ST. PETERSBURG — Juan Tejada finessed his way into every scoring chance for the Rowdies on Saturday.
The forward started the scoring early against Bethlehem, corralling a free kick on the edge of the goal area and rocketing the ball into the net in the 13th minute.
Later in the first half, a Tejada shot ricocheted off goalkeeper Matt Freese and the far post. Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti flicked the rebound into the back of the net, and the Rowdies held on for a 2-1 victory.
Tejada’s performance was his latest offensive showcase for the Rowdies. Now Tejada, 22, has accepted an invitation to play for his native Panama.
He will return home July 15 to join the under-23 national team for qualifying for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo.
“It’s going to be so special to see my friends, my family,” said Tejada, who is from Panama City. “They are just constantly messaging me about ‘When are you coming to Panama? We want to see you.’ I’m just ready for it.”
Tejada regularly returns to Panama for Christmas, but this is his first opportunity to wear a national-team jersey in front of his family.
Tejada moved to the United States in the summer of 2014, leaving behind his mother, Mayra; father, Juan Antonio, and older brother, Juan Antonio, now 24.
He first settled in Bradenton to attend IMG Academy on a soccer scholarship. After his high school graduation, Tejada relocated north across the Sunshine Skyway bridge to play for Eckerd.
Tejada started every game in his four years at Eckerd, and he made the short drive to Al Lang Stadium for Rowdies matches whenever his competitive schedule allowed.
He made the jump to the Lakeland Tropics of the USL’s Premier Development League (now known as USL League Two) in 2018. After one season in Lakeland, Tejada returned to St. Petersburg to join the Rowdies in February.
“It was special,” Tejada said of signing with the Rowdies, “first, because I’ve been coming to watch the team, and second, this is my second home, the Tampa Bay area.”
The rookie has made 10 starts this season and appeared in all 16 matches.
“I have learned so much during these short months,” Tejada said. “This is my first professional year, and I think I have a lot of room to develop.”
Though Tejada sees areas to improve, his five goals are second on the team, trailing Guenzatti’s eight.
Tejada had auditioned for the national team before, participating in camps and workouts with the under-20 squad. This callup will allow him to play his first official game for his country.
Panama plays El Salvador in a pair of matches July 19 and 21. The winner of the series, determined by aggregate score, will advance to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying championship, an eight-team tournament to decide which two nations will represent North America, Central America and the Caribbean at the Olympics, an under-23 tournament with each team allowed three over-23 players.
While he is away for international competition, Tejada will miss one match for the Rowdies, a home contest against Saint Louis on July 20.
“Will we miss him? Of course we will,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “He’s a big part of our team, but I think it shows that we’re trying to give these people a platform to better their careers, as well.”
For Collins, Tejada’s callup is another sign that his Rowdies continue to improve. It’s great for one of his young players to get this recognition from his country, Collins said. He expects Tejada to succeed on the international stage because of his attitude as well as his talent.
“I think that his temperament is so good, he’ll just take all of it in stride,” Collins said. “If he’s anything like he’s been the last few months, he’ll just go and run really, really hard.”
Rowdies vs. Ottawa Fury, 8 p.m. Saturday, Al Lang Stadium