TAMPA — With 10 games left on the regular-season schedule and the Tampa Bay Rowdies holding onto a playoff spot by a thread, the next two games are crucial to their postseason hopes.
Tonight Tampa Bay faces Puerto Rico, which, along with Montreal, is tied with the Rowdies for seventh place in the U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 with 24 points, albeit having played one fewer game. Should the postseason start today, the Rowdies and Puerto Rico would secure the final playoff slots while Montreal would be left out based on goal differential.
Saturday, the Rowdies square off against Miami, last in the USSF D2 standings with 19 points, for the fourth and final installment of the Coastal Cup rivalry.
For the Rowdies, wins this week against teams below them in the standings would put them on solid footing heading into the stretch run.
"They're massive games, and it's tough because I believe we've got the players to do it, but you know, Drew Yates comes off injured and then Long Tan's suspended," coach Paul Dalglish said. "That's another two people unavailable for the game."
Yates injured his ankle in the Rowdies' last outing, a 4-2 loss to Austin on Saturday, and Dalglish ruled him out for tonight.
Tan, who has started 19 league games, played in all 20 and has been one of the Rowdies' most consistent performers all season, picked up a red card in the 38th minute of the Austin loss and is suspended for the Puerto Rico match.
"We really are spread thin," Dalglish said. "It's just great that we've got so many good players that we can still put a team that's competitive on the field."
MORE INJURY NEWS: Dalglish indicated forward Aaron Wheeler, who has been sidelined since a June 19 loss at Puerto Rico with a stress reaction in his shin, could be available Saturday.
"Not to start but to play some part in the game," Dalglish said.
Midfielder Jeremy Christie should return to training with the club next week. Last week, Dalglish was hopeful fullback Gordon Kljestan would be back in the lineup, but his return has been delayed.
"Gordon might be another week after Jeremy," Dalglish said.
Central midfielder Scott Buete is another four or five weeks away and might be back in time for the playoffs should the Rowdies qualify. As for Erik Ustruck, Dalglish was doubtful the midfielder would return this season.
"We'd like to try to get him back this season, but that's going to be tough," Dalglish said.
DEFENSIVE WOES: Dalglish labeled the Rowdies' defensive performance against Austin, a game in which the team allowed four goals in the first half, their worst of the season.
"Really, really surprising how bad we were defensively, because they were mistakes that we'd been speaking about since the start of the season that they made again," Dalglish said. "Sometimes you can't sugarcoat it. You can try and be positive but sometimes you've got to tell the truth as well. The truth about the performance was that it was very, very poor defensive play."
Bryan Burns can be reached email@example.com.