ST. PETERSBURG — There's no easy way around it. To get into serious contention for one of the USL's playoff spots, the Rowdies will have knock off some teams in front of them.
And there's no one farther in front than Saturday night's opponent. FC Cincinnati steam-rolls into Al Lang on a 14-match unbeaten streak, having set a franchise record for most goals in a game with 5-1 victory at Atlanta on Wednesday.
"You don't get better games than this; you're playing Cincinnati," Tampa Bay coach Neill Collins said. "They're heading to MLS. They've been a big rival of ours the last couple of years. It's a game that you can easily get motivated for."
The game was already important enough before Friday's news, when defender Tamika Mkandawire announced it will be the last of his playing career. The 35-year-old defender and former Rowdies captain, affectionately known as "Tam," has played 19 pro seasons, and Saturday will mark his 100th game in a Rowdies uniform.
"I can't express how difficult this decision has been," Mkandawire said in a statement. "I feel that now is the right time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter."
Tampa Bay has acquired several defenders in recent weeks, including Papé Diakité and Tarek Morad, who both started over Mkandawire last time out.
Cincinnati (16-3-6, 54 points) is clear of second-place Louisville by nine points, while Tampa Bay (7-10-7, 28) is 12th, seven points out of the final playoff spot (eighth) in the Eastern Conference. Even if they pull off a victory, the Rowdies still will have to string together consecutive wins, which they have not done since the first two matches of the season.
The Rowdies bring a legitimate spark of momentum into Saturday, having scored a second-half goal to draw 1-1 at second-place Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The Riverhounds had only surrendered two goals at home until Junior Flemmings collected a long, bouncing pass from Martin Vingaard and slotted it home.
It ended a 422-minute span where Tampa Bay went goal-less, almost five matches' worth. Just-signed goalie Daniel Vega made his Rowdies debut.
"To actually score in Pittsburgh, that says a lot, and also for the team spirit," Flemmings said. "We're at a point in the season now where we have to get maximum points at home. It doesn't matter who we're playing against. We just gotta go after it."
There won't be many more home points available, with just three of the remaining nine games at Al Lang after Saturday.
In their visit to Cincinnati last month, the Rowdies gave a good account, but fell 2-0 at Nippert Stadium, which has averaged an MLS-ready turnout of 25,000 fans per game. That's more than double of anyone else in USL, with Tampa Bay's 5,247 number good for ninth out of 33 clubs.
"These are teams that you want to play against, especially (since) they're going to the MLS. You want to prove your point against them," Flemmings said.
Cincinnati has a trio of goal-scoring threats in Emmanuel Ledesma (11 goals), Danni Konig (10) and Nazmi Albadawi (nine), who had two on Wednesday.
"They've got a huge squad to pick from, but we've also now got options, and we need to get the balance right between freshness and consistency in the lineup, and that's down to me," Collins said. "… We've not had many breaks the last couple months, and I do believe that you make your own breaks. But, it will be up to us to fight for them (Saturday)."
Rowdies vs. FC Cincinnati
7:30 p.m., Al Lang Stadium