ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies hosted Carolina in a rare midweek match in front of 2,194 at Al Lang Field needing only a tie to wrap up second place in the NASL and the first-round playoff bye that goes with it.
The Rowdies did just that Wednesday, earning a 1-1 tie and receiving good news after the game: First place is still within grasp after league-leading San Antonio fell 3-1 at seventh-place Atlanta.
With one game left for both, Tampa Bay (12-7-8, 44 points) trails San Antonio by two points. The Rowdies travel to Carolina (10-8-9, fourth place) on Saturday. San Antonio hosts Minnesota (8-9-10, sixth place) on Sunday. The Rowdies need a victory and a San Antonio loss to finish first.
"We need help from other people," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "We hope for that help. But at the same time, we need to take care of what we need to try to manage, which is three points on Saturday."
The Rowdies had a chance to collect three points and tie San Antonio on Wednesday but couldn't preserve a 1-0 halftime lead. Coming out of the break, Rowdies goalkeeper Jeff Attinella stopped four good opportunities, the most dangerous being two one-timers from inside the 6-yard box in the 55th minute.
"That's the good thing about having Jeff back there," Rowdies defender Andres Arango said. "He's always up for the challenge. He's the best goalie in this league, I think, right now."
Attinella eventually succumbed to the barrage of shots from the RailHawks, who pushed as many as five players up the field. Ty Shipalane received a pass deep in Rowdies territory from Clearwater native Brian Shriver. Shipalane lined up a right-footed shot that seemed to be deflected as it headed for the upper far corner before going past Attinella, who was caught diving in the opposite direction.
"I wasn't frustrated that we gave up a goal. It was more how it came," said Attinella, a Clearwater native. "They got behind (on a cheap goal) and (shots) just kept happening and happening and happening. Unfortunately for us, they got that deflection."
The Rowdies grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first half on Arango's first goal of the season. Luke Mulholland's corner kick into the box deflected off a Carolina player directly to Arango, who sent a header past Ray Burse from just inside the 18-yard line.
"The deflection actually helped me," said Arango, who will have to serve a one-game suspension Saturday after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season. "It was dropping a little bit, so the deflection came up, and I was already up in the air. And I was able to just power it through."
Playoff schedule: The Rowdies play the first game of their two-game semifinal series on the road the weekend of Oct. 6 and host the second on Oct. 13. Because they have a bye in the quarterfinals, their opponent hasn't been determined.