ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies would love a repeat of their first meeting with North Carolina FC, but they'll have to do so with a handful of players who weren't around for the season opener.
"It was a lot different for me — I was very tired," said Neill Collins, still a player for that 3-1 victory on March 17; he has since been elevated to Rowdies head coach. "I'm sure I'll be emotionally tired on Saturday, but certainly not as physically tired."
Tampa Bay's last game contained a bit of both, as increasingly spirited attempts to crack Charleston's defense went for naught in a 0-0 draw at Al Lang on Wednesday. It was the fourth straight shutout for second-place Charleston, which has only been defeated three times. The Rowdies (7-8-6), meanwhile, haven't posted a clean sheet in nine matches.
North Carolina (7-9-6) was also held 0-0 at home by Charleston in its previous showing, at Cary last weekend. Entering Friday night, Tampa Bay and NCFC were tied for 11th in the USL's Eastern Conference with 27 points. Eight teams make the playoffs.
"It's very important. If you look at the standings, every match is important for us. We need three points for sure," said Martin Vingaard, who has been out the past several matches but is likely to see the field Saturday with captain Joe Cole on a yellow-card suspension.
The Rowdies are starting to get healthier. Also anticipated back, for the first time in 11 matches, is Zac Portillos.
"For the first time really in my two to three months tenure I've actually got decisions to make," Collins said. "With so many games I've had, not decisions, it's just been no lads available, particularly at the back and midfield."
Where Portillos lines up is an interesting question, after Collins successfully employed a 3-5-2 formation against Charleston, with normal D Kyle Porter moving up into the attack.
Newcomer Tarek Morad, a member of last year's champion Louisville team, seems to have secured regular time in the back. He logged the full 90 minutes Wednesday, having just gotten to the club from Cairo and being not being officially signed until hours before the game.
Morad stepped in, critically, to prevent a possible breakaway on one of Charleston's few sniffs on Tampa Bay's goal.
"Tarek's someone that you can see is going to be a very good addition," Collins said. "It's a shame that we're running out of games, but there's still enough games for any of these players to affect it. Really excited to work with that quality of player and not just that, the character that he's going to bring."
And the type of player — namely, a new addition — that will be called up on to replicate that win from 4 1/2 months ago. Tampa Bay has had eight players make their Rowdies debut in the past two months alone.
Counting Collins, five players who logged time in that first meeting are no longer in the lineup, including one who scored late to seal the victory, Jack Blake.
NCFC is on a five-match unbeaten streak and boasts an 11-goal scorer in Daniel Rios. Midfielder Graham Smith, a former USF player, has emerged into a dependable starter his rookie season.
Rowdies vs. North Carolina FC
7:30 p.m., Al Lang Stadium