ST. PETERSBURG — What had the look of a Rowdies mismatch early on turned slowly, then definitively, toward the visiting side as Birmingham pulled out a 1-0 victory Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.
Before an announced crowd of 4,949, a 49th-minute goal by Eddie Opoku extended the Legion’s unbeaten streak to five.
Four of Birmingham’s seven season victories have come during its current hot stretch. Though just Tampa Bay’s third defeat all season, it was enough to drop the Rowdies out of first place in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.
New York is now the leader after scoring a 5-1 defeat of Hartford on Saturday, with Tampa Bay (13-3-7) a point behind.
“Overall, just a very frustrating evening,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins, whose club now gets a 10-day break.
Opoku was a 2018 second-round MLS SuperDraft choice by Columbus who had yet to convert, and was averaging less than 30 minutes in his 15 appearances, for Birmingham. But the 22-year-old was a menace Saturday and had several near misses before putting the visitors up 1-0. After a failed Rowdies clearance attempt, his powerful left-foot strike slid off the crossbar, onto the right post and in.
It was part of a nearly 40-minute stretch of the game where Birmingham (7-10-5), thoroughly outplayed early, took control.
“I think we stopped doing the things we’d done really well in the first 20 minutes, some of the real basics,” Collins said. “But give credit to Birmingham, they probably feel they survived an onslaught, and should have scored their own goals before halftime. Big learning lesson for everyone tonight.”
In the 69th minute a series of Tampa Bay passes ended with Malik Johnson’s short-corner attempt thwarted by goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel.
Shortly after came the save of the night as Juan Tejada collected a headed pass and fired a volley in close then Van Oekel, a 33-year-old veteran, managed to clear over the crossbar.
Despite seven minutes of added time Tampa Bay could not tally, as the Legion defense consistently cleared away Rowdies crosses, a category which they led 29-9. In the final minute Tejada’s pass found late sub Jaime Siaj in position but he could not make good contact.
The first half was scoreless. The Rowdies got a couple of prime free kick opportunities in the opening minutes, when it seemed like last week’s two-goal output in four minutes might get repeated.
Johnson’s deft moves on the right wing created several chances, with one ending up in a powerful Leo Fernandes volley that was deflected away by the Birmingham defense. In the 10th minute Lucky Mkosana was sprung in, but Van Oekel parried his blast over the crossbar.
Through 25 minutes Tampa Bay had more than three-fourths of the possession, with Birmingham spending what seemed no more than three of those minutes in Tampa Bay’s half.
That all changed drastically. And Rowdies goalkeeper Macklin Robinson, playing for the injured John McCarthy, provided some spectacular stoppages to keep the contest scoreless at half. He had two kick saves, one on Brian Wright, who sped past four defenders to earn a look at goal.
“I’d say kick save is probably one of my strong suits. I’m a smaller goalie, so you kinda gotta use whatever you can to get to the ball,” said Robinson. “They caught on to our game plan a little bit, started sitting back and trapping. Credit to them.”
Tampa Bay outshot Birmingham 9-7 in the first 45 minutes and 16-15 in the game.