ST. PETERSBURG — As the lone holdovers from the 2017 squad, Sebastian Guenzatti and Leo Fernandes already share quite the bond among current Rowdies.
But there’s a lot more than that between the two South Americans. They go way back, to the good ol’ BW Gottschee vs. Met Oval days.
“We grew up playing against each other our whole lives. We never played on the same team, but we were always good friends. We’ve been close for a while. And, yeah, my team was way better,” said Fernandes, who played for the Gottschee youth club in New York, often running into Guenzatti’s Queens-based side in club play.
These days the former rivals thrive together. Guenzatti leads Tampa Bay (9-1-6) with eight goals. Fernandes (two goals, four assists) was close behind before an injury, which has kept him out the past four games, though he may return for Saturday night’s key clash with Ottawa.
Kickoff is 8 p.m. at Al Lang Stadium, a little later than normal as the back end of a Rays-to-Rowdies doubleheader, with the baseball tilt at Tropicana Field set for 4:10.
Guenzatti’s ascension to the top of the team scoring list is fascinating.
“We knew that was a capability, and I think he would say that he thinks he could have two or three more,” said coach Neill Collins. “But the biggest thing with Seba is everything else. If he’s not scoring, he’s still offering a helluva lot to the team, off the field and on.”
Not bad praise for someone who last season entered September with zero goals coupled with a good chunk of sideline time. He also is now the Rowdies captain.
“I left him off the squad. I just didn’t think he was performing,” said Collins, who subbed out a non-injured Guenzatti at halftime of a match last July 7.
He did not see the field again until Aug. 22 as a substitute. Of the six matches he was held out, Guenzatti wasn’t even listed as a bench option for five.
The response from Guenzatti won over his coach.
“I learned everything I need to know about Seba from then,” Collins said. “I can’t say he re-doubled his effort because the effort was always there, but he just really focused. And I use him his as an example to many players now, in that you can always change your situation. Seba did.”
Thinking back on that period, Guenzatti admitted it was a “wake-up call” that only made him work hard to gain back a spot.
His friend wasn’t worried.
“Seba, he’s a hard-working guy. If stuff’s not going his way, he’s not going to sit around and pout, be like ‘I wanna leave’ and stuff like that. He’ll give you 100 percent,” Fernandes said.
And Collins deserves a nod for placing Guenzatti in his much preferred position, playing in the center as a forward. Albeit a hard spot to break into with the veterans in front of him, Guenzatti almost always played as a wide attacker in a 4-2-3-1 formation under former coach Stuart Campbell.
The position change worked spectacularly well. Guenzatti put home five goals in the last nine matches of 2018, three against North Carolina. Combining that stretch with this season, he is scoring a goal every other match. That’s compared to a 1:8 ratio in his four seasons with the New York Cosmos; Guenzatti was dealt to Tampa Bay in late July 2017.
“I was always a forward in Uruguay and here in the U.S. in the academies,” Guenzatti. “I don’t think (it’s due to) my finishing. I think it’s my movement, and my vision of the game as a forward. I think I create chances. … Some of them go in, a lot of them don’t, but it’s all about creating the chances.”
He hopes to create some chances alongside his Brazilian friend again soon, saying Fernandes is “a great guy off the field, big part of this organization and we’re missing him.”
Though Fernandes chose the college route (Stony Brook) while Guenzatti tried to start his pro career back in Uruguay, they ended up reunited with the Cosmos in 2015. Fernandes scored 10 goals that season, returned to MLS Philadelphia the following year before inking with the Rowdies in 2017.
“As soon as Seba got here, there was an empty locker and I said, ‘You’re sitting right next to me, man’. Our club teams were the biggest rivals and we had some crazy games, a couple fights … but never between us,” Fernandes said.
Ottawa (7-2-6) comes to town having not lost since April 20, a span of 10 matches, including three straight draws before Wednesday’s 3-2 home defeat of Charleston. The Fury has 27 points and is in sixth place in the USL’s Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has seen its season-long grip on first place ended by Indy Eleven, which has won five in a row to draw even with the Rowdies at 33 points.
Rowdies vs. Ottawa, 8 p.m. Saturday, Al Lang Stadium