. It's the same injury Savage had surgery to correct last year but on the opposite side of his body.
"He's just been feeling it come on gradually for the last month," Hill said, adding the team will monitor Savage daily but doesn't expect to see him on the field until Sept. 8, at the earliest.
Savage has the second-most assists (four) on the team and has scored two goals.
Reinforcements: M Raphael Cox, who was signed Aug. 17, the same day he was released from Atlanta, is available tonight. Cox scored two goals in 18 games for Atlanta. The Rowdies are still awaiting the arrival of F Carl Cort. The London native signed Aug. 10 but remains in Canada securing his visa. Hill said he hopes to have Cort, a 6-foot-4 target striker, available for the Sept. 1 game at Fort Lauderdale. On Friday, the Rowdies solidified their back line by adding D Eddie Ababio. Ababio is originally from Accra, Ghana, but he moved to the bay area at age 8 and played for Tampa's Gaither High. Ababio, who is available tonight, was released by Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids on June 28.
Rowdies vs. Puerto Rico
When/where: 7:30; Al Lang Field, St. Petersburg
Records: Rowdies 10-7-5 (35 points), Puerto Rico 10-7-5 (35 points)
Watch online: rowdiessoccer.com
Standings: The Rowdies are tied for second with Puerto Rico. If the playoffs were to start today, the Islanders would be the No. 2 seed on the first tiebreaker, goal differential. The Rowdies are plus-1; Puerto Rico is plus-6.
Last time out: Tampa Bay trailed 3-0 after just 29 minutes at San Antonio on Sunday and lost 4-0. … Puerto Rico played a scoreless draw at home against Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.
Extras: Rowdies D Frankie Sanfilippo has four yellow cards. One more and Sanfilippo must serve a one-game suspension. … Tonight's match is the second in a tough three-game stretch for Tampa Bay. The Rowdies travel to fourth-place Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 1 for its next game after tonight.