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Even with playoff spot secured, no coasting for Rowdies

With better postseason seeding a possibility, Tampa Bay blasts Bethlehem Steel FC 6-1.
The playoff-bound Rowdies are giving fans plenty of reasons to cheer. [ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times]
The playoff-bound Rowdies are giving fans plenty of reasons to cheer. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — The playoff-bound Rowdies gave Martin Paterson his first win as interim head coach, set a modern-era record with 56 points and had their highest offensive output of the season in Saturday’s 6-1 rout of Bethlehem Steel FC at Al Lang Stadium.

Tampa Bay, which entered in fourth place in the USL Championship Eastern Conference, is in a tight battle for seeding. The Rowdies are one step closer to an automatic quarterfinal spot earned by the top six of 10 playoff teams in each conference.

The Rowdies (16-6-8), who have set modern-era records for victories and points this season, are playoff bound for the second time in three seasons. They advanced to the conference semifinals in 2017 where they were ousted by the New York Red Bulls II.

With coach Neill Collins sitting out a one-game suspension for approaching match officials at the final whistle of Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Ottawa Fury FC, Paterson stepped up. Collins watched from an upstairs suite.

“I said to the team they had to try to do me a favor and make up for my mistake,” Collins said. “I was delighted for the team. It was a joy to watch.”

Collins lauded Paterson for his effort on the sideline. Paterson played for the Rowdies in 2017 before joining the coaching staff as an assistant last season.

“We’re all working hard together,” Collins said.

The Rowdies took a 4-0 halftime lead. The first two goals came four minutes apart and the next two were within five minutes of each other.

Juan Tejada’s header from in close just missed to the left, but Bethlehem’s Benjamin Ofeimu subsequently put the ball into his own net in the 20th minute. Four minutes later, Sebastian Guenzatti tucked one into the lower left corner off the first of three Malik Johnson assists for his team-leading 16th goal.

Kwadwo Poku converted a pass from Leo Fernandes for his third goal in the 40th minute, and Andrew Tinari blasted home his fifth off Johnson’s second setup five minutes later.

“I think the whole team did well,” Johnson said. “We just knew that we had to come back with the same intensity for the second half.”

Tampa Bay’s shutout bid ended in the 69th minute when Faris Pemi Moumbagna beat goalkeeper John McCarthy on a penalty kick. Tampa Bay was not done scoring. Johnson found Lucky Mkosana with a cross from the right side for a backdoor goal in the 71st minute. That gave Johnson eight assists, two behind leader Fernandes.

Afrim Taku, who played for the Rowdies in 2017 and was acquired from Charlotte this past week, scored in the 90th minute off a pass from Fernandes.