ST. PETERSBURG — There was a bit of a wait for the action to get started, but once the Rowdies got going Saturday night, they did not mess around.
Two first-half scores in three minutes essentially sealed a victory, the Rowdies taking down Saint Louis 4-1 before an announced crowd of 4,520 at Al Lang Stadium.
With New York Red Bulls II giving up a goal late for a draw at Memphis, the Rowdies (12-1-7, 43 points) have a five-point advantage atop the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.
Heavy rain and lightning forced kickoff back an hour later than the scheduled 7:30 start, but neither the field nor the Rowdies looked affected.
“This week (in training) we technically played (well) but also with an attitude, and they took it out there (Saturday),” coach Neill Collins said. “It was a whole club effort to get the game on. The rain delay is never easy. The grounds staff did an unbelievable job, and the players on the field gave all the staff something to be proud of."
Sebastian Guenzatti had both of the quick goals for an even dozen for the year, and Leo Fernandes made it 3-0 in the late stages as the Rowdies extended their unbeaten streak to six games. Guenzatti and Fernandes both contributed an assist, with Fernandes finding Caleb Richards in stoppage time for his first Tampa Bay goal.
Saint Louis didn’t record a shot on goal in the first hour.
Though Guenzatti started the scoring with his 11th goal of the season, it was Fernandes’ doing. In the 33rd minute, the midfielder took off into the left corner, deftly dipping around two defenders before chipping a ball that Guenzatti virtually had no choice but to head home.
“It was practically a goal by Leo,” said Guenzatti, who is two goals behind Phoenix’s Solomon Asante for the league lead. “I’m always looking at Leo’s eyes, and I read the play real well. We always have a great connection.”
Tampa Bay then did the opposite of sitting back, instantly pressing forward. Less than three minutes later, Malik Johnson created a goal-mouth attack that led to Lucky Mkosana collecting the ball in the middle of the penalty area and sharply cutting it back to Guenzatti, who had time to drill home a low shot for a 2-0 lead.
“When you’re two-nil up, it’s a dangerous score line. If they get the goal, they’ve got the momentum,” Richards said. “We knew they were going to come out fast. We just weathered the storm.”
Saint Louis’ first shot on target came in the 63rd minute and was an easy stop for goalkeeper John McCarthy. But he had no way of saving Kyle Greig’s header off a corner in the 87th minute.
Tampa Bay had one more goal to produce, with Richards sure-footing home a well-weighted setup from Fernandes.
“First of many. Had to do the job for the boys,” joked Richards, a defender who joined the Rowdies in February on loan from England’s Norwich City.
It made for a tidy night, especially with New York failing to get three points; the Rowdies visit the Red Bulls on Friday.
“A loss would be pretty dire because they’re on our tail,” Guenzatti said. “If we defend like we did (Saturday), we’ll be good.”