With six games in the books and six remaining, the Tampa Bay Rowdies — tied with Carolina for first in the league standings — are in an optimal position at the NASL Spring Season's halfway point. A spot in the Soccer Bowl (Nov. 9) is the reward for winning the Spring Season. Here's a look at how the defending champion Rowdies have fared.
Most valuable player
M Luke Mulholland : The 24-year-old Preston, England native was named to the NASL 2012 Best XI team in his first full pro season. In 2013, Mulholland has been even better. He leads the NASL in shots (21), is tied for second with four goals and has assisted on two others. A dangerous set-piece taker, Mulholland caught Atlanta goalkeeper Joe Nasco flat-footed with a top-shelf, near-post strike on a 25-yard free kick that was as beautiful as any David Beckham bender. Anytime Mulholland has the ball at his feet near the opposition's goal, the Rowdies are a threat to score.
F Georgi Hristov: The Bulgarian striker has been a revelation for the Rowdies. Besides his incredible work rate, Hristov has scored four goals in all competitions — tying h Mulholland for the team lead — and is 3-for-3 in penalty kick opportunities.
Carl Cort's ability to hold the ball: At 6 feet 4, Cort provides a prodigious target up top. But what Cort does better than any Rowdies player is maintain possession after receiving a long pass and allow others to get into the attack. "That's the ideal scenario whereby every team in the whole league and the world would like to have someone who can keep the ball consistently in advanced areas of the pitch from a longer-distance pass," head coach Ricky Hill said. Unfortunately, Cort has only played sparingly in three games so far this season and is again on the shelf tonigh after picking up a slight hamstring injury in the win over VSI Tampa Bay FC on Tuesday. Hill expects Cort back in a week or two.
Shane Hill's long-distance shot: Hill nearly scored a second goal against Minnesota in the 85th minute when, off a set piece, Mulholland fooled everyone by laying a pass back to Hill in the middle of the field and the hulking midfielder blasted a shot. Only a slight deflection off Hristov's head kept the ball out of the back of the net, but if Hill can continue to unleash accurate, powerful strikes from distance with his right foot, the Rowdies will add a dimension to their offensive attack.
Fun fact: The Rowdies have scored first in six of their seven matches. The only time they've failed to do so? A scoreless draw in the season opener against Carolina.
The drought at Al Lang: During their 2012 championship run, Al Lang was a Rowdies fortress. The team won eight and tied seven of its 16 league matches at the converted baseball stadium. In 2013, the Rowdies have yet to win at home and have picked up only two of a possible nine points.
Injuries: The absence of stalwarts like Cort, Mike Ambersley and Takuya Yamada at various times has kept the squad from its full potential. With a healthy lineup, the Rowdies are probably sitting alone in first place right now.
Rowdies 3, Minnesota 2 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (May 18): This match had beautifully-crafted goals, critical goalkeeper saves and an edge-of-your-seat feel all the way through M Keith Savage's 90th-minute game-winner, making the Rowdies 3-0 on the road.
Rowdies 2, San Antonio 0 at Toyota Field (April 13): The Rowdies scored twice in the first half and Andrew Fontein made six saves to blank the Scorpions and win for the first time this season.
Quotable: "If we win our home games — we've shown we can do all right on the road — the prize is six league games away for us." Ricky Hill