ST. PETERSBURG — Among many reasons the Tampa Bay Rowdies sit atop the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, a season after missing the playoffs, has been the ability to gobble up points away from Al Lang Stadium.
That has come in handy, as the Rowdies have only played one game there since July hit. They’re back Saturday night at 7:30 for a clash with Birmingham.
These clubs met in Alabama on June 1, with the Rowdies prevailing 2-0 as part of a stellar collection of road results. Last weekend, in a place Tampa Bay had gone 0-for-3 without so much as scoring, the Rowdies smashed Charleston 5-0. A week after Tampa Bay dropped its first away game, it dropped all sorts of records: Lucky Mkosana’s conversion 32 seconds in was the franchise’s fastest, and the seventh road victory marked a modern club record.
“We went into it with a little extra, coming off our first road loss, and we wanted to have a really good start. Executed our game plan probably as perfectly as any team could,” said first-year Rowdie Zach Steinberger, who had a goal and an assist.
In positing why Tampa Bay has been so strong on the road, Steinberger hits on what might explain its equally successful 2019 results at Al Lang.
“It’s a young, hungry, resilient group that is just willing to go out there and put in the work,” he said. “We’ve been dealt difficult hands from time to time, the odds have been stacked against us, but we haven’t let that interfere with our mindset, interfere with the standards that we set for ourselves.”
The Rowdies are 13-2-7, with just one loss each home and away. Last year they went 4-10-3 on the road and 7-5-5 in St. Pete.
Steinberger, 27, is actually one of the elder members of a roster overhaul. Like many of the new Rowdies, he was drafted by MLS out of college (Butler University) before seeing top-tier aspirations fizzle, to be followed by an assortment of stops.
Drafted eighth overall by the Houston Dynamo in 2015, Steinberger played three games for the big club, going mostly on loans (Indy Eleven, Rio Grande Valley, Jacksonville) in his two years there. He was released, then signed on full with Jacksonville in 2017 (eight goals) before splitting last year between Indy and North Carolina FC.
Rowdies coach Neill Collins confirms Steinberger’s assertion that the group is, to his delight, self-motivated.
“How much of motivation and hunger should come from the coach, and how much should come from within? I think it’s such a balance,” Collins said after his team’s last pre-match training Friday. “Ultimately we’ve got good lads that are hungry to have success for themselves, as a team. That’s been one of the easier parts.”
And, he adds, they’ve managed to keep a level head about leading the standings. The 2-0 loss at New York tightened matters, the Red Bulls now sitting just two points behind, Nashville another point back in third, followed closely by Indy which has two games in hand on the trio.
Last weekend’s start — Mkosana scoring two goals in the first four minutes — was a telltale mark of the young group’s evolution. Steinberger said earlier in the year the Rowdies, like many squads, would have spent at least a handful of minutes in mini-retreat trying to hold the 1-0 lead. Instead an onslaught resulted, goal leader Sebastian Guenzatti’s bicycle kick hitting the post before Mkosana tapped in for 2-0.
“It’s a brand new group, still only played about 25 games together now, which is still not that much,” Collins said. “So at the start of the season when we had some good results, that jell, getting to know each other, how to manage those situations… there were a couple of games we could have approached differently. They’re coming through that. Charleston was definitely a great one. It’s a part of our game that’s improving.”
Tampa Bay posted the shutout without starting goalkeeper John McCarthy (injury) and Pape Diakite (card suspension). Macklin Robinson (four saves at Charleston) will likely make his home debut Saturday and Diakite will return on the back line. Andrew Tinari, who scored at Birmingham, just returned from a two-month injury himself.
Although Saturday’s opponent is below the playoff cutoff line, it is getting closer. While in June the Rowdies caught Birmingham (6-10-5, 23 points) in the midst of the Legion’s five-game losing streak, they’re unbeaten in four, winning three.
Though the Rowdies have been great on the road, they’re glad to be home.
“Al Lang … is better than most in the MLS,” Steinberger said. “If I had to pick the best pitch I’ve ever had to play on, it’s between Kansas City, New York, North Carolina FC … and Al Lang. One of the best stadiums, one of the best pitches, in the U.S.”