ST. PETERSBURG — Thanks to a youth-leaning roster with new players like 21-year-old speedster Malik Johnson, the Rowdies generally have fresher legs than their opponent. Saturday, as Tampa Bay tries to overcome its only defeat of the USL Championship season, the advantage could be extreme.
That’s because the Charleston Battery will have a mere day — and a travel day at that — in between matches.
For good measure, kickoff time is earlier than the norm at Al Lang Stadium, as the Rays and Rowdies are touting a doubleheader, with special ticket prices and shuttle service from Tropicana Field to encourage fans to attend both Saturday contests. Kickoff for Rowdies is 6:30 p.m.
Cue a player like Johnson, whose addition to the Rowdies roster began with Neill Collins cuing up some of his first video as a head coach. Just a few days after being promoted from player to replace Stuart Campbell as manager, Collins popped on some tape of upcoming road opponent Toronto FC II.
“It’s a Sunday night, I’m sitting, watching Toronto II against Charlotte. And when you watch a lot of video, the games can sometimes fall into a lull. And all of a sudden, something happened,” Collins said. “Boom, (Johnson) just sprinted past two players and created something out of nothing. Rewind, watch it again. … Okay, keep an eye on him. When we found out we had a chance of getting him, I was really pleased.”
Johnson proceeded to score the equalizing goal against Tampa Bay in a game the Rowdies would take 4-2 for Collins’ first victory as a coach. And when Toronto II dropped down to U.S. Soccer’s third tier (USL League One) it presented Johnson, a Toronto native, the reality of having to leave home.
Tampa Bay signed him early last December. Although he was just 20 at the time, Johnson had already logged four seasons (75 matches) of pro ball; he was 17 for his first pro outing.
“Toronto has a really good setup from the academy all the way up to the first (MLS) team, and they kind of prepare you for the pro life, from joining the academy, so I had a good look at it,” Johnson said Thursday after a short training session.
Johnson started playing against older competition in his early teens, and by age 15 he was not far from being at their level physically. He scored a career-high four goals during the 2016 season.
Sometimes though, the 157-pound forward still bears the brunt of a bigger player. Such was the case just 10 minutes into his first start as Rowdie, May 28 in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup at OKC Energy FC.
“I went up for a header, and I got elbowed in my nose. It was dislocated — it popped out,” he said. “I had to go back into the changing room, and they pushed it back in. That pain was excruciating.”
Yet Johnson lobbied for the procedure to take place on the field so he could return; a dislocated shoulder in January had kept him out several months, delaying his Rowdies debut.
“We obviously signed him for a reason, because of his technical ability and his physical ability,” Collins said. “But then when you get a player through the doors, you start learning about their personality, all the other characteristics. And he’s done nothing but strengthen our opinion on him.”
Johnson made his second Rowdies start, and first at home, last weekend. Granted, he might prefer chesting down a ball over heading it for the time being. Johnson started off the post-injury matches wearing a mask, although he ditched it twice when sweat caused it to slip.
With two of Tampa Bay’s top scoring threats, Leo Fernandes and Andrew Tinari, still doubtful, expect Johnson to get his nose into the action plenty Saturday. The Rowdies (8-1-5, 29 points) welcome in eighth-place Charleston after the Battery bowed out to MLS Atlanta on Thursday.
Charleston (5-3-5, 20 points) was supposed to host the match Tuesday, but rain delayed it with the match moving to Thursday in Kennesaw, Ga.
And to complete the made-to-order nature of the tilt from Tampa Bay’s perspective: the match went extra time, Atlanta scoring twice in the additional half hour to claim the 3-1 victory. Although Charleston’s usual goalkeeper, Joe Kuzminsky, top scorer Zeiko Lewis and 10-game starter Tah Anunga all sat out, plenty of regulars played, some the full 120 minutes.
It sets up well for Collins’ crew to shake off the memory of last Saturday’s 3-1 home loss to North Carolina.
“The boys, I can’t speak highly enough about their attitude,” he said. “It wasn’t that they didn’t go out and perform last week, just had a couple of off moments, and I’m sure that we’ll rectify that.”
Rowdies vs. Charleston Battery, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Al Lang Stadium