Though not mathematically eliminated, the Tampa Bay Rowdies saw their fall title hopes nearly evaporate after last week's 2-1 loss at Fort Lauderdale.
With four matches left, the Rowdies (14 points) are seven behind the first-place New York Cosmos and in a logjam for second with three other teams, including the Strikers.
The Rowdies' mission is clear: win to stay in. A sweep of all four matches is likely needed for a shot to defend their NASL championship Nov. 9 in the Soccer Bowl. The Rowdies face the Strikers tonight at Al Lang Stadium.
"We can't worry too much about where we are in the league," Rowdies midfielder Luke Mulholland said. "We just have to take care of business on the night. I think that's what might be our problem: looking too far ahead into the future. With four games left, a maximum of 12 points and only seven points behind, we have to make sure we win all the games and New York slips up."
A loss coupled with a Cosmos win against Carolina tonight would eliminate the Rowdies. The Rowdies can stay alive for another week with a win or a draw.
"It's still not mathematically impossible that we can finish first, so we have to ensure that we take care of our business, which is to win games," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "We can't legislate what happens anywhere else.''
The hangover from giving away a two-goal lead in the second half Sept. 28 against the Cosmos carried over to last week's match, when the Strikers thoroughly outplayed the Rowdies in the first half. Tampa Bay was better in the second but couldn't overcome a two-goal deficit.
One subpar 90-minute stretch, spread between two matches, has left the Rowdies no room for error.
"Two poor halves and suddenly there's a huge swing in points," Hill said. "And it happened to us in the spring when we were four minutes away from winning in Carolina and we end up giving away two goals in stoppage time and there's a six-point swing."
That result precipitated a three-game losing streak - one of the matches was a U.S. Open cup defeat to Portland of MLS - near the end of the spring and knocked the Rowdies out of title contention for the first half of the season.
A similar late swoon this fall has left the Rowdies scrambling. Injuries and fatigue have caught up to the team, though Hill says the Rowdies are their own worst enemy.
"I think on this occasion, it was just a lack of enough good decisions. To be 3-1 up against the Cosmos and fairly comfortable, if we're a good team, we have to be able to manage the storm that's going to come," Hill said. "We defended magnificently in the first 15 minutes after halftime, and then two straight balls in the middle of our defense get us all uneasy and disrupted and suddenly they've got two goals from it.
"And then last Saturday was a combination of the last 45 minutes against the Cosmos and the fact that they as a group weren't able to motivate themselves in the right manner."
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Rowdies vs. Fort Lauderdale Strikers
When/where: 7:30; Al Lang Stadium
Records: Rowdies: 3-2-5 (14 points, tied for second); Strikers: 4-4-2 (14 points, tied for second)
Tickets: rowdiessoccer.com, Al Lang box office (opens at 4:30), (813) 287-1539
Notes: Despite last Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Strikers, the Rowdies are still all but guaranteed to capture their fourth Coastal Cup in four tries against their state rival - a win, draw, or loss by fewer than three goals will do. Tampa Bay's loss last week was just the second in 15 matches against the Strikers since 2010. ... Rowdies F Carl Cort saw his first action since Aug. 17 when he came on as a substitute in Fort Lauderdale and scored Tampa Bay's only goal. He is unlikely to start tonight but should see action. Same for F Etienne Barbara, who is not yet fit to start but could play.